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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Muslims & Tamil Eelam > The Muslim Factor in Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis - Ameer Ali
MUSLIMS & TAMIL EELAM
The Muslim Factor in Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis
[Source: Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Oct 1997, Vol. 17 Issue 2, pp. 253-267.]
with a A Critical Front-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
Popular journalists and prejudiced pundits have portrayed the Sri Lankan ethnic problem solely as an issue between two communities--the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. To the outside world the Tamil problem appears to affect directly only those persons of the Dravidian ethnic stock who are either Hindus or Christians, speak Tamil as their mother tongue and live in the Northern and Eastern districts of the country.
Because of this over simplification the interests and aspirations of others, who are also either Tamils or Tamil speaking, have been extremely marginalised if not totally ignored.
The Indian Tamils who arrived in Sri Lanka as plantation labourers during the British Raj, are also of the Dravidian stock numbering nearly 900,000. A majority of these workers have now become permanent residents of the country under the Srima-Shastri Pact of 1964 and a subsequent parliamentary act in 1986. They live mostly in the central hills of Sri Lanka and are commonly known as the Up-country Tamils. Even though they are of the same ethnic stock, speak Tamil language and follow the Hindu religion, their socio-political affinity with the Tamils of the North and East has not been and is not very close. The fact that these Tamils, because of their population location and government's language and educational policy, are more fluent in Sinhalese than their counterparts in the North and East makes this separation even wider.
Similarly, the Muslims, about whom this paper is concerned, are another important and mostly Tamil speaking minority. They are directly affected by the ethnic war and their demographic settlements and cultural complexities have compounded the difficulty of finding any solution. The case of the Muslims has actually grown by default. Most Muslim intellectuals are generally reluctant to engage in serious research about the community's predicament, partly because of the fear of becoming persona controversia and partly because of inadequate research training. Some output of semi-academic nature, however, has been produced in recent times by the Tamil medium graduates, but these have no impact on the Sinhalese thinkers and others because of the latter's unfamiliarity with and indifference to Tamil writings.
The task of filling this gap has therefore fallen by necessity on the intellectual resources of bilingual (Tamil/English) Muslims. While international attention is almost entirely focused on the Tamils of the North and East, the local politicians of all major parties appear to raise their concern about the Indian Tamils and Muslims only when it suits their political interests. This paper endeavours to question these simplistic and opportunistic approaches and tries to picture the actual complexity of the problem by highlighting the position of the Muslim community, without whose active participation and endorsement any solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic issue cannot remain meaningful.
Who are the Muslims?
The Muslims of Sri Lanka are of diverse ethnicity but popularly
grouped into two, the Moors, a name whose origins have been
discussed in detail elsewhere, but will be summarized below, and
the Malays. There are more than one million Muslims in Sri Lanka who
constitute just over seven percent of the island's total population.
Historically, the origins of this community can be traced back to
the ancient Arab traders who frequented the ports of this island
even before the birth of Islam. With the advent of Islam and the
subsequent expansion of the Muslim empire however, increased Arab
commercial activities strengthened the Muslim presence in Sri Lanka.
There are plenty of archaeological and historical records which have
been unearthed in recent times, all of which establish the fact that
the Muslims of Sri Lanka are as indigenous to its soil as the
Sinhalese and Tamils.
The history of the Malay Muslims, of course, is an exception to this generality. After the 15th century, when the influx of the Arab and Persian Muslims virtually ceased with the naval dominance of the Portuguese over the Indian Ocean, the Muslim population of Sri Lanka came to be strengthened by a new wave of their co-religionists from the Indian coast. The Muslim traders from South India who were mostly Tamil speaking and ethnically Dravidian dominated this new wave. Some brought with them their Tamil speaking wives while many, like their Arab predecessors chose their partners from local women. Under the Islamic shariah it was also possible for these men to have two wives concurrently, one in India and the other in Sri Lanka. These historical facts and the fact that Tamil was the lingua franca in this part of the world at that time, explains why the overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan Muslims speak Tamil and not Arabic, Persian or Sinhalese as their mother tongue.
Although it was the Portuguese who originally called the Sri
Lankan Muslims the 'Moors', an appellation which the colonialists
bestowed indiscriminately upon all Muslims whom they came across in
Africa and Asia, that nomenclature has remained permanent and is now
officially recognized as the ethnic title of this community. There
was even a political necessity which arose at the end of the
nineteenth century and which caused the Sri Lankan Muslims to hold
on to this name. This will be discussed later. In actual fact, the
Muslims of Sri Lanka are a mixture of Arab, Persian, Dravidian and
Malay blood of which the Dravidian element, because of centuries of
heavy Indian injection has remained the dominant one. This was why
when Harry William tried to discuss the Muslim ethnicity he called
it a historical 'conundrum'.
Although the Muslims are the second largest minority group in the country after the Sri Lankan Tamils, the cultural mix and demographic ubiquity of this community make the territorial division of the country along ethnic lines more complicated than what appears in most published sources.
Without understanding these cultural and demographic characteristics one would not be able to comprehend the complexity of the ethnic issue and the difficulties involved in finding a solution for it.
