By Ameer Al –
The issue of merging the Northern and Eastern provinces into one larger Tamil dominant unit is continuing to create tension between the Muslim and Tamil communities at a time when constitutional reforms are under consideration. From the majority Sinhalese point of view such a merger is feared as a stepping stone for the ultimate division of the country. There are historical antecedents to support this fear and tension respectively.
While a combination of factors such as the confused double talk between Federalism and Tamil Arasu or Rule by Tamil leaders in the past, the bitterness caused by a senseless civil war, and above all the proximity of Tamil Nadu to the north of the island are contributing to an embedded fear of Tamils in Sinhalese psych, an equally historical and mutual suspicion between the Tamils and Muslims especially in political matters is continuing to thwart a rational discussion of issues involved in the proposed merger.
As far as the Muslim community is concerned and viewed objectively the issue of North East merger is a problem for Muslims of the North and the East only and not for the entire Muslim community. This may be disconcerting to the current Muslim political leadership. However, it is a fact that in terms of economic and linguistic interests the Muslims of these two provinces are different from their counterparts in the other seven. In fact in terms of economic interest only one can divide the Muslim community into three groups: those of the east and north whose economic interests are wedded primarily to the land; those of the Western, Southern, North-Eastern, South-Western and Sabragamuwa provinces whose primary interests are mostly in commerce; and those of the Central and Uva provinces whose interests are mostly in petty business and market gardening.
The present Muslim leadership without an understanding of these sectional differences is making a cardinal error in conflating all Muslim issues into a mega one. Similarly, in the matter of constitutional reforms Muslim leaders must take a visionary approach and propose measures that will ultimately strengthen the unity of the nation while making its Muslim constituents a dynamic element.
In the Eastern Province and particularly in the Batticaloa district the Muslims form roughly thirty per cent of the population; but they have only three per cent of the land. Under various government schemes in the past some of the Muslim paddy lands were acquired and not all of that was given back to the owners once the schemes failed. Various colonization schemes in the East have disturbed the communal population balance in that area and that was one of the issues that prompted the Tamil youth to take up arms. The most crucial question the Muslims face in the East therefore is which one of the options – a merged province or a demerged entity – provides better prospect for not only protecting the existing holdings but also to expand them. The Tamil leadership must understand this issue and initiate an honest dialogue with the Muslims.
It is time the Tamil leaders climb down from their hegemonic pedestal and treat the Muslims as equal partners in a joint struggle for minority rights. Those rights should be won within a democratic and unitary state. Any dialogue with Muslims that jeopardise this objective will certainly fail. It is immaterial whether the chief minister of a merged entity be a Muslim or Tamil. What matters is the material benefits that would be proportionally distributed to the constituent communities within an enlarged political entity.
Land is the issue for Tamils and it is the issue for Muslims also. What solution do Tamil leaders propose to this fundamental problem in a merged province?