MUSLIMS & TAMIL EELAM
An Introduction to the Muslim Question
- From a paper presented at the
International Federation of Tamils Conference "Towards a Just Peace"
The origins of the Muslims in the North-East of Sri Lanka, as accepted by
many historians are obscure. It has not been established whether they are the
descendants of the Shafi Sect of Muslims who migrated to Sri Lanka from Arabia
as far back as the nineth century or those of the migrant Muslims who became a
settled community in the early twelfth century.
The Muslim elite has also been refuting the point of view of Sir Ponnambalam
Ramanathan, a Tamil member of the Executive Council of Ceylon, that the Muslims
of Sri Lanka including those settled in the North-East originated from South
India and were Tamils who embraced Islam.
The same elitist group, while admitting that the Muslims use Tamil as their
everyday language and their ancestors took Tamil women as their partners, denied
that they were culturally similar to the Tamils. This group also maintained that
they were a distinct religious and ethnic group.
The Muslims of the North-East who constituted only 38% of the total Muslim
population of the Island engaged themselves mainly in agriculture and fisheries
for their livelihood, whereas the rest of the 62% living in the South are
primarily traders and businessmen. The Southern Muslims are also educationally
and economically more advanced than those of the North- East. This accounts for
their dominant political role and leadership.
The Muslim political leaders, mostly from the South, decided the destinies of
their brethren in the North-East. They also fully aligned themselves with
Sinhalese political parties which formed the successive governments and
implemented the repressive measures which affected the rights, liberties and
freedom of both the Tamils and Muslims.
This clearly explains the lack of consciousness and non- participation of the
vast majority of the Muslims of the North-East in the non-violent agitations and
liberation struggle of the Tamils. Their leadership, by keeping their people out
and avoiding involvement, achieved their two objectives of earning the sympathy
of the majority Sinhalese leaders in power and maintaining their separateness as
a distinct ethnic minority different from the Tamils.
This isolation of the Muslims and their leaders, however, should not in any
way affect the decision of the Tamils to secure and guarantee the safety,
rights, freedom and development of the Muslim minority in the traditional
homeland of the Tamils. Steps taken for a just peace in the Island of Sri Lanka,
therefore, should include this as a key element in the agenda for any lasting
and just peace.
Muslim elitist writers highlighted in their writings the consorted stand of
their leadership that the first Arabic settlers of the Island were Hashemites, a
migratory tribe who left Arabia in the seventh century because of persecution as
a result of a change in the ruling dynasty.
This was purely to refute the hypothesis advanced in the latter part of the
ninteenth century that the Ceylon Moors/Muslims were descendants of South Indian
Tamils converted to Islam.
Their objective was to distiguish the Ceylon Muslim from the coast Moors of
South India and the Ceylon Tamils.
However it is believed that a few hundreds of Shafi Muslims of the Shafi Sect
began migrating to the Island as far back as the nineth century. They came as
traders and extended their interest from import/export trade to internal trade.
By the beginning of the twelfth century Muslims were emerging as a settled
community. They were scattered along the coastal areas but some of them moved
into the interior. A considerable number of those settled in the coast of the
then Eastern and Northern provinces earned their livelihood by engaging in
agriculture, fisheries, and local crafts.
It is also believed that the Muslims who settled in the Southern sector of
the Eastern Province took Tamil women as their partners. The arrival of the
Portugese hindered the traditional occupation of the Muslims of the South,
namely trade. These Muslims were also subjected to persecution. However the
economic activities of the Muslims of the North-East remained unaffected even
after the arrival of the Portugese to the Island.
The revival of Buddhism and the entry of the emerging class of Sinhalese
traders into the arena resulted in a clash of trading interests between the
Sinhalese and Muslim traders. This also promoted economic competition which
culminated in a number of clashes between the two groups. In the meantime,
antagonism against the coast Moors was building up in the Sinhalese areas
because of their pawn-brokering and money-lending activities.
An attempt was made in this hostile atmosphere by the coast Moors to
interfere with the religious activities of the Buddhists at Gampola in the
Central Province which sparked off the riots of 1915.
Even though these riots did not affect the Muslims of the North-East, the
attitude of Sir P Ramanathan in taking a positive stand against the harsh action
of the British colonial Government to curb the riots and his support for the
Sinhalese did not meet with their approval.
This also strained to some degree the relationships, generally between the
Tamils and Muslims.
When the demand for 50/50 representation in the proposed parliament was
placed before the Soulbury Commission as a panacea for the minority problems in
Ceylon, the All-Ceylon Moors' Association which represented the entire Muslim
population withdrew its support for this proposal.
This action of the Moors' Association had a dual purpose.
Their contention was that supporting the 50/50 proposals of the Tamil
Congress would tantamount to accepting Ramanathan's hypothesis that they were
descendants of Tamils who embraced Islam and would go against their own identity
as a religious ethnic group. By their not supporting this move and taking a
pro-Sinhala stance in independent Sri Lanka, they would according to them
safeguard their trading and commercial interests.
CURRENT SITUATION (1992)
Many attribute the present state of affairs in the East to the Second Eelam
War in June 1989 and the collapse of the talks between the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lanka Government. But the fact is that the relationship
between the Tamils and Muslims had been strained for sometime before the Second
Eelam War and even before the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
Again, any meaningful consideration of the Muslim question cannot be
separated from a consideration of the strategy adopted by the Sri Lankan
Government to deny the Tamils a separate homeland in the north and east of Sri
Lanka. Over the past several decades, the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan
Government has adopted three main strategies to counter the Tamil demand for
recognition of the Tamil homeland.
planned state aided colonization and settlement of Sinhala peasants.
