By Hilmy Ahamed –
The reduction of the cut-off point from 12.5 to 5 percent by President Ranasinghe Premadasa to appease M H M Ashraff, and retain the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) could be termed as the seeds that were planted to create racial politics. The reduction in the cut off point in each electoral district, to qualify for a seat in parliament paved the way for minority and small parties to get elected on their own, mostly along the communal divide. This led to the creation of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and number of minority political alliances. This also led the re-entry of the Janatha Vimukuthi Peramuna’s foray in to the democratic mainstream with hopes of wider representation.
Traditionally, the Muslims have been part and parcel of mainstream politics through the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with very small groups supporting the left movements. M H M Ashraff’s creation of the Muslim congress with co-founder Ahammed Lebbe of Kattankuddy in 1981 was the beginning of a separate political identity for the Muslims in this country. M H M Ashraf directed the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to a new vision and mission after he assumed formal leadership of the SLMC in 1986. The merits of this has been questioned by many including M H M Ashraff himself who later wanted to distance his party from communal politics by forming the National Unity Alliance (NUA) with several non-Muslims in his leadership council. The yet to be resolved mysterious helicopter crash in September 2000 closed SLMC’s departure away from communal politics with the assumption of leadership by Hakeem, after a complicated process of negotiations with Ashraff’s widow, Ferial Ashraff. A L M Athaulla’s challenge to take over the leadership of the SLMC failed.
Various charges of corruption and wheeler-dealings have been leveled against the SLMC from the time of M H M Ashraff. The party has fragmented in to several offshoots with numerous regional heavyweights holding on to their vote bases. A.L.M. Athaulla, who was one of the first to defect from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and formed the National Congress created his own power base in the Ampara district when Rauf Hakeem donned the crown of the SLMC, upon the demise of Ashraff. A number of others followed Attaulla and have created their own territories by building fortresses around their people. The tree symbol retained by Rauf Hakeem remains the rallying emblem for the SLMC in the Eastern province. Hakeem, a non-Easterner has survived in the SLMC leadership because of the electoral successes in the Eastern Province under the tree symbol. The SLMC’s foray in to the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy etc. that alienated a sizeable Muslim population away from mainstream political parties has been the cause of much pain amongst the majority of Muslims in these areas. The disastrous failure of Rauff and Rishard’s alliance in the just concluded Uva provincial elections should be evaluated by Muslim politicians and refrain from entering dangerous territories causing communal discord amongst the different ethnic groups. They should stick to their communal politics if needed, to the areas they dominate. The fragmentation of Muslim votes by these parties in non-Muslim areas has deprived the community of their representation in parliament and local bodies.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has been able to “have the cake and eat it” since Asharff took possession of the “remote control” of governments. However, their indecision with regard to the Presidential election 2015 for weeks created much discussion and debate amongst all Sri Lankans. Some, argue that SLMC was expected to be the first amongst the Muslims to “cut” their deal and join the winning side, but Rishard Bathiudeen’s bold decision to ditch his perks and privileges with his long term mentor and defect has stunned not just the SLMC, but the entire Muslim community. The just announced SLMC’s commitment of support to the common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena and the common opposition may be too little too late. Could this pose a threat to the existence of the SLMC is yet to be seen. If there is a Sirisena win, Rishard could probably take the leadership of Muslim politics in the North and East. Prudence should be exercised to restrict their ethnic politics to the Muslim dominated areas of the North and East.
It is important for the Muslim community to evaluate their political journey during the last two decades. The number of representations may have increased manifold, but the quality of representation has been deteriorating. Horse-trading has been the norm in Sri Lankan politics and the Muslim peoples representatives are no exception. The passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution with the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress would probably go down in history, as the worst form of betrayal of the peoples will by their political representatives. The defection by Maithripala Sirisena and the hundreds of other crossovers would probably bring a new meaning to the price to be paid for political survival. The billions, that are being spent in this campaign bears testimony to the win at any cost attitude.
A constitutional reforms process will certainly be needed, irrespective of who wins the Presidential Elections of 2015. Even though the winner takes it all in a First Past The Post (FPTP) system that may not be seen as fair, going back to the FPTP is imperative with adequate safeguards for the disadvantaged groups to have fair representation, not just for minority communities, but also for all vulnerable groups who would otherwise be not represented in parliament.
Failure to prioritize this would encourage the vulnerable and ethnic groups to band together in loose knit alliances to maintain their political influence and create communal discord amongst communities. The Muslim community too may take the walk towards forming a Muslim National Alliance (MNA), which could further alienate them from the majority community and provide additional ammunition to extremist Buddhist groups to whip-up hate. This trend could certainly destabilize the country further and political wheeler-dealings would become the norm.