First of all, unlike the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Muslims
have traditionally been a bilingual community. While the majority of
the Sinhalese speak only Sinhalese and the majority of Tamils only
Tamil, the majority of the Muslims, partly because of their
ubiquitous presence and partly because of their trading and
commercial interests, have acquired the ability to converse in both
languages. However, the mother tongue of the vast majority of
Muslims is Tamil, even though one can detect a changing trend in
this situation in recent times. The reason for this change will be
discussed later in this article.
The Sinhala Only Bill, in its original version, demanded Sinhalese to be the only official language in the country. The entire Tamil community in the North and East revolted against this Bill under the leadership of the Federal Party. There were protest marches, satyagraha sit-ins and even violent clashes, all culminating in the communal riots of 1958.
The Muslim community on the other hand supported the Bill without reservation and at once became the political ally of the Sinhalese only to earn the wrath of the Tamils. This was round one.
In round two, in the early sixties, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government under the leadership of Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike decided to establish Sinhala medium schools in the Tamil and Muslim areas, the then Minister of Education Badiuddin Mahmud, who himself was a Muslim and one of the founder members of that party, silently campaigned against that move and succeeded in eliminating them. Obviously, this behaviour angered the Sinhalese politicians, who became suspicious of the Muslim community, but made the Tamils soften their anti-Muslim attitude.
How does one explain this opportunistic behaviour of Muslim politics? From the point of view of pure self-interest and in the context of the Sinhala-Tamil split, the most rational explanation is the opportunity such behaviour provides for the Muslim elite to extract the minimum benefits either in the form of cabinet portfolios or commercial opportunities or both from the ruling community, the Sinhalese, better the latter mends its differences with the opposition, the Tamils. To the Muslims of course, supporting the government was a path of least resistance.
However, this reason alone is insufficient to explain the actual predicament of the Muslim community in Sri Lankan politics. A more fundamental reason arises from the community's ubiquitous settlement and religious unity. The pattern of Muslim settlement in the country prevents the community from taking side in the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic confrontation. The Sri Lankan Tamil community considers the north and east of the island as its traditional homeland and the population concentration of Tamils in these regions adds weight to this claim. The Muslims on the other hand are scattered all over the country although nearly one-third of their number is living in the so-called Tamil traditional homeland.
This demographic factor is sometimes used by the Sinhalese and Tamil politicians to divide the Muslim community into Tamil and Sinhala Muslims. To the Muslims however, language is not the defining factor and the religious tie is stronger than any linguistic bond. Therefore they refuse to consider themselves as a divided community although certain recent developments, as will be elaborated later, may impose such a division in the future. Official sources in Sri Lanka recognize the division of the largest two ethnic communities into Christian Sinhalese and Buddhist Sinhalese and Christian Tamils and Hindu Tamils, but there is no such division yet amongst the Muslims. This religious unity has so far been acting as a fortress to prevent the language factor from eroding the oneness of the Muslim community.
Thus, a perceived separate ethnic identity, an ubiquitous demographic settlement, and a religious unity have enabled the Muslim community to play a deterministic role in the island's ethnic politics. As a result the community has been able to make at least quantitatively if not qualitatively substantial gains, notably in the educational and cultural fields. To enumerate a few, the existence of Muslim public schools with separate Muslim educational curriculum and separate Muslim school calendar, all within a non-denominational public schools structure; the daily quota of broadcasting hours for purely Muslim cultural programs within the national broadcasting services; public holidays for Muslim religious festivals and, the creation of a separate ministry for Muslim cultural affairs are concessions granted to this community by the Sinhalese governments which have no parallel in the history of other countries where the Muslim population is only seven percent.
A critical evaluation of these benefits from the point of view of Muslim educational, cultural and economic welfare, has so far escaped the attention of scholars but is desperately needed. The way these Muslim schools are presently administered, the questionable standards of teaching in these schools, and, many a substandard Islamic cultural programs broadcast over the national radio service all add up to a view that most of the benefits are purely ephemeral and cosmetic. However, for the present purpose the very same deterministic role which brought these benefits has also led to the current predicament of the community, specially after 1983 when the Tamils, under the ruthless leadership of Veluppillai Prabakaran and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LITE), decided to opt for armed struggle to win independence from the Sinhala hegemony. Where do the Muslims stand in this new situation?
The Muslims and the Tamil Demand for Separation
To begin with, in spite of their one-third concentration in the Tamil districts and in spite of the language affinity with the Tamils, the Muslims are obviously not sympathetic towards a division of the country along ethnic lines. Being a community with a historical identity with trade and commerce it will understandably prefer a united Sri Lanka rather than a divided nation because the former provides a wider market. This economic rationale for the Muslim opposition to divide the nation cannot, however, be taken too far because the economic position of the community itself has changed since the sixties, from one of mainly traders to one of peasants, labourers and professionals.
The economic reforms such as the nationalization of export-import business, the real estate sector, banking and transport, and the implementation of the Paddy Lands Bill, all under the aegis of a then socialist SLFP government, crippled the economic interests of the Muslim urban middle class and compelled its younger generation to look for other avenues to improve their economic future. Among the Muslims, a lack of modern commercial organization in the form of registered companies, combined with ostentatious living and family fights contributed to this economic decline.
