By Ameer Ali –
During the presidential campaign, Colombo Telegraph (1 November 2019) carried a column, “Muslims Must Turn Left”, to which one commentator responded, “Not left or right but straight”. I am not sure what that commentator meant by “straight”. However, if he had meant that Muslims, with their own political party or parties, should go straight along the path of opportunistic alliances with prospective winners to bargain for positions and privileges either with SLPP-SLFP or UNP-led coalitions, and expect to survive as a community politically neutral and economically entrepreneurial, they would be deluding themselves. That bargaining strategy, sometimes euphemistically termed as politics of pragmatism, has passed its use-by-date with the election of an authoritarian president, whose “vision” for the country’s future, in spite of reservations about some of its specifics, has no place for identity politics and king making. He has reiterated that in his inaugural address to the parliament. If leaders of SLMC, ACMC and other Muslim groups are looking for new alliances to play the same old game at the next General Election, they would leading their community to a dangerous corner. The community needs a dynamic leadership to face the new realities.
On the one hand, the saffron clad supremacists and their political larrikins, are on a war path with minorities. Their univocal agenda to homogenise Sri Lanka under Sinhala Buddhist hegemony is causing trepidation among all minorities. On the other, the president is calling for a new culture of politics to pull the nation along a new trajectory of technological and knowledge-centric development, which demands the cooperation of every community and class. Muslim community without a dynamic leadership is clueless at the moment as to how best to handle these contradictory developments.
There are only two options for them to choose from: either dismiss GR’s vision as utopian and divisive, join the opposition and deny that vision any chance of becoming reality; or, embrace the positive side of that vision, choose a new leadership, initiate changes from within, capitalise on opportunities arising out of it and maximise the benefits. GR aspires to create (a) a technologically driven economy, and (b) a technocratic public sector, both would demand the rule of meritocracy. Meritocracy in turn would imply scientific approach to public administration, where there would be no room for nepotism, corruption or lobbying – characteristics that debilitated the bureaucracy for over seventy years and made it incorrigibly inefficient, colossally expensive and criminally wasteful.
If the Muslim community wants to take advantage of this part of Gota’s program, it needs a new and visionary leadership that understands the nuances and implications of Gota’s aspirations and changes they necessitate. That leadership should have the capacity to initiate internal reforms to reflect those changes, and determination to get those reforms executed, even when faced with opposition from the usual suspects.
A technologically driven economy needs an army of technocrats, technologists, scientists, investors, entrepreneurs and a host of other skilled personnel to move the economy forward. More importantly, this civilian army must have a commitment towards developing the nation. That commitment implies patriotism. Whether Gota’s decision to prioritise economic development at the expense of political power sharing would create a patriotic nation is a different issue. However, the burden of producing that patriotic vanguard falls entirely on the nation’s education system. This is where the basic problem lies for Muslims.
The late entry to and religiously constrained approach towards modern education has undermined the quality of Muslim education when compared to other communities. Since Muslim schools are operating as a separate denominational category within the state run national school structure, these schools have their own peculiarities in terms of, for example, school calendar, time tabling, staffing, subjects taught and so on. Whether this categorization has enhanced or retarded the quality of education received by Muslim children needs to be studied objectively. Quality in this context is not measured purely in terms of success rate in competitive examinations, but in terms of an all-round education that produces not simply experts in selected fields, but more importantly patriotic citizens. This aspect of Muslim education has been ignored for a long time. It cannot be overlooked any more. If religious fundamentalism and communal discord are to be arrested reforms in education are an imperative.
Gota’s vision for a technologically driven and knowledge-centric economy and society has thrown the gauntlet to all communities. Students in future cannot expect Government to guarantee employment just because it gives them free education. Already the public sector is carrying an excess burden of employees, many of whom would have found it difficult to find alternative employment in the open market. Needless to say they are a drain on the treasury. How to make the public sector leaner and efficient is another challenge facing the new regime.
As far as Muslims are concerned, it is worth reminding an incident that happened in 1972, when a farsighted Muslim minister, Badiuddin Mahmud, invited all his community leaders at his residence in Colombo, to explain to them some of the radical economic changes that the leftist coalition under Sirimavo was planning to implement, and warned those leaders not to attempt sabotaging the government or try swimming against the stream. Despite many criticisms and stiff opposition from the community he focused on education as the alternative route for his community’s survival. Thanks to his enlightened leadership, the community today can feel proud to have produced at least a nucleus of intellectuals and professionals from both sexes, who have the capacity and understanding to meet the challenges facing life today. However, today’s educational need is radically different from that of 1970s, and Gota’s vision calls for qualitative changes in education and training to create a new society. Muslims therefore need a new team of visionary leaders who could think creatively and design programs on a long term perspective. It is better to have a few such visionary men and women as parliamentary representatives than too many charlatans and opportunists. What matters is quality and not quantity. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s private bill to reintroduce the 12.5% cut-off point for party representation in parliament deserves some merit in this respect.
Needless therefore to repeat that it was misguidance through identity politics, by a leadership that arrogantly remained oblivious to some of the undesirable influences impacting upon the community from inside, and challenges facing it from outside. As a nation, Sri Lanka was moving in one direction while Muslims were moving in another. It was this misdirection that ultimately led to discord and confrontation between Muslims and other communities, and the violence that ensued. To continue with the same leadership and in the same direction will therefore, be suicidal.
The presidential election has no doubt divided the nation right in the middle on the basis of ethnicity and religion. It is hard not to imagine that the forthcoming General Election would deepen that division even further if identity politics continues unabated. There are different layers of supporters and opponents on each side of this divide. However, among the supporters of the winning side are supremacists, whose push for Buddhist hegemony at any cost would make inclusive governance difficult to the new president and government under him. Even with a two-third majority in the parliament that difficulty is not going to ease. Without bringing the supremacists under some control and without inclusive governance Gota’s vision will be a mirage. His silence so far on a number of incidents provoked by these supremacists makes one wonder whether he could be a president for all communities, as he declared immediately after being elected. Time will tell.
Be as it may, so long as the President keeps to his side of the bargain to give primacy to technocracy, meritocracy, clean government and free competition, any community that has an adequate stock of technocrats, technologists, scientists, innovators, investors and entrepreneurs should do well under his plan. Muslim community at the moment, suffers from a punishing deficit in these categories. Therefore, reforming Muslim education is vital. To counter the machinations of supremacists and to guide the Muslim community to become a partner in Gota’s techno-knowledge-centric paradise require a dynamic leadership in every community. Are Muslims prepared to produce one?