29th February, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 33




















Hakeem fights last-ditch battle in  Amparai

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauf Hakeem has shifted from his home turf of Kandy, the turbulent citadel of Muslim politics, to Amparai for the hustings this time. Essentially a desperate gamble Hakeem's decision may well turn out to be either a successful spectacle of political courage or an abysmal example of political misjudgment.

Rauf Hakeem, Ferial Ashraff and Athaullah

Whatever the outcome on April 2, there is no doubt that the SLMC Leader is fighting a last ditch battle to both safeguard his leadership position as well as retain parliamentary status as an elected representative in contesting from Amparai.

The Eastern Province in general and Amparai District in particular are the strongholds of Muslim politics in the island. Both the province and district have the largest concentrations of Muslims in the island. Proportionately the Muslims are the single largest entity in Amparai. A proper census may prove that they are the largest ethnicity in the province too.

Dynamic leadership

The long-neglected eastern Muslim community came into its own right through the dynamic leadership of the late M.H.M. Ashraff. The SLMC sustained primarily by voters of the north east became a force to be reckoned with after Ashraff's ascendancy.

The party however fragmented after his death but the SLMC's electoral base and political strength were virtually consolidated under Hakeem's leadership. The SLMC that had four seats in 1989, seven in 1994, 11 in 2000 and 12 in 2001 faces an uphill task ahead in the 2004 polls.

Realising the importance of unity at elections in enhancing representation and presenting a unified Muslim approach in vital issues, the community's religious leaders, intelligentsia and youths exerted considerable pressure on all leaders to sink their differences and come together.

Efforts were made to bring about Muslim unity at least in Amparai District. In what can only be described as defiance of Muslim political opinion the political leaders have not responded to those moves positively. As a result Amparai District will be the political battleground to determine the course of future Muslim leadership.

In a tragic-comic example of the community's inner divisions, 25 Muslim independent groups have also fielded candidates in the Amparai District in addition to the political parties. The only district where frontline Muslim leaders have respected the call for unity and have come together under the SLMC banner, sinking party and personal differences, is Trincomalee.

In Trincomalee "Sinna" Maharoof of the UNP, Najeeb Abdul Majeed of the SLFP, "Thideer" Thowfeek and his namesake from the SLMC are all contesting under the SLMC tree symbol. This virtually ensures two and possibly three seats out of four in the district for the SLMC if Sinhala or Tamil votes get too divided.

In a separate development there has been a lesser degree of unity in Amparai where most of the anti-Hakeem elements and non-UNF forces have forged unity under the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The National Unity Alliance (NUA) component under Ferial Ashraff, the Ashraff Congress and another breakaway faction of the SLMC will all be contesting under the UPFA. They have come together as the Muslim National Congress (MNC) and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the SLFP-JVP combine.

Hakeem on the other hand has entered into a MoU with the UNP. The SLMC will contest the districts of Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Jaffna on its own. The UNP will not field any Muslim candidates in these districts.

In the Wanni, the SLMC and UNP will contest unitedly. The SLMC will also contest seven southern districts on the UNF symbol. They are Puttalam, Kurunegala, Colombo, Kandy, Kalutara, Anuradhapura and Gampaha.

With the SLMC leader shifting to Amparai, the district will see Hakeem, Ferial Ashraff and Athaullah contesting. Thus, the Amparai results if unequivocally decisive could play a major part in resolving the question of Muslim political leadership. If they are ambiguous then the tussle is likely to continue.

The tempestuous nature of Muslim politics has seen several splits, defections, alignments and realignments among principal political players. While policy and ideology differences are often cited as causes for these happenings the key factor has often been a combination of political ambition and personal rivalry.

Last ditch political battle

Today Rauf Hakeem is fighting a last ditch political battle in Amparai. His predicament is due to some lapses on his part as well as factors beyond his control. After Ashraff's death, the leadership mantle was inherited by his trusted Deputy and Party Secretary Hakeem. Ashraff's widow Ferial too began evincing an interest in politics after her husband's death.