Consequently, quite many of the Muslim youth, on the advice and support of the then Muslim Education Minister, Badiuddin Mahmud, turned to education and became teachers, which soon was to change the popular image of the community from one of businessmen to one of teachers. It is no exaggeration to say that during the period of Mahmud as the Minister of Education, his ministry became the employment exchange for the Muslims.
Even though the post-1977 state policy-shift towards an open economy with emphasis on private enterprise and the employment opportunities in the Middle East may have rekindled the traditional trading instinct of the community (which has converted even the teachers as a group of part-time businessmen) it is improbable that the community will revert to its pre-1960 economic position. A more serious reason for the Muslim opposition to the Tamil armed struggle, however, has to be sought in the strenuous political relationship between the two communities since the beginning of this century. The history of this relationship provides the backdrop to the present political impasse between the Tamils and Muslims.
The Tamil political leadership in Sri Lanka has a long history of anti-Muslim stance. Late in the 19th century, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Tamil member in the Ceylon Legislative Council, tried hard to deprive the Muslim community of a Muslim membership in that council by arguing that the Muslims had no separate ethnic identity, that they were Tamils in origin and that their interests were already looked after by the Tamil member who was Ramanathan himself.
In fact, it was against this claim by Ramanathan that the Muslim elite of that time was provoked to establish the counterclaim that the Muslim community had a separate identity and that they were neither Tamils nor Sinhalese but Moors of Arab origin. Later in 1915, when the Sinhalese-Muslim racial riots broke out it was the same Ramanathan who led a delegation on behalf of the Sinhalese to the King of Britain, blamed the Muslim community entirely for the riots and later appeared in the Ceylon Supreme Court to plead on behalf of the accused Sinhalese rioters. Ramanathan, an intellectual product from the Jaffna vellala caste, was the acme of the Tamil anti-Muslim stance. The Muslim feeling of mistrust of Tamil leadership generated by these early episodes did not however percolate to the level of the Muslim masses until after independence when parliamentary democracy on the Westminster model came into operation.
Sri Lanka gained independence immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 whose bloody birth deeply wounded Hindu-Muslim harmony in the Indian subcontinent. Although the Indo-Pakistan struggle did not have any direct impact on the communal politics of Sri Lanka, it certainly helped to keep alive the Muslim mistrust of the Tamil leadership who were mostly Hindus at that time and who obviously placed their sympathies with Hindu India. During the post-independence era it was the Federal Party, under the leadership of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, E. M. V. Naganathan and A. Amithalingam, all of whom hailed from the Jaffna Peninsula, which championed the cause of the Tamils.
This party, although at times claimed to represent the interests of the Tamil speaking people including the Muslims, was virtually a party of the Tamils for the Tamils and by the Tamils. From its inception the Federal Party suffered from ideological inconsistencies. For example, inside the parliament it demanded a federal political structure, but outside and when addressing its Tamil electors it propagated the concept of 'Tamil Aracu' (Tamil State). Several Muslim parliamentarians who contested and won their parliamentary seats under the Federal Party ticket in the late fifties later deserted that party in disgust because of the party's ideological inconsistencies and the parochial attitude of its leadership. The Federal Party never went out of its way to win the confidence of the Muslims and never treated the Muslims as equal partners in minority politics. The mistrust between the two communities was thus left to continue.
This shortcoming of neglecting the interests of the Muslims by the traditional Tamil leadership did not go unnoticed by the younger generation of Tamil leaders who are militant in strategy, uncompromising in attitude, and separatist in ideology. Among them, those belonging to the LTTE, which is militarily by far the strongest and financially the wealthiest of the Tamil organizations, made several attempts to incorporate the Muslim community into its movement by demonstrating to the Muslims the hidden dangers of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and the need for joint action to arrest it. One should not dismiss these early efforts of the LTTE as a simple propaganda stunt to win Muslim support.
Their arguments were based on sound analyses of Sri Lanka's post-independence development model whose benefits have been particularly discriminatory towards the minorities. The think-tank of the LTTE showed with facts and figures how the Muslims have lost their agricultural lands through government colonization schemes and how they have lost their commercial and trading interests through communally biased commercial policies of the state.
In fact the district development of the sixties and seventies hit the Muslims harder economically than the other communities. A number of Muslim youth thus became convinced of Tamil militant ideology and joined the LTTE's military wing. In several Muslim villages and towns the LTTE opened its branch offices and was gradually gaining popularity amongst certain sections of the Muslim community.
This development received a setback when Tamil-Muslim riots broke out in April 1985, apparently over an incident in the town of Mannar in the north where three Muslim worshippers were said to have been gunned down by Tamil militants inside a mosque. The United National Party (UNP) which was in power at that time exploited this incident to the maximum and utilized every means at its disposal to create a permanent rift between the LTTE and the Muslims.
Following the 1985 riots the LTTE also appears to have lost its patience with the Muslims, changed its compromising approach towards them and unleashed some of its most ferocious acts of savagery on the innocent Muslims of Polonnaruwa in the Northeastern and Kattankudy and Eravur in the Eastern provinces. Tens and hundreds of Muslim men, women and children were massacred in their homes, fields, markets, and mosques.
The entire Muslim population of Jaffna in the north were evicted from their homes at gun point and turned into refugees overnight. They are still living in camps without any hope of returning to their places of birth. In short, the LTTE seems to have erroneously decided on a mission of ethnic cleansing in the Tamil districts. As a result of this mistaken strategy the LTTE has now lost any sympathy it had within the Muslim community and the gulf between the Tamils and the Muslims is now at its widest.
Once again the LTTE and the other Tamil groups have failed to come to grips with the Muslim political predicament. As was mentioned before, to the Muslims, religious tie is stronger than the linguistic bond. From their point of view any support to the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam which is the final objective of the LTTE will certainly jeopardise the peaceful co-existence of the Muslims in the Sinhalese areas.
Even if the Muslims of the Tamil districts decide to ignore the plight of their brethren, there is no guarantee that the Muslims in the Tamil districts will be better off under a Tamil regime. Past history of Tamil discrimination of Muslims is still fresh in the Muslim psyche. The LTTE although succeeded in demonstrating to the Muslims the dangers of Sinhala- Buddhist chauvinism, has done little to allay the fears of Muslims regarding a potential Tamil-Hindu chauvinism.
If the Muslims of Jaffna, who have lived amongst the Tamils integratedly for centuries and without in anyway depriving the Tamils of their rights and privileges, could be mercilessly chased out and turned into refugees what can the Muslims of other Tamil areas, expect from a power group which has shown little respect for human rights or democracy? This question is pointedly raised by the Muslim intelligentsia, who have gathered at least a limited competitive strength in economic, administrative and educational fields.
In an unbiased study of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka by a group of Tamil scholars the position of the Muslims is aptly portrayed and is worth quoting at length:
‘The case of the Tamil Muslims spotlights the weakness of Tamil nationalism with clarity ... Though the slogans and programs of all movements paid lip service to the rights of Muslims, there has never been a concrete programme to realize their goals, or the articulation of their needs and objectives during the process of the struggle. What has been proclaimed is a programme designed by the Tamils for the Muslims. There are immense contradictions and prejudices between Tamils and Muslims, which should have been handled during the years of struggle, a common basis built and an organic cohesion produced. What we have is tokenism, some tenuous slogans, a token presence of Muslims in the movements and the imposition of the hegemony of the Tamils (especially peninsula Tamils) which led to increasing contradictions ... This situation was successfully used by the Sri Lankan government to increase the animosity between the Tamils and Muslims by even arming small groups of Muslim youths to escalate the conflict.’
The Muslims and the Sinhalese
So far the Muslim community has allied itself with the majority Sinhalese on most national issues. On the strength of this alliance the community has been able to exploit the Sinhala-Tamil political lacunae to gain unwritten favours and privileges from the Sinhalese governments.
Being a second minority this behaviour has its own political and economic rationale in the context of a parliamentary system based on party politics. However, after nearly fifty years of ethnic politics the two major political parties, the UNP and the SLFP have realized that the country cannot progress in a competitive global economy without national peace and harmony. There is also international pressure from global capitalism on both parties to bring the crisis to an end, and one can see a sense of desperation in the search for a settlement with the Tamils. In this desperation lies the danger that the Muslim interest could be sidelined to appease the Tamils.
Although the relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims in Sri Lanka has been mostly cordial there were periods when the Sinhalese leaders did not fail to show their actual hatred towards the Muslims. During such periods the Sinhalese leadership had been instrumental in instigating the Sinhalese masses to attack Muslim life and property. The racial riots of 1915 was the first major episode in this century when Sinhalese animosity towards the Muslims was violently expressed. The most celebrated Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist of that time, Anagarika Dharmapala, was a leading campaigner against Muslim presence in the country.
To him the Muslims were 'aliens' and 'foreigners' and deserved to be expatriated to Arabia. Although Dharmapala is now dead, the echo of his sentiment can still be heard during times of Sinhala-Muslim unrest. There is a perception among the commercial Sinhalese middle class that the Muslim hegemony in trade should be curtailed. Both the spiritual and secular branches of the Sinhalese bourgeoise share this perception, and it cannot be denied that most of the communal violence against the Muslims has had economic overtones.
Even more recently, in the seventies, there were several instances of Sinhalese mob violence against the Muslims in places like Panadura, Galle, Mahiyangana, Puttalam, Kalutara, Gampola and Beruwela in which Muslim business establishments were looted and burnt. If such incidents have diminished in the eighties and nineties that was not because of any fundamental change in the attitude of the diehard chauvinists but because of their current obsession with the major problem of fighting the Tamils.
The Muslim achievements in the field of education and cultural affairs have been hailed as a mark of success to the art of compromising politics. These achievements although look impressive on the surface will have to be seriously scrutinized by the community to see whether those benefits have actually uplifted the Muslims to become competitive with the other communities in a world of shrinking opportunities to the mediocre and incompetent. In spite of this reservation the so-called educational and cultural achievements which were gained through political compromises and personal concessions from the Sinhalese governments inflicted a heavy price on the Muslims in other areas.
