Muslim Matters…

Sathiya Moorthy The Sunday Leader, Colombo, 2 April 2017
  • Hakeem is more to the point that any merger of the North and the East would require the nation to address the expectations of other ‘ethnic minorities’ too
  • The current leadership of the Upcountry Tamils are as vocal as any other, and as ‘demonstrative’ as any other, give or take a few degrees or percentage points
  • The directly-elected polls for the nation’s presidency in January 2015 proved a point. That the ‘minorities’ do count
  • There is no denying the stark truth that Sinhala-Buddhists constitute a brutal majority in the country, demographic and electoral terms

Recently, the unassailable yet frequently-challenged leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and senior Minister, Rauff Hakeem has talked about Constitution-making, power-devolution and related issues. As Sauvé and non-controversial as he has always been in public exposition of the cause of the community and the party, he has in effect revived the forgotten aspects of power-devolution impacting on the nation’s Muslim community.

Rauff Hakeem’s return to the Muslim community’s demand for a separate administrative council for them in case of a North-East merger/re-merger has the potential to open the equally forgotten (but not at all forgettable) Pandora’s Box of Constitution-making. He has pointed out, as over the past three decades, on how a North-East merger would create an ‘ethnic imbalance’ (if it could be described so) in the merged entity and wholly unfavourable to the Muslims.

In doing so, the SLMC boss has also sought smaller administrative entities for the Muslim communities, not necessarily as an alternative to the ‘council’ but as an add-on. Time used to be when the nation’s Muslim community, divided polity and egoist leadership(s) would refer to the ‘Pondicherry model’ in neighbouring India, where separate enclaves distanced by geography and embedded in three different States of the Union, have a single politico-administrative entity with an elected government, chief minister, et al.

India renamed Pondicherry as ‘Puducherry’ in 2006, but Rauff Hakeem did not refer to either this time round. But there is nothing to suggest that he has forgotten the ‘Pondy/Puducherry model’, either. If anything, he, as always, seems willing to give the other side(s) a chance to come up with their own suggestions and alternatives before firming up his own views, and that of his party and community.

More demonstrative

Hakeem is more to the point that any merger of the North and the East to address the concerns and aspirations of the larger Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community would require the nation to address the expectations of other ‘ethnic minorities’, too. In this context, he has also referred to the plight of the Upcountry Tamil community, or Tamils of recent Indian origin (also known as Indian-origin Tamils, or IOTs).

Hakeem did not mention it, nor might have he even considered it. But unlike in the recent past, the current leadership of the Upcountry Tamils are as vocal as any other, and as ‘demonstrative’ as any other, give or take a few degrees or percentage points. Unlike their preceding generation, they do not have the kind of sway and impeccable trust of the community, either.

Compared to the predecessors, they are there because the community is tired of the other. They are also in the Government, not because the leadership is tired of the ‘other’, but the community itself has demonstrated its growing fatigue with that ‘other’. Successive electoral results have proven this point, but that does not mean that they can sell/market whatever the ‘national leadership’ wants to the community without a more realistic and sustainable quid pro quo that is also more than materialistic and immediate.

All of it means that should a North-East merger happen, then the Muslims would go back to their own old demands, and the Upcountry Tamils cannot be seen as lagging behind. All of it would in turn lead to a constitutional deadlock, with far-reaching political and social consequences that in turn could impact on the nation’s economy even more.

Minorities within minorities

As if to avoid this and worse, Rauff Hakeem has also rightly recommended another forgotten concept to his Sri Lankan Tamil counterparts. By reviving the idea of an Apex Council for the North and East, possibly on the lines again as prevailing for the seven North-Eastern States in neighbouring India, he hopes that they could address the re-merger question, effectively without having to tamper with the ground realities.

Such realities, should, yes, go beyond the ‘minority’ SLT, and should include the concerns also of the ‘minorities within the (Tamil-speaking) minorities’, which is what the Muslims and IOTs are. In context, Rauff Hakeem has rightly mooted the idea administrative districts also for the SLT community (obviously outside of the North and the East, and possibly starting with the national capital city-district of Colombo).

On the related question of electoral reforms, Hakeem has referred to the emerging` idea of allotting five extra parliamentary seats to the SLT community in the North and the East, which is already losing the numbers game, owing to war-deaths, dislocation and also overseas migration. He wants a similar idea considered for the Muslim community also. Needless to say, the Upcountry Tamils can be expected to come up with their own formula/formulae, in such a case.