Both Rauf and Ferial are 'outsiders' as far as the east is concerned because they are both from Kandy. Though Hizbullah, the senior SLMC parliamentarian staked a strong claim to party leadership, the parochial nature of eastern Muslim politics prevented him. Hizbullah was from Kattankudi in Batticaloa and not Amparai District.

Some of the SLMCers from Amparai District were not happy about Hakeem succeeding Ashraff. The articulate lawyer was seen as too young and also as being insensitive to the aspirations and concerns of the eastern, particularly Amparai, Muslims.

So an influential section of the SLMC led by its former Senior Vice President, "Maruthoor" Ghani pushed for Ferial as party leader. Being Ashraff's wife Ferial was depicted as being more acceptable as she was the "Kilakkin Marumagal" (Daughter-in-law of the east).

Keeping the South Asian tradition of dynastic politics as well as playing the sympathy card after a tragic bereavement, Ferial Ashraff rode the crest of a wave in 2000 in spite of low key campaigning due to a period of mourning.

After a futile bid for leadership, Hizbullah too backed Ferial in preference to Rauf. There was also an expectation that Ferial could be easily 'managed' by party seniors as opposed to Hakeem. Complicating matters further was Chandrika Kumaratunga's undisguised hostility towards Hakeem and obvious partiality for Ferial. Hakeem could have remedied matters to some extent if he had accommodated Ferial as party chairperson and given her more prominence.

The politically insecure Hakeem, intimidated to some extent by Ferial's astounding majority, chose instead to combat her. This led to protracted legal wrangling. Matters were smoothed out to some extent by the conciliatory efforts of Faiz Musthapha.

Kumaratunga precipitated the SLMC's inner party crisis by summarily dismissing Hakeem from her cabinet in 2001 while retaining Ferial. The party mood however was misjudged by Chandrika and Ferial. Eight of the eleven SLMC parliamentarians remained loyal to Rauf and crossed over. Only three were with the government.

The man who proved to be a tower of strength in this crisis was Athaullah from Akkaraipattru. Athaullah aided by other up and coming young politicians from the district like Anwer Ismail (Sammanthurai), Azeez (Pottuvil) and Haris (Sainthamaruthu) helped contain the Ferial phenomenon and boosted Hakeem's image in the district.

Since Hakeem, unlike Ashraff, was both a non-easterner and non-Amparai man, he was forced to rely on emerging Muslim leaders from the district to keep his standard flying.

With Athaullah siding with Hakeem, another fellow citizen from Akkaraipattu Segu Issadeen joined up with Ferial. Issadeen, a prominent politician from the district, had earlier been the SLMC chairman but had fallen out with the imperious Ashraff.

Pivotal role

The 2001 polls saw the SLMC under Hakeem teaming up with the UNF and the Ferial faction as NUA aligning with the PA. The SLMC contesting separately and on the UNF got 12 seats in all. The NUA got two elected and one national list seat. The SLMC was pivotal in forming a government and Hakeem was riding high as kingmaker. Though made SLMC chairman and non-cabinet minister, Athaullah wanted a cabinet portfolio. Hakeem however feared an escalation in Athaullah's political strength if that happened and did not comply with that request.

Though Athaullah was the SLMC strongman in Amparai, Hakeem preferred to rely more on Basheer Segu Dawood from Eravur for political advice. This was resented in party circles and Basheer is often referred to mockingly as the "Balasingham of the Muslim Congress."

Basheer, a former EROS parliamentarian, does not have much support even in his hometown of Eravur where Ali Zaheer Moulana of the UNP enjoys greater popularity. Yet Segu Dawood's closeness to Hakeem helped the former to become national list MP and minister even though he lost the elections.

Insecure as ever, Hakeem tried to keep Athaullah from rising in politics as he feared a threat to his leadership position because of being a son of the eastern soil. According to UNF circles, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was willing to accommodate Athaullah on the cabinet but Hakeem was not.