For example, the Muslims in the Eastern Province have lost a large amount of agricultural land to the Sinhalese because of government sponsored colonization schemes and other economic and cultural project. In the Puttalam and Kurunegala districts of North-West, such losses were incurred under the Paddy Lands Bill. In the South of the country the gem trade which was the traditional stronghold of the Beruwela Muslims was lost to the government under the latter's scheme to nationalize the gem business.
In the capital Colombo, Pettah was once the center of Muslim business establishments and today it is no more; and the central zone of Colombo which was once heavily populated by the Muslims who were able to elect regularly two Muslim members to the parliament from the Colombo-Central electorate, was systematically injected with more Sinhalese under the state housing projects carried out by the Ministry of Housing in the seventies and after.
Thus, while the governments were supportive of the Muslims to promote their cultural activities and religion-biased education they made every effort to reduce the Muslims' economic strength and political importance. The local Muslim leadership which always preferred to win privileges rather than rights could not openly protest against these setbacks. Even Badiuddin Mahmud, the most charismatic politician ever produced by the Sri Lankan Muslim community and who had a lot of fighting qualities, could not prevent this economic erosion. All that Mahmud achieved was to create a sub-class of Muslim teachers and administrators, not all of whom were effective in their fields.
The Rise of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC)
In the political arena the changes which were brought about by the 1978 constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (which later came to be known as the De Gaullist constitution) was a watershed in Muslim politics. This constitution by introducing a complicated system of proportional representation, rode any aspiring politician to throw him/herself at the feet of a political party to win priority placement in that party's nomination list.
The number of representatives elected to the parliament under a certain political party depended on the proportion of votes which that party polled in the entire election. The constitution also laid down the rule that if a parliamentarian decided to cross over from one party to another after being elected that member had to relinquish his seat and the party which lost him/her would nominate another. The constitution vitally made the model politician a prisoner of the party hierarchy.
Although the Muslims did not protest against this constitution at that time, it was generally feared that the community would stand to lose most under the new system of representation. M. H. M. Ashraf, a young Muslim lawyer from the Eastern Province, thought that the best option to the Muslims was to form their own political party. His political ideas were shaped by the thoughts of two other Muslim personalities, M. A.M. Hussain a retired District Judge and an uncle of Ashraf and Abdul Cader Lebbe, the most renowned Muslim Tamil philosopher poet of Sri Lanka.
These two personalities were eyewitness to the struggle for Pakistan in the thirties and forties, and they thought that if the Sri Lankan Muslims could unite under one political leadership as most sub-continent Muslims did under the Muslim League in the sub-continent, then they could rise to greater heights in all national fields. Moreover, to Hussain and Lebbe, the rising young lawyer from the East appeared to provide a striking similarity with Muhammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan who was also a lawyer by profession but became the leader of the Indian Muslim League and eventually the first Prime Minister of independent Pakistan.
With the intellectual support of Hussain and Lebbe, young Ashraf and a few of his friends formed the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the early eighties which was formally registered as a political party in 1986. The Tamil-Muslim racial riots of April 1985 in the Eastern Province added an additional imperative to the formation of this party.
Although Ashraf claims that his party represents the interests of the entire Muslim community in Sri Lanka, the SLMC is actually a regional party based mostly on the support of the Muslims of the Eastern Province. The SLMC is relevant to the population landscape of the Eastern Province, but in the other provinces where each Muslim politician has his own bailiwick, a centralized Muslim political party is bound to be fragile.
Yet, the rise of the SLMC has created a major challenge firstly to national Muslim leadership which traditionally came from Colombo and its suburban areas and which did not favour the formation of any independent political party for the Muslims, let alone the SLMC. Throughout the parliamentary history of Sri Lanka, the Muslims were able to steer their political destiny quite creditably without the necessity of a political party of their own.
By dividing their support between the two major national parties, the UNP and the SLFP, they were able to avoid the ethnic party politics of the Tamils which, given the inevitable logic of such politics, has driven the country to its current state of political tragedy. In the views of the traditional Muslim leadership, Ashraf's strategy appeared to be damaging that healthy trend. That fact was driven home in a recent development following the formation of the present government.
In spite of the changes introduced by the 1978 constitution to reduce the political clout of the minorities, Muslim support became crucial when the SLFP won the general electohs of 1993 but with a slender majority. Without the support of the SLMC the present coalition government under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaranatunga could not have emerged. In return for this support Ashraf was appointed as the Minister of Shipping and Rehabilitation Affairs by the new government.
This appointment increased the number of Muslim ministers in the cabinet to three; the other two being members of the SLFP. This was something which the Sinhala Buddhist supporters of the SLFP could not digest. To them, although the emergence of the SLMC was a welcoming factor in the fight against the Tamils, the position of Ashraf, as a minister in the present government in addition to two other Muslim ministers and Ashraf's flamboyant braggadocio that it was he and his party which were responsible for the formation of this government, was totally intolerable.
This statement of Ashraf although it was factually correct, actually showed the political immaturity of an exuberant youngster. In any case, a section of the Buddhist population led by some leading Buddhist monks became agitated and as happened on several occasions in the past, anti-Muslim feelings were whipped up. Before the situation deteriorated, the Buddhist Sangha acted with wisdom to pressurize Ashraf to rescind his statement.