Secondly, the establishment of a permanent military divide at Manal
Aru to drive a wedge between the North and East.
Thirdly, securing a permanent rift between Tamils and Muslims in the
East by making land as the bone of contention.
Security forces have not succeeded in de-linking the supply lines to the East
at Manal Aru. But the Sri Lankan government has succeeded in creating a rift
between the Muslims and Tamils in the East. However, there is no guarantee that
the Sri Lankan government will not let down the Muslims in the long term
perspective. In the event that Tamils are defeated in the East, Sri Lankan
government will have no further use for the Muslims.
Again if the Tamils progress towards their goal of separation what of the
Muslims? In the alternative if the Tamils decide to consider any make-shift
solutions, what then could be the solution for the Muslims? Finding a solution
for the Muslims will be the main factor that will be going against a peace
In the early 1980s, when the liberation struggle of the Tamils intensified,
in the East, several Muslim youths joined it. Some became martyrs. But when it
came to a question of reprisals by the Sri Lanka army, the Muslims because of
their separate identity, enjoyed a measure of security.
Those Muslims who did not like to lose this privilege tended to maintain a
'neutral' attitude towards Tamil militant groups. However, even in the mid 80's,
till the emergence of the Jihad movement created by the Sri Lankan Government,
the relationship between the Muslims and the Tamil militant groups was generally
speaking, not hostile.
The Government created the Jihad movement mainly to prevent the Tamils and
Muslims from joining forces. They felt that in this way, they could destroy
Tamil militancy in the East. With the emergence of Jihad, the relationship
between the two communities deteriorated. Jihad and its sympathizers opposed the
presence of Tamil militants in the Muslim community.
There were sporadic incidents of violence. The suspicions between the two
communities became sharper. As the Sri Lankan army was always in the background,
the Tamils claimed that they were the most affected by these clashes. But the
confrontation was not as fierce, as it is now. There were clashes in '85, '86
These clashes increased with the induction of the Indian Army in 1987 and
1988. When the Indian Army entered Tamil homeland, it was seen as a force
supporting the liberation of the Tamils. In the North, it perceived as the force
which saved the Tamils from 'Operation Liberation'. In the East, it was seen as
a force against those Sinhalese colonists who threatened the Tamils and as a
force which strengthened the Tamils who had been attacked by the Muslims.
The Tamil groups who came along with the Indian Army took revenge on the
Sinhala colonists as well as those Muslims who had earlier harassed the Tamils.
As a result many Muslim villages were badly affected. Muslims who were already
prejudiced against India because of their affinity towards Pakistan, hated the
Indian Army as well as the Tamil groups. This hatred made them turn towards the
Tigers and support them in larger numbers. It was at this stage the Muslim
Congress entered the political scene.
Muslim Congress is a party based on religion. It had mosques as its base.
They participated for the first time in the December 1988 Provincial Council
elections. The Muslim Congress which was opposed to India highlighted in its
election campaign the atrocities perpetrated by the Indian forces on their women
and the desecration of their places of worship. This emotional appeal succeeded
The Muslim Congress emerged as a powerful party in the East based, on
religion. The Muslim Congress opposed the Tamil national liberation struggle. It
feared that the Muslims would get immersed in Tamil nationalism and lose their
Within a short span of their political existence, the Muslim Congress had to
face and take decisions on complicated emotional issues. Such decisions which
were taken in haste, showed a sense of political immaturity. There was then a
sudden transformation and the Muslim Congress spoke in support of the Indian
Army's presence in Sri Lanka.
This turn about by the Muslim Congress, according to informed sources, was
due to the fact that the leader of the group had been indirectly intimidated by
an armed group, supposedly pro-Indian. Thereafter, it was alleged that he had
received financial assistance from the Indian Government. Later two hundred
Muslim youths were reported to have received training at the hands of the Indian
Army at Uppukarachi in the Akkaraipattu area.
Thus when the Second Eelam war started, the Muslim Congress supported the Sri
Lanka Government. It lacked the foresight to ponder on the after-effects of such
an attitude on the Muslims.
Propaganda against the Tigers commenced in mosques in the East. Tigers did
not lay restrictions on their Muslim cadres regarding their religious
observances. At the mosques these cadres listened to the propaganda aired
against the Tigers. They were also treated as outcasts and exhorted to defect
with their arms. After such exhortation twenty Muslim youths deserted with arms
and joined their fold.
Many other Muslims who were in rival set-ups against the Tamils, joined their
ranks and supported the Army. The Tamils least expected such desertion from
their ranks and they still hold the view that they were deceived by the Muslims.
It was hatred towards the Indian army which drove them into the Tiger-fold. This
support was withdrawn as suddenly as it came.
This sudden turn could be attributed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Regardless
of these facts, the spark that set off the Second Eelam War was ironically
concerned with an incident in which a Muslim tailor figured.
Today the Muslims have been
displaced in the North.
They have no protection in the East where they have to be under the full
protective power of the Army. In such a predicament where they have to be at the
mercy of the Army, the Muslims have mostly lost their bargaining power with the
Sri Lankan Government. This plight has to be interpreted as a humiliating
political defeat for the Muslim Congress.