Furthermore, Hakeem made derisive references in private to Athaullah being unsuitable for cabinet rank because of his tendency to sleep during daytime. These tales were conveyed to Athaullah and there was bad blood between them.

The political climate underwent a qualitative transformation after the ceasefire accord of February 23, 2002. The ascendancy of the LTTE saw the Muslims of the east being victimised in various ways, which increased feelings of insecurity among them.

For nearly two decades the Muslims had been used to an equation where the government and Muslims were on one side and the Tigers cum Tamils on the other. Now the government in a bid to preserve the ceasefire was bent on appeasing the LTTE. Actually the government had virtually handed over the Tamils of the north east to the LTTE in order to preserve the peace process.

While the Tamils bore the brunt of this stoically, the Muslims were more agitated and enraged by this perceived betrayal. Hakeem as a cabinet minister had to balance the interests of the government and the concerns of his people.

Agreement with the LTTE

In a gesture of rare statesmanship Hakeem journeyed to the Wanni and met Pirapaharan in Kilinochchi. A seven-point agreement ensuring the rights and allaying the fears of the Muslims was signed between the two respective 'national leaders' of the Tamils and Muslims on April 13, 2002.

That agreement alas was honored only in the breach. Tamil-Muslim relations in the east suffered further decline with two rounds of violence in Muttur, Valaichenai, Ottamavady in 2002 and Kinniya, Muttur in 2003.The Muslims accused the LTTE of fomenting trouble and security forces of not doing anything to quell it.

There were also continuing incidents of assassinations, abductions, extortions and intimidation by the Tigers against Muslims. As a result Muslim fears began increasing.

The community began worrying about its future under a Tiger-dominated administration in the north east. It also wanted an equal voice in the peace talks to watch its interests. But the LTTE refused to give an active role in the talks to the Muslims despite assuring the SLMC in writing earlier.

Hakeem played a patient and commendable role in all this. Apart from making threatening noises, the SLMC Leader continued to remain in the government and to his credit strove diligently to arrive at some workable understanding with the LTTE.

This responsible conduct on the part of Hakeem had its downside politically. Ferial Ashraff began making provocative and irresponsible utterances against the LTTE and by extension the Tamils in order to undercut Hakeem and earn cheap popularity.

Hakeem's restraint and responsible approach was thoroughly misunderstood by the eastern Muslims. At the same time Hakeem too failed to gauge the depth of emotions among Muslims on this question.

Thus Hakeem proved vulnerable to charges that he was insensitive to eastern Muslim concerns because he was from Kandy. Hakeem was also unfairly charged that he was only interested in the perks of ministerial office. Even his worthwhile moves to study federal systems and evolve a model for the Muslims were criticised as joyrides undertaken while the east was suffering.

Athaullah made his first move during the third round of talks in Oslo during November 2002. Eight SLMC parliamentarians led by Athaullah attempted a constitutional coup and tried to take over the party. Hakeem abandoned the talks and rushed back to face the threat.

Legal recourse has helped Hakeem keep the party intact. The unkindest cut in this for Hakeem was the participation of Dr. Hazrath and Subairdeen Hadjiar in the Athaullah putsch. Both are non-easterners and are from Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts.

Later Hakeem began wooing back prodigal MPs from the Athaullah faction. While a court case is pending, the Athaullah faction had named itself as the Ashraff Congress. Yet the enmity between Ashraff's widow and Athaullah was so great that both groups remained separate despite the common interest of anti-Hakeemism.

People like Thowfeek, Noordeen Mashoor, Anwer Ismail and Haris, etc., returned reluctantly to SLMC folds. Resentment however was rising against the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and Hakeem among eastern Muslims on account of perceived indifference towards the Muslim plight in the face of Tiger oppression.

There was also increasing public opinion that the Muslim politicians should unite and face elections unitedly so as to enhance representation. This would enable the community to protect its interests and secure arrangements like a separate delegation status at talks and also an administrative unit for the Muslims, etc.