Vertically divided

Electoral reforms may be as old as Independent Sri Lanka and the ethnic issue, and definitely much older than the present Constitution-making process. Given the complexities of the nation’s demography and population-spread, and more so the contentious demands and the controversies attending on the larger ethnic issue, it is more than unlikely that any new scheme or system would do better than the existing one or the earlier ones.

The directly-elected polls for the nation’s presidency in January 2015 proved a point. That the ‘minorities’ do count. Earlier, too, the parliamentary scheme, as existing before JRJ came up with the concept of Executive Presidency with the self and self alone in mind, provided for the ‘minorities’ (jointly but not severally) deciding the fate of the nation’s political leadership.

There is no denying the stark truth that Sinhala-Buddhists constitute a brutal majority in the country, demographic and electoral terms. It’s also an established and undeniable truth that the ‘minorities’ would have a real and ‘deciding say’ (as diffferent from a ‘decisive say’) on the fate and future of a government, if and only if the majority community is vertically divided in electoral terms.

It’s more the merrier for the minorities, if they are united and more so if the Sinhala majority is divided. The JVP lost out in vote-share over the past decade or so after over-assuming its reach, more than role, in the national polity and ‘Sinhala nationalist’ component in electoral politics. Just because the SLFP, under CBK and Mahinda R, needed its cadres as much as its votes, the party assumed it had a national presence and reach – and was the next ‘government-in-waiting’.

This level of ‘political moderation’, if it could be called so in the years and decades after the failed ‘Second JVP insurgency (1987-89), more than anything else, did it in. In playing the ‘moderation card’ even more, the centre-left party sought to encroach upon the centre-right JHU’s limited political space, with the result, neither has gone anywhere. Nor do they now have anywhere else to go, what with the SLFP under Mahinda R occuping their collective space more forcefully than the party had done since inception, with the ‘Sinhala Only’ law.

All this in turn left the Sinhalas vertically divided between the UNP and the SLFP in 2015, with no real  The post-war convulsions, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the falling grades of the existing Upcountry Tamil leadership all conspired to ensure that the ‘minorities’ voted together, though on different assumptions and assurances. The result was there for everyone to see – not once, but twice in the same year, namely the presidential polls of January 2015, followed by the parliamentary elections in August.

Going nowhere

Sought of repeating and reiterating much of the details that the nation has known on the Constitution-making process, Rauff Hakeem too has conceded that some issues remain on core aspects. The structure of the Sri Lankan State, the Executive Presidency (as against the primacy of Parliament) and power-devolution apart from electoral reforms are areas where no consensus has emerged even among the partners of the ‘Government of National Unity’.

This was so at the inception of the Constitution-making process, and it was the problem that the process was expected to resolve. Add to this the TNA’s demand for re-merger, and the larger Tamil case/cause on ‘accountability probe’ (with international support, even if not participation), and the national reconciliation project, if any, is as good as a non-starter, still. Window-dressing of whatever kind that the present Government is still attempting, and where the predecessor Mahinda regime failed miserably, can only prolong the agony, not end it, any time soon.

The question remains on where to begin or where to end and when to end – discussing, discoursing, debating and deciding upon solutions to each of these core issues and all those little other things, where too difference are bound to be there. Each one of the ethnic groups and their signal polity are still umbrella organisations of different interest groups with distinct demands, often passed off as legitimate aspirations.

In the midst of all these, unacknowledged by the existing polity, the emerging reality of a newer generation would have emerged and engaged themselves in the politics and elections of the nation. Elections-2015 was/is a telling example. Their aspirations are different, their operational mechanisms are even more. The connect that was available to the earlier generation leaders has been replaced by an eternal dis-connect, which the latter refuses to acknowledge – let alone understand.

Rauff Hakeem’s Muslim community is no different, though in the Sri Lankan context, there is greater realism than sur-realism on the ground. However, the dividing-line is thin. The Muslim community leadership and their political counterparts need not travel across the globe or the continent to understand it.

They only need to look sideways at the Sri Lankan Tamil community. In the case of the latter, the hand-me-down patronising attitude of the community/political leadership did not see the writing on the wall (whether it was legible and justifiable). With the result, the Tamil youth of a previous generation ended up usurping all the space, all the writing, and all the leadership, community, polity and whatever else remained.

It’s then that the Tamil youth of the LTTE kind looked up outside the community and country, for overseas patrons and participation. They never looked back until it became a nation’s war and full-time occupation. It has remained so even after the war had been won, the LTTE decimated, and the nation relieved and revived – but not wholly resurrected and reconciled, as yet.

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University