Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Sinhala-Muslim Romancing and Rift: Two Published Records from the Past

by Sachi Sri Kantha

The younger generation of Tamils and Muslims who were born in the post-1975 period need to learn the history.

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

It need not be stressed that the ever-confusing issue of the cordiality and antagonism between the Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka deserves attention. The younger generation of Tamils and Muslims who were born in the post-1975 period have a need to learn the history. This is because the demand for a ‘free, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam’ was first placed on the public agenda in May 1976 by the then leading representatives of the Tamils, namely the Tamil United Front (TUF). It has been publicised that, since then, the mutual trust and camaraderie between the Tamils and Muslims has plummeted drastically. Is it so?

Consider the realistic analogy of the current Sri Lankan state as an over-crowded, leaky boat with engine problems. In 1948, the Sinhalese opted on their own to be the sole navigators. Tamils, as a whole, have been pushed out of the boat since 1956. Only facultative parasites (like servile academics and journalist hacks like Lakshman Kadirgamar and K.T.Rajasingham) among the Tamils have been tolerated. The Muslims have adeptly played the role of edge-sitters. They have had one leg in the leaky boat and the other leg in the water where the Tamils have been pushed out. In the 1970s, the SLFP Cabinet, which was cohabiting the political bed with the Trotskyists and Communists, even used Muslim politicians like Badiuddin Mahmud to literally and figuratively push the younger generation of Tamils out of the leaky boat.

In this regard, I present two published records on Muslims from the past. The first is a 1979 research paper of Urmila Phadnis (1931-1990), which appeared in International Studies (New Delhi), a quarterly journal published by Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The second is an opinion piece by M. Hamza Haniffa, which appeared in the Lanka Guardian magazine of May 1998.

I took a photocopy of Phadnis’s research paper more than 20 years ago from the University of Illinois library and saved it in my files for reference. This paper, though relatively old and covering the political period from 1956 to 1977, is of worth for multiple reasons.

First, unlike the Sri Lankan specialists from India who swarmed the stage to publish shoddy pieces of research tomes in the post-1983 period based on incompetent guidance, Phadnis was indeed an acknowledged specialist on Sri Lankan affairs of an earlier generation.

Secondly, Phadnis was neither Tamil nor Muslim and thus one can assume a good degree of impartiality and she had not disappointed. She had reviewed the post-independent politics of Muslims and how they romanced the Sinhalese for political privileges and perks.

Thirdly, Phadnis’s claim for merit was her 1976 book entitled, ‘Religion and Politics in Sri Lanka’ (Manohar Book Service, New Delhi, 376 pp). In this book, she presented a well-balanced birds-eye view of the symbiosis of Sinhalese political leaders and Buddhist Bhikkus (priests) in the post-1948 period. For those who wish to learn a little on the slimy politics of prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike and the activities of his once pal-turned-revenge seeker Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero of the Buddhist Bhikku cabal, this is one book to look for.

Fourthly, erroneous propaganda by partisan scribes place the blame for the prevailing animosity of Tamils on Muslims and vice versa, at the LTTE’s door. But this study by Phadnis, which was published before the LTTE became a leading player in the island, falsifies this erroneous propaganda. Any Tamil-Muslim distrust appeared long before the LTTE came to be supported by the Eelam Tamils. Phadnis aptly noted when the Muslims per se switched sides in the following sentences; “The Sinhalese-Muslim riots of 1915 strengthened the trend towards collaboration with the British, with whom the Muslim elite had already developed close relations. Indeed, throughout the next two decades, the Muslims formed part of a phalanx of minorities under Tamil leadership for safeguarding the rights of the minorities in the processes of transfer of power. However, in the forties, the Muslims seemed to have decided to move closer to the Sinhalese leadership.” (emphasis added)

Fifthly, Phadnis has presented a brief background on the Sinhala-Muslim rioting which occurred in Puttalam during January-February 1976 in two foot-notes (25 and 26). The 30th anniversary of this communal flare-up deserves some attention of researchers as well, since this disturbance will be ignored for politically correct reasons in the partisan Colombo press.

Sixthly, Phadnis has presented useful thumb-nail sketches and brief annotations on the activities of the leading Muslim politicians who played fence-sitting political games between 1947 and 1977. These include, Gate Mudaliyar M.S.Kariapper, his son-in-law M.M.Mustapha, Razik Fareed, Badiuddin Mahmud, C.A.S.Marikkar, M.A.Bakeer Markar, A.C.S.Hameed, M.H.Naina Marikkar, M.E.H.Mohammad Ali, M.C.Ahamed and M.H.Mohammed. I haven’t come across any other research paper on Sri Lankan Muslims which provides this type of information.

I present the complete text of Phadnis’s research paper, including the 32 foot-notes. But I have omitted the four Tables presented by the author, merely for the reasons of convenience in reproduction. The titles of these four tables are as follows: Table 1 – Muslim population, 1971 Census; Table 2 – Muslim members of parliament, 1947-1977; Table 3 – Muslim candidates in the General Election, 1947-1977; Table 4 – Constituency-wise breakup of Muslim Members of Parliament, 1947-1977. But the omission of Tables per se in the following reproduction, in my view, shouldn’t inconvenience the reader that much, since the author has paraphrased the focal items in the text as well.

The second selection presented was an opinion piece entitled ‘And now, Muslims driven to the wall’ by M.Hamza Haniffa (the Chairman, Al Islam Foundation), a Sri Lankan Muslim. As such, it is understandably a partisan piece. But Haniffa has filled in some of the blanks left by Prof. Phadnis, and also updated the Sinhala-Muslim relationship up to late 1990s. The romancing between the Sinhalese and Muslims had by that time turned to rift; but, for understandable reasons, the rift is just covered up with words full of anti-LTTE gibberish to please the ears of the Sinhalese rulers.

In sum, the prevailing realistic norm in Sri Lanka is that each of the three population groups (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims) have distrust and antagonistic relationships towards the other two. Muslims (predominantly Tamil-speaking in the past decades) romanced the Sinhalese lately and believed that their language shift would endear themselves with the Sinhalese. Unfortunately, this practical strategy has failed to provide dividends. It seems that the only viable path for Muslims to gain the complete trust of Sinhalese is to give up Islam and embrace Buddhism en-masse. Unless this becomes a practical option for them (which I hardly doubt), Muslims will always face distrust and antagonism from Sinhalese, despite any political games.

Political Profile of the Muslim Minority of Sri Lanka

by Urmila Phadnis

[Courtesy: International Studies (New Delhi), Jan-Mar 1979, vol.18, no.1, pp.27-48.]

In pluralist societies, particularly of the countries of the Third World, the phenomenon of ethnic diversity and its implications for the processes of nation-building have attracted the attention of several scholars.1 By and large, the discussion has centered round the interaction between the major minority community with the majority community. The minority ethnic groups (in numerical terms) are, generally speaking, discussed in passing in the process. However, in the autonomist or secessionist movements of the major minority community, there have been occasions when the relatively small ethnic groups have tended to assume a critical significance. In the politics of Sri Lanka, for instance, the Muslims (comprising about 7 percent of the total population) seem to be one of the critical factors in the Tamil United Front’s separatist movement.

In 1974 the Tamil United Front (TUF) of Sri Lanka, i.e. the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress, charged that the rights and freedoms of the minority Tamil community in the island had been virtually denied and that the Tamils were being discriminated against in linguistic, educational and economic spheres. It, therefore, declared that as the spokesman of the Tamil community it had no choice but to raise the demand for a separate Tamil state. In its first convention held in May 1976, the TUF, redesignating itself the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), put forward the demand for a ‘free, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Ealam”.2 This was the major election slogan of the Front in the polls held in 1977.

Discussions with Tamil leaders and youth in Jaffna as well as elsewhere indicated that the boundaries of the proposed Tamil State encompassed, roughly, the present boundaries of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, having amongst its population a fairly large number of Muslims, particularly in the Eastern Province.

This paper does not attempt to delve into the causes leading to the autonomist demands of the Tamil parties turning into the secessionist demand of the TULF. Nor does it propose to examine the viability of the secessionist demand. It is confined to an appraisal of the likely response of the Muslims – the largest ‘minority’ in the proposed Tamil State and the second largest minority in the island.

Such an appraisal entails first the probe into the socio-economic profile of the Muslim community in the island in its historical perspective, then an overview of the political behaviour of the Muslim community and the role of its leadership in the electoral politics of the country, and, finally, an examination of the strategies and tactics used by the various political parties to contain, accommodate, and/or absorb their demands and safeguard their interests.

Socio-Economic Profile of the Muslim Community

Since 1911,3 in the censuses in Sri Lanka, the Muslims have been placed in three categories: (a) Ceylon Moors;4 (b) Indian Moors; and (c) Malays. The Ceylon Moors are the descendants of the Arab traders whose enterprise brought them to Sri Lanka to market their produce and also use it as a port of call in their trade with the Middle East and the Far East. Beginning their settlements in the island about the ninth century AD, they took over the lucrative spice trade of the island till they were seriously challenged by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

Initially the Arab settlements sprang up along the south-western coast. Their numbers were gradually augmented by the migration of their co-religionists from India, and Muslim villages started springing up on the eastern coast. Confronted with the Tamil community in the area in their trade dealings, the Ceylon Moors adopted the Tamil language, and there were intermarriages too. Thus, over the decades, Tamil became the mother tongue of most of them, although they retained several Arabic words in their vocabulary, which necessitated the evolution of new letters to accommodate certain Arabic sounds in the Tamil language.5

The Ceylon Moors constitute the largest segment of the Muslim community in numerical terms, accounting for 6.5 percent of the total population of the island. (The Malays account for 0.3 percent, and the Indian Moors are a mere 0.2 percent, of the total population.)

The census held in 1953 differentiated the Indian Moors from the Ceylon Moors in terms of their domicile. Thus, while it referred to the Ceylon Moors as those ‘permanently settled in Ceylon’, it described the Indian Moors as those who had been in Sri Lanka for commercial purposes and who ‘intend to return to their homes in India.’6

Among the Indian Moors are those who migrated from South India to work on the plantations; there are others, who are of even more recent origin and who belong to the western coast of India.

The Malays, the last category of Muslims, trace their ancestry to South-East Asia, particularly Java, Sumatra, and Malacca. They seem to have come as mercenaries with the Dutch. When the British took over the island, they joined the Britain regiment. Though followers of Islam, they speak a language of their own derived from Javanese and have a distinct group identity.

In geographical terms, maintains one of the official publications, ‘the largest number of Ceylon Moors were found in Batticaloa and Amparai districts. They also formed a high percentage of the total population of Mannar, Puttalam and Trincomalee districts.’7 This statement, however, is erroneous as is obvious from Table 1.

It is obvious from Table 1 that the Colombo District is where, numerically, the largest concentration of Ceylon Moors is to be found, with Amparai and Kandy ranking second and third respectively. If we consider the Muslim population in each district as a percentage of the total district population, Amparai ranks first, followed by Trincomalee. The Ceylon Moors account for about a fourth of the total population of the Mannar district and the Batticaloa district. In Puttalam and Kandy they comprise 9.8 percent and 8.2 percent of the district population respectively.

Occupation-wise, barring the Eastern Province, where a large number of them are cultivators, the Ceylon Moors engage in trade and commerce all over the island. Generally they operate as petty shopkeepers, but a few of them are also rich merchants in Colombo and elsewhere. The gem trade seems to have been a virtual monopoly of the Muslims till recently, i.e. till the State established the Gem Corporation. Some work as artisans and also as craftsmen; and a few are in the teaching, medical and legal professions.

The Indian Moors and the Malays too seem to be engaged in similar vocations. A small number of Indian Moors work on the plantations. The Indian Moors are mostly concentrated in the Colombo District and the Kandy District. In Colombo City, there are about 5,000 Indian Moors, i.e. about 17 percent of the island’s total population of Indian Moors. About two-thirds of the total Malay population resides in the Colombo District.

It is significant to note that while most Muslims speak Tamil, a large number of them in Colombo and in areas like Kandy (where the Sinhalese population is dominant) opt for Sinhalese as their medium of instruction. In contrast, the Muslims in the Northern and Eastern Provinces have their school education in the Tamil medium. However, the professional requirements of most Muslim men force them to be bilingual if not trilingual. The women, except those who live in Sinhalese-dominated areas such as Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, etc. speak Tamil.

Another interesting feature about the Moors is that only a small number of them are university entrants. According to a study of university students, the number of Muslim students in the University of Ceylon during 1942-65 was very small in proportion to their total population.8 Most Muslim boys based in Colombo or Kandy do not go beyond the G.C.E.(O) Level as their parents need their services in the family trade or business. A large number of university entrants are from the Eastern Province. This is so presumably because the parents, being cultivators, desire their children to be educationally well equipped to compete for Government jobs.

This socio-economic profile of the Moors underlines the following facts: (1) Notwithstanding their affinity with the Tamils in linguistic terms, they have maintained a distinct group identity. In the cohesiveness of this group Islam plays an important role. (2) Demographically speaking, about two-thirds of the Moors live outside the proposed Tamil State comprising Northern and Eastern Provinces. (3) They are numerically insignificant in the Northern Province but account for about a fourth of the total population of the Eastern Province. (4) Such a numerical position makes them a significant factor – a factor to reckon with – in electoral politics, not only in the Eastern Province but also in the other districts, including the urbanized Colombo District and the Sinhalese-dominated Kandy District. (5) In the economic sphere too, their involvement in trade, commerce, and several other professions all over the country gives them a serious stake in the integrity of the island. Any division of the country is, therefore, bound to hurt them as a community.

It is in the light of such a socio-economic context that we are to find an explanation for the attitude of the Muslims towards, and their behaviour in, the regional and national politics of the island.

Muslims in National Politics

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Muslims, like those belonging to the other ethnic groups in the island, needed to define their attitude towards the agitation for transfer of power. The Sinhalese-Muslim riots of 1915 strengthened the trend towards collaboration with the British, with whom the Muslim elite had already developed close relations. Indeed, throughout the next two decades, the Muslims formed part of a phalanx of minorities under Tamil leadership for safeguarding the rights of the minorities in the processes of transfer of power. However, in the forties, the Muslims seemed to have decided to move closer to the Sinhalese leadership.9 Thus, though they opposed the scheme of ‘fifty-fifty’ (under which the majority community was to have 50 percent representation with the other communities sharing the rest) advocated by the Tamil leader G.G.Ponnambalam, they yet maintained that a ‘balanced representation’ should be provided to them.10

Besides, though they supported the Sinhalese-controlled Ceylon National Congress (CNC) demand for self-government, Muslims groups like the Ceylon Muslim League and the All Ceylon Moors Association continued to maintain their separate group identities and did not join the CNC. The extent to which the Muslim elite was willing to go along with the CNC leadership without loss of group identity was evident during 1945-46, when representatives of both the Ceylon Moors Association and the Muslim League participated in the deliberations leading to the formation of the United National Party (UNP). The UNP came into being in 1946 to contest elections in 1947 under the new dispensation of the Soulbury Commission.

The election of 1947 was preceded by the publication of the Delimitation Commission Report, which envisaged a total number of eighty nine elected seats with six nominated ones. That the electoral system was designed to represent the pluralism of the Ceylonese social structure was evident from the Order in Council of 1946. Providing the guidelines to the Delimitation Commission of 1946, it specified, in Section 41, that, where it appeared to the Delimitation Commission that there was ‘in any area of a Province a substantial concentration of persons united by a community of interests, whether racial, religious, or otherwise but differing in one or more of these respects from the majority of the inhabitants of that area’, the Commission might create an electorate to ‘render possible the representation of that interest’. It also empowered the Commission to create multi-member constituencies in areas where the communal groups were so intermixed as to render the carving out of a separate electorate for them impossible.11

The manner in which the Commission proceeded to safeguard Muslim interests in the context of the above-mentioned stipulation is spelt out in paragraphs 66-69 of the Commission’s Report.

In the Colombo Municipality, where the Muslims constituted 33.3 percent of the population, Colombo Central was made a 3-member constituency. In the Eastern Province, where there were 126,400 Ceylon Tamils and 106,300 Muslims, the Commission demarcated ‘four seats in which the Tamils can secure the return of a member of their choice and three seats in which the Muslims can do so’. In the Northern Province (having received the support of the Tamils), the Commission carved out the constituency of Mannar with a population of 31,500 ‘in spite of the fact that the provincial average for this province is 53.3 thousand’. In this constituency, the Muslims numbered 10,300.12 Similarly, in the North-Western Province, the Puttalam constituency had only 31,200 persons. The number of Muslims was just 13,700.13 Maintaining its earlier criterion, viz that on a merely numerical basis the Muslims should be able to return members of their choice in six constituencies, the Commission provided for four Muslim constituencies and two constituencies in which the minority community had a ‘strong voice’.14

In 1959 a second Delimitation Commission was appointed. This Commission was empowered to draw multi-member constituencies only if there was a ‘substantial concentration of a minority of citizens of Ceylon belonging to a race different to the race of the majority inhabiting that Province’.15 Referring to the concentration of Ceylon Tamils and Muslims in certain contiguous areas of the Eastern Province, the Commission concluded that out of the eleven constituencies into which the Province had been divided ‘we have so demarcated the areas as to ensure in three single-member electoral areas the representation of the Ceylon Moors’. It also provided for a 2-member seat for Mutur and Batticaloa respectively ‘in each of which…one Ceylon Moor and one Ceylon Tamil will have a resonable chance of being returned’. Yet another multi-member constituency, viz Akurana, was created (with Colombo Central continuing to be a 3-member constituency) ‘to ensure reasonable Ceylon Moor representation’. Finally, in other areas, so far as was practicable, the Commission brought into many of the ‘electorates carved out by us as many Ceylon Moor villages, where there is a strong concentration of Ceylon Moors, as could be reasonably brought in so that they could have a strong voice if not return members of their choice’.16

A third Delimitation Commission was appointed in 1974. The report of this Commission, submitted in 1976, retained the spirit of the recommendations of the 1959 Commission in respect of Muslim representation. It maintained that the method of delimitation that had been adopted was ‘calculated to ensure the existing pattern of representation’ so far as the Muslim community was concerned.17

Their population being about 7 percent of the total population, the Muslims should have had six representatives in a House consisting of a total of eighty nine members (with six nominated members) in the elections held during 1947-56. In the elections held in accordance with the recommendations of the Second Commission, the House now having been enlarged to consist of 151 elected members and six appointed ones, they should have have eleven representatives. In the election of 1977, the first to be held in the light of the recommendations of the 1976 Commission, the National Assembly having been further enlarged to consist of 168 elected members, they should have secured twelve seats.

How far the Commissions have succeeded in their objective of ensuring adequate representation for the Muslims through electoral demarcation can be seen from Table 2.18

Further, a constituency-wise analysis of Muslim voting behaviour indicates that in the 1971 census there were twelve electoral districts (single or multi-member) where the Muslims comprised more than 20 percent of the total population.19 And, barring a few among them (as, e.g. Galle,20 Mannar,21 and Kalkudah22), these constituencies generally returned Muslim candidates (see Table 4). This could be explained partly in terms of the group cohesiveness of the community and partly in terms of the close rapport established by the Muslim elite with the rest of the electorate such as merchants, traders, professionals, et al.

An overall review of the Muslim candidates entering the electoral fray gives an inkling of the political orientation and party affiliations of the Muslim political elite. A close look at Tables 2 and 3 brings out the following points:

(1) Over the last three decades the number of Muslim candidates has been steadily on the increase – which shows that a large number of the Muslim elite have developed interest in electoral politics.

(2) The number of independent Members of Parliament at the national level came down from twenty one in 1947 to six in 1965 and a lonesome in 1977. The proportion of independent Muslim Members of parliament was much higher in terms of the national average till 1965.

