By Ameer Ali –
Damning revelations relayed through the British TV channel 4 by TMVP’s former ally Asad Moulana referring to hidden hands masterminding the macabre killing spree on the day of 2019 Easter, which was carried out by a Muslim fanatical outfit, National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ), and accusations and counter accusations levelled against the veracity of those revelations by local political leaders and international groups had prompted President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) to take some action. It was the Catholic Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith who being dissatisfied with two sets of official findings, one by the CID Investigation Division and another by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoL) called for an independent investigation with international involvement. After the new revelations he has also found support from a couple of opposition party leaders. There is also pressure from international groups. RW, a veteran and shrewd politician with an eye on his presidential election campaign had appointed a threesome committee headed by S. I. Imam, a retired Muslim judge of the Supreme Court.
How narrow or broad are the terms of reference for this committee are not known. Yet, given the time limit to support its report by 31st October not much could be expected from this committee. Still, it is pointless to investigate only those matters relating to the allegations levelled by Moulana without revisiting the entire episode. The previous two investigations carried out under two different regimes had left several questions unanswered, but conveniently placed the sole responsibility for the horror on NTJ. As a result, hundreds of individuals had been incarcerated purely on suspicion and they have not yet been produced before a magistrate. Even Rohan Gunaratna, author of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre (Penguin Books, 2023) and who claims to be an expert on Islamic terrorism, starts and ends his analysis on the assumption that it was entirely NTJ’s masterpiece. Internationally, there is a preconceived notion accepted uncritically by the anti-Muslim lobby that global terrorism equals Islamism and Muslims. US has successfully created this political miasma after 2001 without providing any legal definition of the term terrorism. The fact that ISIS itself is a creation of US is conveniently ignored by anti-Muslim propagandists. Gunaratna’s story is no exception to this vicious distortion
However, even without Moulana’s revelations, anyone who could dispassionately study the upbringing, academic training and intellectual limitations of the leader of NTJ, Muhammad Zahran Muhammad Hashim or Zahran Hashim alias Abu Ubaida, would realize that he was totally incapable of masterminding and executing such an intricate, coordinated and technically complex multipronged attack on three different locations. He was not a brilliant but a mediocre and rebellious student at the madrasas he studied and from which he was thrown out. If one could have taken the trouble of interviewing his teachers at the madrasas in Kattankudy and Kurunegala, one would have easily grasped this elementary fact. Just because he was fluent in Arabic did not make him a scholar in Islamic studies. In short, he was trying to be an autodidact, became an emotional super brat ending finally as a backyard preacher. But he was gifted with a crowd pulling oratorical skill in Tamil. True, he was influenced by the radical ideas of ISIS and even received funds from foreign sources But it is unbelievable that in the post-2009 security environment where the country had the combined might of highly trained and experienced teams of army, navy, air force and police forces, all of them equipped with state-of-the art security paraphernalia, that NTJ was able to carry on with its clandestine manoeuvres for years completely undetected. Also, why were batches of information relating to NTJ activities in Zahran’s native Kattankudy were left unheeded by officials, and why was intelligence from India ignored? These are crucial questions that previous inquiries left unanswered. It is that gap in previous inquiries which justifies the demand for another independent inquiry with international participation. The Foreign Ministry has described the latest allegations as “unfounded, malevolent and poorly substantiated”. How far would RW’s present committee go to uncover the truth depends on the subtle pressures brought upon the committee by RW and his relevant ministry. There is no doubt that there is politics behind RW’s response. No wonder the Catholic church continues to show its disgust at the latest narrow investigation.
While this being so, the IMF guided economy is about to complete one year of reparation with mixed results. The monetary sector has achieved a degree of stability, rupee is floating softly, foreign remittances are increasing, tourism has picked up and inflation has fallen to single digit. Also, domestic debt optimization (DDO) has been completed with EPF, ETF and other retirement funds bearing the cost of DDO disproportionately amidst trade unions disgruntlement. Yet, according to Verite Research, of the 100 tractable commitments undertaken by the government only 35% had been met by July, and IMF delegates are already in Colombo to investigate the progress made so far before recommending the release of the second tranche. Considering the personal commitment of RW to go all the way with IMF, his pro-neoliberal philosophic stance, and repositioning of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to satisfy IMF shareholders, there is a high probability that the delegates would recommend the release. But life under the second tranche is not going to be better than under the first to the majority of ordinary citizens. The 2023-4 budget would be a more challenging one than its immediate predecessor, partly because the earlier one has failed to reach its revenue target and therefore has to compensate that failure either with more rigorous tax collection or new taxes, and partly because of an expected slowdown in Sri Lanka’s trading partner economies. Although remittances and tourist income had helped to achieve a modicum of surplus in balance of payments, the all-important balanced of trade is in serious deficit. Unless the country grows more and exports more there is no way that trade surplus could be achieved. But export cannot grow without increasing imports. International trade is a two-way traffic and sooner or later controls on imports have to be relaxed. When that happens imported inflation and exchange rate pressures would affect domestic price level and with increasing taxes and levies, life for the vast majority is going to be extremely testing to say the least. On top of all this is the unfinished issue of foreign debt restructuring. What effect would negotiations have on the economy is yet to be seen. All in all, the wriggling economy doesn’t promise a strong platform for RW to stage his campaign for the presidential election, which is expected to be announced any time text year.
Given that context, findings by this new committee headed by a Muslim could either destroy the popularity and image of one or two of RW’s potential presidential opponents, or, reinforce the status quo and put the blame directly on NTJ but indirectly on the Muslim community. To RW the Muslim vote bank is crucial.
“Eating biriyani and voting UNP” is a cynical aphorism attributed to the politics of Muslims. Being historically a business community and trade being the most representative profession in Islam Muslim leaders approach politics from a profit and loss calculation. That behaviour has not changed even after creating their own political parties, SLMC and ACMC. RW knows this well and doesn’t therefore want to topple the apple cart of Muslim votes by permitting an international investigation which could reopen old wounds inflicted upon that community after the infamy. It is surprising that none of the Musim leaders including those of ACJU, the so-called apex religious body, had joined the Catholic Cardinal’s call for international involvement in the investigation. Yet, NTJ’s role in executing the Easter horror should be told in full. The political fallout from this new investigation would determine the fate of RW at the next election.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia