By Ameer Ali –
Since the first parliamentary elections in 1947 Tamil-Muslim political relations in Sri Lanka has been dominated by mutual mistrust. Even though the Chelvanakam’s Federal Party and Ponnampalam’s Ceylon Tamil Congress included the Muslims under the rubric Tamil-speaking people whenever they addressed public rallies, and similarly, even though Muslim political leaders talked tirelessly of the Tamil language and the proverbial ‘pittu and coconut” to underline the two communities’ inseparable coexistence, these were in reality utterances reiterated more for reasons of political correctness than out of any genuine concern for each other’s political, economic and cultural development and wellbeing. This historical fact cannot be glossed over any more and should be openly confronted, admitted and removed because Sri Lankan politics has reached such a critical juncture where particularly after 2009, majoritarian politics, consumed overwhelmingly by ethnic and religious chauvinism, has created an existential crisis to both minorities.
Past strategies of playing politics of opportunism on the part of Muslims and of separatism on the part of Tamils have passed their use by date, and new strategies have to be thought out for the two communities to live and prosper with equality and dignity in a globally connected but locally undivided Sri Lanka. One would have thought that after the end of the 25-year bloody civil war Colombo leadership would have come to its senses to sort out the minority issue quickly and seriously and avoid international agencies to intervene in a purely domestic matter. One would have also expected the two minority communities to have realised that their future survival, dignity and development cannot be achieved through mutual suspicion and mistrust but through unity built on frank admission of past mistakes, openness in dialogue and justice in objectives.
No doubt that a united plural Sri Lanka with all its naturally endowed and humanly created resources is a match to any country in the world. Yet and tragically, what has happened over the last nine years was deliberate procrastination by successive governments leading to further deterioration of national unity, increasing economic hardship to many and encroaching foreign influence in the country. The country has awfully mismanaged its plurality. The two contending political regimes of MR and MS leaderships at the moment have lost their political integrity and governing credibility, bankrupted their economic leadership and mortgaged the country’s sovereignty to regional foreign powers. Devoid of any policy substance they are left with only one issue to fight for power and that is Sinhala ethnic and Buddhist religious hegemony. It is this racist evangelism that poses a danger to the minorities. Like the Congress and BJP in neighbouring India, where the first covertly and the second overtly play anti-Muslim racism in their electioneering campaign, in this country also the element of racism is ever present in both camps. The difference is only a matter of degree.
The Tamils and Muslims must realise that they as national minorities cannot find lasting solutions to their problems by fighting alone. The Tamils, after the betrayal by the DMK Government in 2009, will be foolish to expect any material support from their brethren across the Palk Strait. At the same time to expect that international pressure on Sri Lanka would deliver favourable outcome to their complaints is also a dream because international agencies are part and partial of the global economic order that is more interested in markets and investments than in human rights and minority rights. The Muslims also must realise that the so called Arab connection is a mirage, and after 1990 the SLMC in particular by dragging Islam into its political campaigns has not only politically isolated the Muslim community but also has earned the mistrust of both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. While the Tamil leadership at least maintained their personal and political integrity by not compromising their policy objectives in return for personal gains and prestige, Muslim leaders on the other hand and without exception has shamelessly surrendered their community virtually at the feet of successive Presidents and Prime Ministers to win ministerial positions and opportunities to accumulate wealth for themselves, their families and cronies. Therefore, any chance of honest co-operation and unity between these two minority leaderships will never work out, because they are qualitatively different. This is why the Muslim community has to reject wholesale their entire political leadership and search for a new generation of leaders who are intellectually capable, politically astute and personally honest.
Muslims of the East in particular have been and are being deluded by a short sighted and faction ridden SLMC leadership with a false promise that it could achieve a separate administrative district for Muslims at the expense of Tamils. This is a dangerous and suicidal commitment founded on the same old politics of opportunism and mistrust of the Tamils that will end up in endless Tamil-Muslim riots causing bloodshed and material losses, mostly for Muslims. Decades ago a then prominent Muslim leader told me in person that if Muslims could keep the Sinhalese and Tamils divided they could swim, but would sink if the two were allowed to unite. This politics of divide and rule cannot work in post-2009 Sri Lanka. What is now required of Muslims is to form partnership with the Tamils and become bridge builders between the two major communities. That role is far beyond the capabilities of the current Muslim leadership.
The mistrust between the two communities arose historically from a lack of social integration. The problem with the pittu and coconut analogy is that the two don’t mix together but remain separate and touch each other only at the margin. Similarly, the Tamil and Muslim settlements in the East are largely self-sufficient village or town units that come into contact at the margin mostly if not only for pecuniary purposes. It is a cash nexus relationship built between two groups, one a goods provider and the other a service provider. There is hardly any social contact between the two groups. To put it more bluntly, how many Muslim families in the East can claim that they invited last year a Tamil family to participate in their Eid festival lunch or dinner? And how many Tamil families can claim the same for their New Year celebrations? Noticeably, there is to a greater degree such an inter-family social contact present between the Sinhalese and Muslim families in the South and West of the country. This is because these families live as neighbours and have to be in touch with each other for many reasons. In such a neighbourhood children of different families play together, go to school together and come to know more about each other’s parents, which in turn necessitates the seniors in the families to become friendlier. This neighbourliness creates the need to build trust between families. This is unfortunately absent in the East. Politicians take advantage of this inter-communal social distance and structure their campaign accordingly. The time has come to close this social distance.
This is a great challenge because the growth of religious fundamentalism within the Muslim community is making it more difficult to narrow the distance. The Tamils are also reacting to this fundamentalist trend in a tit-for-tat manner. In this context, I want to recall with regret one particular change that I observed between my two visits a few years ago to a Hindu temple opposite to the Springfield Farm at Kurukkalmadam in the Eastern Province. On the first occasion, I noticed a stone statue with a cap on its head placed amongst other statues inside the temple. After enquiring I learned that it was a statue erected in memory of Pattaniyar Muslims who in an ancient battle between two Tamil clans, the Mukkuvar and Thimilar, helped the former whose descendants are the population of Kurukkalmadam. I also learnt that every year the devotees of the temple celebrate the Pattaniyar Thiruvila or festival. However, in my second visit after a couple of years I could not see that statue and nobody could explain to me the reason for its removal. I suspect and I hope I am wrong in this that it reflects the simmering discontent between the two communities in this region. Like the historical Muslim connection to the Kandy Esala Perehera this Muslim historical connection at Kurukkalmadam should also be cherished and celebrated to build inter-ethnic cordiality and friendship. This is why there is a need for a new but enlightened leadership that has a good grasp of the history of this region, understand the need of the time and intellectually confront and beat the fundamentalist challenge. The current Muslim leadership is totally incapable of doing it.
It is imperative that the Tamil leaders should give up their superiority complex and demonstrate to the Muslims that they are sincere in their political dialogue with them. There are a number of common challenges facing both communities. You cannot find solutions to them when discussing with hidden agendas. Unless the hearts unite there is no point in talking about merger or de-merger. Post-2009 has launched a new era in Sri Lankan politics. It demands new strategies and fresh approaches built on principles of equality and justice for both communities.
There is a new development within the Tamil-Muslim literati since the beginning of the present century. One could witness frequent joint parleys of local Tamil and Muslim writers coming together to share their ideas and contributions to Tamil literature. This sort of sharing and open discussions are intellectually healthy and they build mutual trust, but the spirit of that trust and friendship must be carried down to the mass level. As the saying goes flowers inside the windows do not mean there is spring outside. How to build this mutual trust between the two ethnic masses and how to structure a new political alliance based on that trust are the challenges of the day. Against a strong and united minority opposition the majority has to downplay its hegemonic aspirations and seek for compromises.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia