It’s Back, The Demand For A ‘Muslim Province’
by N. Sathiya Moorthy
Whenever demands for further devolution of political power for the nation’s Tamils are flagged, similar demands for a separate ‘Muslim Province’ have erupted, though not with the same success-rate. It’s back again in the news, but it’s a demand that needs to be tempered in the reality of post-war Sri Lanka, tempered in a way it does not start off something that the community’s political leadership may lose control over. They need only to look at the Tamil brethren, to learn their hard lessons from.
Questions do remain about the desirability and ‘feasibility’ of a Muslim province. At the moment, the increasing involvement of the ‘international community’ (read: West and UN institutions) on the Tamils’ side could trigger questions about would Islamic nations, showing a greater interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka’s Muslim ‘minority.’
The current debate has been triggered by Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Chairman, Basheer Segu Dawood’s demand for a ‘separate Muslim State/Province’. It has to be contextualised to the setting up of a new Constituent Assembly (CA), which is expected to debate the creation and/or re-structuring of the existing Provinces, numbering nine. Independent of the Tamils’ demand for ‘war crimes’ accountability by the armed forces, the CA is expected to address larger Tamils’ demands for a functional power-devolution model, which also went beyond 13-A.
Already, the Tamils in general, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ruling the Northern Province (NP) in particular have commenced internal discourses, debates and divisions on the community’s demands to and expectations from the CA. Whenever such a stage had been reached, the Muslim community and polity in the country had not lagged far behind – though not to equal or equitable results. This time, however, the Muslims could demand parity with the Tamils, prima facie owing to the exit of LTTE terror-threat to individual leaders and institutions of the Muslim community, too.
“The Tamils had demanded self-determination. They have neither stepped down nor had given up their demand. They have also not stepped down from their demand for a merged North-East. This could be described as a stratagem or a political manoeuvre deployed by them,” the media has quoted Segu Dawood as saying Kathankudy in the Eastern Province, a key-center for the nation’s Muslim community and polity.
According to Segu Dawood, a “Muslim Province, similarly, alone will give a motherland and self-determination to Muslims, and we cannot give up our demand. If we were to do so we could dissolve all the Muslim parties and join a majority parties like the UNP or SLFP,” he is reported to have said further. He said that a separate Muslim identity did not mean winning a few Parliamentary seats and Cabinet portfolios.
The SLMC, or Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, is by far the most-popular of the handful of Muslim parties in the country. Segu Dawood is also possibly the first senior Muslim/Muslim Congress leader to have talked about ‘motherland’ and ‘self-determination’ for Muslims in the country. At Kathankudy, Segu Dawood said, “We cannot under any circumstances give up our demand for a Muslim Province. If we give up our demand we must also exit from the party or discuss with the Muslims and give up the party and also our demand.”
In doing so, Segu Dawood called in the name of SLMC founder, the late M H M Ashraff. “The SLMC stance is that the Muslims need a separate Muslim Province. Our late founder of SLMC M.H.M Ashraff too endorsed it. If a Chief Ministers conference is held a Muslim Chief Minister should definitely participate in it,” Segu Dawood was further quoted as telling his audience.
‘Reached the limits’
It’s here Segu Dawood has come under criticism, and from none other than the late Ashraff’s son, Aman. He has since countered Segu Dawood’s demands/claims to a separate ‘Muslim homeland’ in Ashraff’s name, saying that his father’s mandate was solely for a united Sri Lanka, undivided by any means.
According to the Daily Mirror, Aman has since written to Segu Dawood, requesting him not to distort historical facts. In the “early course of his political voyage, Ashraff said if and only if the Tamils of Sri Lanka are granted a separate state unto themselves, then it is only fair that the Muslims of Sri Lanka also be granted one as well,” Aman said adding that his father’s “political views had changed over time”.
In this context, Aman called Ashraff’s address to a party meeting after being appointed Minister for Ports: “As a party representing a minority in this country, we have reached the limits of our abilities. If we are to serve the nation and its people at a greater degree, we must then, now look to expand our horizons into national politics and aim to define a role for ourselves within.”
Thus, Ashraff, Aman recalled, began to devote his career and time exclusively towards the formation of the National Unity Alliance (NUA) a pluralistic political entity whose mandate was solely for a ‘united Sri Lanka, undivided by any means’. In his letter, Aman claimed that Segu Dawood did not “agree with this new and rapidly evolving political vision of Mr. Ashraff, which is why he did not appoint you to the High Command of the NUA.”
The NUA died a natural death after the untimely death of Ashraff in a helicopter crash in September 2000, during the run-up to the presidential polls. The SLMC, though splintered since, based mostly on personality clashes among senior leaders, continues to be the pre-eminent voice of the Muslim polity in the country. It has remained a ‘moderate voice’ of the nation’s Muslim community, since.
It’s another matter almost every Muslim political party in the country, despite their ‘competing’ electoral compulsions’, has not fallen for the temptation to talk about a ‘Muslim motherland,’ ‘self-determination,’ and even ‘separate province’. Even at the height of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) attacks on Muslims, their places of worship and business establishments in the post-war years, the otherwise divided Muslim polity did maintain and advised restraint.
It’s anybody’s guess why the SLMC Chairman should flag such a strong and controversial statement, with potential for all-round mischief. It’s equally unclear if other senior leaders of the party, starting with Minister Rauff Hakeem, shared Segu Dawood’s views on the subject. Or, if the party grass-roots wanted to whip up local sentiments and suspicions in the name of seeking a ‘political identity’ for the community during the CA discourse.
If not shut early by the SLMC collective, Segu Dawood’s current observations has the potential to open a non-existent Pandora’s Box. On a later day, they themselves would find it hard to shut. It’s possible that the late Ashraff learnt his lesson also from the contemporary Tamil experience. Having let the militant youth take over their political movement for equity and equality, the moderate Tamil political leadership of the time was soon swarmed by the LTTE behemoth.
It is likely that the SLMC leadership as a whole might have condoned or played along with Segu Dawood, only to have the community’s voice heard and concerns addressed and legitimate aspirations given a constitutional shape. If so, any such SLMC position could well trigger ‘competitive Muslim nationalism’ from the rest of the community’s polity in the country. Having hoisted the issue, the SLMC itself may not be able to bring it down at a time of its choosing. This is what had happened to the Tamil political demand viz the LTTE’s rise.
Killing two birds…
It’s likely that the SLMC’s demand, if it’s so, could help kill two birds with a single stone. On the one hand, the Government and the pro-Tamil sections of the Sinhala polity could end up citing the Muslim demands to argue for ‘Tamil reasonableness’ in their demands on power-devolution and political reconciliation.
Externally, any revival of the BBS kind of Sinhala-extremism could end up harassing the Muslim minority on the streets, and embarrass the SLMC at higher levels. BBS commissar Gananasara Thero is now out on bail, after being arrested in a couple of cases, one pertaining to contempt of court in an open sitting, to which he was not even a party. The likes of him may only be waiting for a new opportunity.
Together, the twin-situation could be used to force ‘Tamil Diaspora nationalists’ in particular to reconsider their demands for ‘self-determination.’ After a point, they are equally not for a separate ‘Muslim Province’ or even a political identity on the lines of a ‘Union Territory’ in neighbouring India. In the past, both the LTTE and the TNA have talked to the SLMC in particular from time to time, but did not offer them anything beyond words. The Muslim community has thus felt used from the Tamils side, too.
The Muslim demand for a separate politico-constitutional identity came to be raised when their population percentage was seen as meagre in a merged North-East. A demand was even made for a separate ‘Muslim Province’ at the time. However, the protagonists themselves gave up on the demand, considering the non-contiguous nature of Muslim population-centres across the country. This included the Eastern Province with its high concentration of Muslim-majority towns and villages.
It was thus that the ‘Pondicherry/Puducherry’ model from India was being flagged as an alternative. Once a French territory, Puducherry today is a Union Territory with a mainland, adjoining southern Tamil Nadu State. It also has three enclaves, namely, Karaikal, Mahe and Yenam, embedded respectively in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Puducherry’s enclave has historicity attached to it and justifying it. Yet, there are working problems on a daily basis.
Whether Puducherry can be an economically viable constitutional entity is a question that is still being asked in India. At present, it’s a Union Territory, much of whose funds-requirements are met by India’s Union Government. To think in terms of an unwieldy political entity, where a substantial Muslim population would still be left in a ‘capital city region’ that Colombo continues to be, is a question that the likes of Segu Dawood should be asking themselves.
In doing so, they should also consider the possibilities that such demands could throw up for the future of his Muslim brethren, who are traders, mixing and merging with the nation’s other communities and living in their midst without mutual apprehensions of any kind. It is the route hence the Muslim community and political leadership in the country should desist from taking.
In the existing / changing global situation, too, any demand for a ‘separate Muslim homeland’ and ‘self-determination’ in Sri Lanka could have consequences for the nation as a whole, starting with the pious and peace-loving Muslim community. Already there are reports of Muslim youth from the country fighting on the side of the ‘IS’ in Syria, without any indoctrination of any kind from within the local community or polity. They have lived with it all after the 1990 LTTE attacks in the North and the East. Using them as a pawn in domestic political games should thus be desisted at all kinds – and from the very beginning itself.
This does not mean that the Muslims do not have a political case, or case for a political solution to their own grievances and aspirations in post-Independence Sri Lanka. Rather than upping the stakes to levels that could cause alarm and apprehensions, they should test them in the touchstone of Sri Lankan nationalism and integrity, which is what the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist extremists’ have failed to do in the first place.
It’s also the kind of position that the Tamil militant youth of the LTTE kind took up and took over, and lost their lives and the very cause, too. Muslims of Sri Lanka cannot afford it. Sri Lanka cannot afford it. After all, radicals in the community, if any, in the country may now have more sources elsewhere to draw upon than the LTTE could have done even at the height of its glory and politico-military successes nearer home!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)