Even on earlier occasions Muslim ministers in the Sri Lankan parliament had created Sinhala-Muslim communal tension because of their rash statements and shortsighted politics; but because they happened to be members of the ruling national party the government was always quick to take measures of damage control. This time it was not a national party minister but a coalition partner whose loyalties to the government was contractual. Fortunately for the nation and to the Muslim community, that partner did not carry the bulk of the Muslim support.
However the incident helps one to understand the enormous risk involved in forming a single ethnic party to represent the entire Muslim community. The emergence of the SLMC has also created problems for the Tamil parties and particularly for the LTTE. Recent statements by LTTE spokesmen reveal that LTTE now appears to regret the damage it has done to Tamil Muslim relationship. The task of repairing that damage has been made difficult, however, by the rise of SLMC which stands to gain by keeping the two communities divided. It is an impasse situation and there is no quick solution to it. Irrespective of these developments, the rise of the SLMC has brought the Muslim factor to the frontline of any permanent solution to the ethnic crisis.
Towards a Solution
There are three relevant questions which need to be answered in this context. Firstly, can the Tamil community led by its political parties and armed guerrillas, succeed in achieving regional autonomy without the cooperation of the Muslims? Secondly, can the Sinhalese dominated governments take it for granted that the Muslims will always be on the government's side in a confrontation with the Tamils? Thirdly, can the Muslim community, at least its one-third segment which lives in the Tamil districts, strike a separate deal with the government in power by ignoring the broader Tamil struggle? The third question is posed in the context of the SLMC demand for a separate Muslim Regional Unit within a merged semi-autonomous territory of the North and East.
To answer the first question, the North and East of Sri Lanka is as much the traditional homeland of the Muslims as of the Tamils. The Muslims this region are an integral part of the Tamil milieu. Even outside this region the Muslims play the role of a Tamil missionary in the spread of Tamil language and culture. Their contribution in this field is unique and massive in many respects. For example, if not for the Muslims there may not be any Tamil schools in the Sinhalese districts. The Tamil daily Thinakaran is almost totally patronized by the Muslims and has the largest Tamil newspaper circulation in the country.
The Muslim cultural programs in the national broadcasting services is an additional vehicle through which Muslims have enriched and spread the Tamil language and traditions on a national level. Tamil literary conferences, seminars and orations which are conducted in the Sinhalese districts are organised and patronised almost totally by the Muslim community. While only a few Tamil intellects have acknowledged these facts the Muslims have continued to straddle the interface of Tamil and Sinhalese.
The little communication that there exists between the Sinhalese and Tamil literary persons in Sri Lanka, is solely through the Muslims. In fact, Tamil culture cannot exist in Sri Lanka without the cross-fertilization of the Muslims. In view of this crucial role the Tamil community will be contributing in the long run to the death of its own culture in the Sinhalese areas if it ignores the Muslims and goes ahead with its demand for a division of the country along ethnic lines.
It should become clear to the Tamil fighters that in a divided nation Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism will rule with vengeance to obliterate any semblance of Tamil culture within its domain. In a bifurcated country the Muslims will be totally powerless to prevent such an occurrence. In this context the weltanschuung of the Bharatya Janata Party and its Shivsena militant wing in the Indian subcontinent provide invaluable lessons to any independent observer of the Sri Lankan problem.
Already, because of the decision made by the Muslim leadership in the fifties to support the Sinhalese Language Bill and encourage Muslim children to opt for Sinhalese as the medium of education, a generation of Muslims have grown in the Sinhalese areas without any ability to understand Tamil. The implications of this situation to the cultural development of the Muslims are too serious to ignore. Even though Arabic is the religious language of the Muslims, not even one percent of the community in Sri Lanka has the ability to understand the Arabic script.
The ability to read the Qur'an and recite it from memory does not mean that one is proficient in Arabic. Historically however, the South Indian Muslims have been the purveyors of religious knowledge to the Sri Lankan Muslims and that knowledge came initially through published works in Arabic-Tamil, a hybrid script like the Jawi in the Malay world, and in pure Tamil later. Even now Tamil is the cultural lingua franca to the vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims. Because of a wider market, Islamic Tamil publications are cheaper to produce and easier to obtain.
If the Sinhalese-only-speaking Muslims continue to grow in number, religious texts will have to be produced in the Sinhalese language and the economics of such publications to a restricted market may not make it a viable commercial operation unless subsidized exogenously.
While the Muslims of the Tamil region continue to enrich their religious knowledge through the Indian and local sources, those of the Sinhalese region will find it difficult to keep pace because of the dearth of Islamic literature in Sinhalese. It is in this sense that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is facing the danger of becoming a divided community. An ethnically divided country will soon make this danger a reality. The Tamil fighters should understand this language-cum-cultural rationale of the Muslims for the latter's opposition to any division of the country.
The answer to the second question has an international dimension. One of the reasons why the Sinhalese dominated governments treated the Muslim community with favour is the demonstration effect it carried outside the country and particularly within the Islamic world. The Arab market for Sri Lankan tea, skill and labour and the Arab foreign aid are sensitive to religious and cultural disturbances. Sri Lanka's closure of the Israeli Embassy in the sixties and its hosting of the Non-Aligned Movement conference in the seventies drew the country closer to the Arab nations and brought substantial economic benefits.
