By Ameer M. Faaiz –
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured a landslide victory in the Northern Provincial Council Elections with over 78% of the popular vote. Following this momentous win, retired Supreme Court Justice, C. V. Wigneswaran took his oaths as Chief Minister before President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Monday 7th October 2013. Elected officials only need to take oaths before a Justice of the Peace. Thus the TNA’s decision to take oaths before President Rajapaksa was a symbolic and accommodative gesture, a public demonstration of a willingness to engage with the centre; a move that the government would do well to reciprocate.
In a statement released after his oaths, the Chief Minister expressed his hope that Sri Lankans would learn from past experiences and struggles, and that misunderstandings and mistrust between communities should be eliminated. It was in this spirit that the decision to be sworn in before the President was made. The Chief Minister went on to say that he sincerely hoped that the Sinhalese people would empathise with the Tamil-speaking people’s love of their own language and culture.
Finally, in a rather curious closing statement, he expressed his wish that the TNA’s symbolic gesture would ‘pave the way for the unity of the people of the two communities in our Island.’
This statement and his references to “Tamil Speaking People”, in the singular rather than the plural, as “Peoples”, appears to indicate a sentiment that only two linguistically and ethnically distinct communities, one Sinhalese-speaking and the other Tamil-speaking, inhabit the island of Sri Lanka. He hopes these two communities will mutually respect each other and forge ahead towards reconciliation. While there is no doubt that reconciliation may be particularly challenging between the Sinhalese and Tamils, a pertinent question can be raised regarding this particular conception of ‘our Island’. Where in this land of two communities does Justice Wigneswaran believe the Muslims belong? Isn’t Sri Lanka made of multiple ethnic communities?
The Muslim community of Sri Lanka, which currently constitutes 9.7% of the country’s population, is scattered across the island. Tamil is the native language of a majority of Muslims. However, Muslims are adept at being multilingual and they generally function well in any linguistic surroundings, whether they inhabit a Tamil majority or Sinhalese majority area. The tendency (perhaps a unique one) of the Sri Lankan Muslims has been to identify themselves as a distinct community based on religious and cultural identity rather than on language. Attempts to assimilate the Muslim community into the wider Tamil community have been vehemently objected to in the past; Sir Razeek Fareed once even referred to such moves as ‘political genocide’. Confrontations during the conflict between the two communities (including the cleansing of the Muslims from the Northern Province in October 1990 and targeted attacks on Muslims, by the LTTE) have led to serious ethnic tensions despite a shared linguistic identity. The challenges of reconciliation, therefore, is certainly not a matter to be addressed only between Tamils and Sinhalese. Meanwhile, the Muslim political leadership while supporting demands for regional autonomy has remained circumspect. This is because the threat of assimilation looms as long as demands are made from within a Tamil nationalist frame.
In this context, the Chief Minister’s reference to a single homogenous Tamil-speaking community as the counterpart to the Sinhalese-speaking community is a cause for concern among the Muslim community. His reduction of the complex ethnic, linguistic and cultural make-up of the country points to an indifference to the distinct nature of the Muslim identity. Muslims have been staunchly opposed to having their identity conflated to that of the wider Tamil community, and are bound to perceive his apparent ambivalence poorly.
The statement may have wider consequences in the context of anti-Muslim sentiments currently propagandized locally. These sentiments have contributed to a sense of anxiety among the Sri Lankan Muslims. The Muslims already risk facing serious marginalisation in the country’s foreseeable future under the present regime. Therefore, the indifference displayed by the Chief Minister of the Northern Province is even more unsettling to Muslims, as this is the candidate of an opposition party that handed the regime its first comprehensive electoral defeat.
Notably, the TNA’s election manifesto, although falling short of personal expectations, does not overlook the distinct identity and concerns of the Muslims even while stating that the Tamils are a distinct people entitled to self-determination. It reiterates that any power-sharing arrangement in a merged Northern and Eastern Province must be acceptable to the ‘Tamil Speaking Muslim people’. The manifesto clearly accepts the idea that there are two distinct peoples existing amongst the Tamil-speaking citizens of this country.
The political leadership of the Tamil Community have a long history of this acknowledgement. The basic structure of the TULF constitution, post vaddukoddai resolution, not only acknowledged and accepted the distinctiveness of the Muslims, it even provided for Muslim self-governance within the North and East.
The TNA has demonstrated its keenness to reach out to the Muslim community, by acknowledging the hardships they faced following their forcible eviction from the North and by appointing a defeated Muslim candidate from the PMGG to one of the two bonus seats in the Provincial Council that the TNA is entitled to. It is imperative that the Northern Provincial Council administration be extra sensitive to the welfare and the just needs of the Muslim community, their return and reintegration given the injustice caused to them. Whether the Chief Minister’s glossing over of the Muslim community was intentional, or simple inadvertence is unclear; hopefully, it was the latter. Justice Wigneswaran, despite his recent statement, has expressed his hope that mutual respect for the culture and traditions of different communities will prevail in our Island.
The TNA, as the main political representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils, have proven to be gracious in their resounding victory in the North. Their desire for rapprochement, as displayed at the swearing in of the Chief Minister, is commendable, as is their commitment to the welfare of all Tamil-speaking peoples, rather than ethnic Tamils alone. Nevertheless, the distinction of the Muslim community, largely Tamil-speaking as they may be, must be acknowledged. I would encourage Justice Wigneswaran to bear this in mind.
*The author, Ameer M Faaiz, LL.M., is a practising lawyer who has also been a civil society and a political activist and his current positions include Director – International Affairs of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Director – Secretariat for Muslims
 Vasundhara, Mohan (1987), “Identity Crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims”, p. 30.