Selfish interests

While these unity moves were progressing elections were announced again. This upset the situation and once again selfish interests began surfacing. Ferial Ashraff and her NUA opted to throw in their lot with the SLFP-JVP combine. She came to an electoral arrangement.

This in turn saw unity talks between Hakeem and Athaullah progressing. Meanwhile, efforts to bring about a common front at least in Amparai under the name National Muslim Alliance (NMA) also seemed to be on the verge of success.

And then came Athaullah's bombshell. He excused himself from the peace talks at his residence for 15 minutes. While the others waited unsuspectingly Athaullah went along with Azeez Ismail and Haris to President Kumaratunga and signed a MoU for the elections. The new outfit is to be the National Muslim Congress (NMC). In an unexpected turn Ferial and Athaullah had 'forgotten' their differences and agreed to contest together on the vettrilai or betel symbol.

Ironically the new unity moves are said to be the cause of this fresh realignment. With the UNP and Athaullah factions on the verge of uniting with the SLMC, parliamentarians like Anwer Ismail and Haris found their positions threatened.

The new configuration would have seen "Myown" Mustapha, Nizam Kariapper and Naushad, etc., contesting on a common ticket. This was threatening to Ismail and Haris. So they chose to jump ship.

As for Athaullah, he demanded more seats for his faction. This however seems only an excuse. Athaullah has set his sights on the Muslim leadership stakes in the east. He does not want to 'unite' with Hakeen right now. Besides both Athaullah and Ferial feel that anti-Hakeem and anti-UNP feelings are sky high at present due to the LTTE factor. They hope to cash in on that.

Left in the lurch, Hakeem had no choice other than to throw in his lot with the UNP. There was however a hitch. The SLMC leader found himself unable to find a suitable district to contest.

In Kandy, Wickremesinghe had agreed to field the formidable Cader Hadjiar on the national list to smoothen things for Hakeem. But a fresh problem arose with the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) deciding to field Faizal Musthapha, son of Faiz in Kandy. Hakeem feared that this might ruin his chances as Faizal, a native of Galhinna could get both Muslim and Tamil votes.

When Ranil tried to get the CWC to relent in the interests of Hakeem. The CWC's Arumugan Thondaman stood firm and unrelenting. He threatened to go it alone in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya if Faizal was sacrificed for Rauf. Besides there was also concern in SLMC circles about the 'Ratwatte syndrome' as in Udathalawinna last time.

The next choice for Hakeem was Colombo but Wickremesinghe did not welcome that. So Hakeem was virtually compelled to seek a place in Amparai. Now Cader will contest on the UNP ticket along with Faizal Mustapha in Kandy.

Hakeem's shift to Amparai saw "Myown" Mustapha being let down in a terrible manner. Mustapha was expecting to be number one or two on the combined SLMC-UNP list for Amparai. He was told that Hakeem would contact him after subhu morning prayers. To his chagrin, Mustapha discovered that Hakeem had gone overnight to Amparai and filed nomination papers excluding him. Now Wickremesinghe looking after his own has given "Myown" a national list place.

Making the best of a bad thing

Hakeem is now making the best of a bad thing by trying to project an impression that he is contesting in Amparai to register his solidarity with the Amparai Muslims. There is no doubt that Hakeem would establish his leadership credentials conclusively if he can win resoundingly at the polls.

His leadership status will be severely eroded if he fares poorly compared to Athaullah and Ferial. Though disadvantaged due to his being an outsider, Hakeem will strive hard to demonstrate his popularity.

If he can do well despite the unpopularity because of the LTTE factor, Hakeem will continue to be SLMC leader. If he fails dismally, then there would be a reconfiguration in Muslim politics that would dethrone Hakeem.

The beleaguered Hakeem is fighting a last ditch not only to win a seat in Amparai but also to safeguard his claim of leading the Muslims of Sri Lanka including those of the east in general and Amparai in particular.

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