The Sri Lankan Muslim community quietly did its part during those occasions to advertise itself to the Islamic world that the Muslim strength and position in the country is an influential factor in government decision making. In the present crisis therefore, if the government were to strike a deal with the Tamil community by sacrificing the interests of the Muslims, the favourable image of the government in the Islamic world will be put to the test.
The fact that two-thirds of the Muslims are residents of the Sinhalese districts and that they are not directly subjected to the LTTE savagery, creates an impression that the Muslims of the Sinhalese districts and their leadership will be indifferent to the demands of the SLMC and its supporters in the Eastern and Northern provinces. If the government designs its strategy on the basis of this impression it will be underestimating the strength of the Muslim religious tie noted earlier.
The spiritual awakening among the Muslims since the seventies in particular is universally acknowledged. Even before that the activities of the tabligh (missionary) movement have been gradually strengthening the religious commitment of the Muslims.
The proliferation of mosques all over the world, the increasing mosque attendance during prayer times, the regularization of religious rituals and the move towards establishing a strict Islamic identity through dress and appearance are reflections of this new awakening. Sri Lanka and its Muslim community is considered by many as one of the most successful examples of the tabligh model.
Given this fact, which is still a virgin territory for social science research, the international implications of outright injustice to even a section of the Muslims will be costly to the government, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Muslims in the Middle East as expatriate employees adds even more weight to this argument.
Thus, neither the Tamil parties nor the government can afford to ignore and marginalise the Muslim factor in the ethnic equation. Does this mean that the Muslims, particularly those under the leadership of the SLMC, can afford to strike a deal with the government outside the negotiating parameters set by the Tamil parties? In the present context, the SLMC’s demand for a separate Muslim Regional Administrative Unit within a merged North and East territory defeats all logic.
The Muslim settlements in this region lie scattered over a distance of nearly three hundred miles from Jaffna in the North to Pottuvil in the East. The one-third segment of the Muslim community living in this region is therefore not a contiguous unit. To establish one central administrative unit located somewhere in the middle of this vast territory to look after the interests of all Muslim villages and towns on both sides is more or less like Pakistan's experiment with Bangladesh before the separation.
Even under a federal system of government which seems to be the second best solution to many, the Muslims in the Tamil areas would have to fit into one or more of the larger governing regional bodies which would be set up. The present govemment's plan to devolve power to the regions without giving in to the separatist demand of the LTTE is the best outcome which the Muslims can hope for.
There is another aspect of the Tamil problem which has not been studied at all and has escaped the attention of the international media. This is the apparent fear among the intelligentsia of the Eastern Province Tamils, of a potential Jaffna hegemony in a divided Sri Lanka - Jaffna being the capital of the Northern Province. This fear is also common amongst the up-country Tamils whom we met in the introduction. Historically the Tamils of the North ruled themselves and had their own king and kingdom before the Portuguese arrived in 1505.
Arasaratnam, a leading historian, was certain that the Tamil kingdom had come into the historical scene by the year 1325, although others like Pathmanathan, another Tamil historian of Sri Lanka, dates its origins even further back. The Tamils of the Eastern Province however, were ruled by the Kandyan kings although indirectly through the Vanniyars or feudal chiefs who exercised authority over wide tracts of land. During the colonial era, these two Tamil communities developed separately at different growth rates.
By the time of independence in 1948, the Tamils of the North, because of intensive missionary education, had become the most literate and English educated of the Sri Lankan communities which enabled them to dominate most of the country's intellectual professions and public offices; so much so, that in the 1950s when the Sinhalese politicians began agitating against Tamil dominance over the public service, it was virtually a protest against the dominance of the Jaffna Tamils, although this distinction was never openly spelt out by the Sinhalese.
The Tamil propaganda slogan ‘Aanda Paramparai Meendum Oru Murai Aala Ninaippathil Enna Kurai’ (What is wrong if the descendants of a ruler-nation think of ruling once again?) powerfully portrays the ingrained desire for hegemony in the psyche of the Northern Tamils. This threat of a potential Jaffna hegemony is felt outside the Jaffna peninsula but mostly within the articulate segments of the Tamil speaking population.
This author's personal interviews in 1995 with leading Tamil teachers, writers, lawyers, bank officials and civil servants in the Batticaloa district clearly revealed a dormant anti-Jaffna feeling. "We are against Sinhalese domination, but we are also against Jaffna domination", said one leading college principal in Batticaloa.
Although the Batticaloa Tamils are emotionally united with their northern brethren because of the impending threat to Tamil and Tamil culture under Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism, in reality their unity appears to be one of caution and conditional. One should also remember that the term Yalpanee (the one from Jaffna) in the ordinary Tamil man's usage in the Eastern Province carries with it a sense of disrespect.
The Tamil problem in Sri Lanka actually originated as mainly a Jaffna problem. The different governments which came to power since independence never grasped the underlying dichotomy within the Tamil community. The Sinhalese politician assumed that every Tamil in the island is a threat to his community's existence and government policies were framed on the basis of that assumption.
