fights last-ditch battle in Amparai
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
ditch political battle
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
with the LTTE
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.
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.
were also continuing incidents of assassinations, abductions,
extortions and intimidation by the Tigers against Muslims. As a
result Muslim fears began increasing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
the best of a bad thing
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.
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
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.
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