The fact that the LTTE's military wing has now spread deep into the jungles of the Eastern Province and that the government forces are confronting them in this part of the country has added another mistaken assumption that the Tamils of the Eastern Province are also desirous of a separate state. In reality just as the Muslims are afraid of the Tamil hegemony the Tamils in the East are also afraid of the Jaffna hegemony.
Because of the authority's failure to understand this dichotomy from the very inception of independent rule in Sri Lanka, when the cry for separation came to dominate Tamil politics, later the rulers indiscriminately dubbed all the Tamils as separatists, and consequently its armed forces treated every Tamil as a potential terrorist. This indiscriminatory tactic by the governments has to be blamed largely for the current escalation of the conflict.
The Muslims of the Eastern Province are aware of the North-East dichotomy but the Muslim politicians did not have the political acumen to capitalize on it. At the moment the fear of LTTE reprisal on the one hand and the relentless oppression of the armed forces on the other have made the Tamils of the Eastern Province suffer in silence.
The Muslim factor is a crucial variable in the ethnic equation of Sri Lanka. Neither the government nor the Tamil fighting groups can afford to marginalise the Muslim community if a permanent solution to the ethnic problem were to be sought. At the moment confusion prevails over the definition of a Tamil. The Muslims in spite of their closeness to the Tamil language, traditions and culture refuse to identify themselves with the Tamil community.
The main Tamil groups particularly the military wings of the
Tamil parties appear to view the Muslim community as a fifth column
which explains why the LTTE has become so intransigent in refusing
to open a political dialogue with the Muslims. The government on its
part likes to keep the Muslims on its side because it is easier to
rule over the minorities by keeping them divided. In the meantime
the Muslim community without any coordinated political plan or
strategy is faced with the danger of becoming a divided community.
The politics of the SLMC is bound to deepen this division.
As things are, neither the Tamils of the North and East nor their brethren in the up-country and not even the Muslims can have peaceful coexistence in Sri Lanka if Buddhist chauvinism is allowed to grow unchecked.
From the point of view of the Muslim community it cannot fight against Buddhist extremism by not aligning with the Tamils, and the Tamils, especially its leadership from the North must make it clear to every one in the so-called Tamil traditional home land that an ethnic solution does not mean Jaffna hegemony; and finally, the government and its Sinhalese supporters will not be able to solve this crisis without controlling Buddhist extremism.
The former president J. R. Jayewardena wanted to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore economically but he failed to learn how Singapore solved its ethnic problem by keeping Chinese chauvinism at bay. Currently Malaysia and Indonesia are also doing the same to further their material advancement. When will the Sinhalese bourgeoisie learn?
. See for example, Ameer Ali, "The Genesis of the Muslim Community in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A Historical Summary", Asian Studies, Vol. XIX, April-December, 1981, pp. 65-82.
. M M M. Mahroof, "Sri Lanka: the Arab connection", Journal of Islamic History, New Delhi, 1/2 Oct-Dec., 1995, pp. 305-316. Also, from personal communication with the author.
. Harry William, Ceylon Pearl of The East, London, 1951, reprint, p. 81.
. The militant Tamil groups apart from the LTTE are, The People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELl)), The Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and The Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS). On the financial strength of the LITE see, Anthony Davis' "Tiger International", in Asia Week; 26 July 1996.
. P. Ramanathan, "The Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), Vol. 10, No. 36, 1888.
. See for example, I. L. M. Abdul Azeez, A Criticism of Mr Ramanathan's, Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon, Colombo, 1957 (reprint).
. Ameer Ali, "The Racial Riots in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A Reappraisal of its Causes", South Asia, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1981.
. Ameer Ali, "Politics of Survival: Past Strategies and Present Predicament of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka", Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1986, pp. 147-170.
. According to some sources, the Muslim settlements in Jaffna even predates those of the Hindus. The earliest Muslims according to the Yalpana Vaipava Malai might have been Malays. It is a less publicized fact that inside the inner sanctum of the famous Kandaswamy Temple at Nallur there is a Muslim burial ground.
. Rajan Hoole, et al., The Broken Palmyra, The Sri Lanka Studies Institute, CA, revised edition 1990, p. 348.
. On the global dimension of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict see, Ameer Ali, "The Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis in the Light of Global Capitalism", Pravada, Vol. 4, No. 8, 1996 (Colombo).
. Anagarika Dharmapala, Return to Righteousness; (ed) Ananda Guruge, Colombo: 1965, p.540; also see, Ameer Ali, "Racial Riots in Ceylon", op. cit., and, for citations from Dharmapala see Kumari Jayawardena, Ethnic and Glass Conflicts in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Sanjiva Books, 1990.
. Ameer Ali, "Politics of Survival", op. cit.. Even recently in 1996, when the present government wanted to compensate the Muslims of the Amparai District in the Eastern Province for the lands which they lost by offering them lands elsewhere, the Buddhist elements vehemently protested and made it a national issue.
. A. J. Wilson, The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka, London, Macmillan, 1979.
. Rajan Hoole, et al., op. cit., p. 340.