(3) Party polarization seems to have made an impact on the Muslims, too. This is evident from the results of the last two elections in which not a single Muslim independent candidate was returned. How far party alignments have a close correlation with a candidate’s chances (as he perceives them) is evident from the case of the Member of Parliament from Pottuvil, M.A.A.Majeed. Majeed successively won three elections from March 1960 onwards as an independent candidate. Though he joined the UNP in 1970, he retained his seat subsequently too.

(4) As between the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP, which came into being in 1951) and the UNP, on several occasions Muslim candidates contesting on the UNP ticket have fared much better than those contesting on the SLFP ticket. A detailed party-wise analysis of the Muslim contenders brings out this point well.

In 1947 and 1952 the UNP put up the largest number of Muslim candidates. Five of the six Muslim members of parliament elected in the first election and three of the seven Muslim members of parliament elected in the second election belonged to it. This could be explained in view of the initial close alliance between the UNP and the Muslim leadership as represented through the Muslim League and the All Ceylon Moors Association.

In the 1956 election the UNP suffered reverses on the Muslim Front partly because of the almost-overnight change in its language policy from one of supporting parity between Sinhala and Tamil for official purposes to one of recognizing Sinhala as the only language of the country. This alienated some of the Muslim leaders from the party. Some of them chose to contest as independent candidates. A few contested on the Tamil Federal Party ticket.23 The March 1960 election, held soon after the assassination of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, witnessed a medley of candidates. The Muslims too fell in line; forty four Muslims filed nominations. Twenty seven of these were independent candidates.

By July 1960 the UNP had succeeded to some extent in getting back into its fold some of the old Muslim stalwarts. Of its seventeen Muslim contestants, four won. In 1965 it improved its position considerably. It put up ten Muslim candidates. Of these, seven won.

Of the ten Muslim UNP candidates in 1970, only four won. Two more Muslim UNP candidates came in two by-elections. Meanwhile, however, the UNP also lost the support of a Muslim member of parliament who crossed the floor and joined the ruling United Front.

The electoral ‘swing’ in the 1977 election in favour of the United National Party (UNP) benefited its Muslim candidates as well. This was evident from the victory of as many as ten (including the candidate put up by it in the by-election held in September 1977 in the Eastern Province) out of a total of twelve Muslim candidates it had put up. It is noteworthy that five of these candidates were from the Eastern Province – part of the proposed Tamil State.

As for the SLFP, it put up only one Muslim candidate, and successfully, in both the 1952 and 1956 elections. However, after its landslide victory in 1956 as the People’s United Front (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, MEP), four Muslim members of parliament (two from the Federal Party, one from the UNP and an independent candidate) joined the Ruling Front before the year was out, thus increasing the strength of the Muslim members of parliament in the MEP from one to five.24 In the election held in March 1960 the SLFP did not fare well. However, in the election held in July 1960 it regained its earlier strength so far as Muslim members of parliament were concerned (four elected and one appointed). In the election of 1965 some of the SLFP Muslim members of parliament either changed sides or were defeated, leaving the party with just one Muslim member of parliament. By 1970 the SLFP virtually reverted to its July 1960 position; although it fielded twelve Muslim candidates, only four won; and two more came in as appointed members of parliament. Its failure in a by-election (Puttalam) was, however, neutralized when a UNP Muslim member of parliament – M.M.Mustapha – joined the United Front. In the 1977 election all its sitting members lost. Only one Muslim candidate won on the SLFP ticket, from Colombo, and that was his first electoral battle.

As regards Muslim voters in general, if the SLFP-dominated United Front’s legislation pertaining to the take over of import-export trade and its imposition of a ceiling on houses affected the affluent among them, the Sinhalese-Muslim communal flare-up at Puttalam (North-Western Province) early in 1976,25 which led to the imposition of a state of emergency and press censorship, eroded the ruling Front’s credibility to some extent among the lower strata of people. This was especially so because the official version was controverted by certain Muslim leaders.26

Whatever the sequent of events, the Puttalam incident was a manifestation of the mutual fears and suspicions between the majority and minority communities. These fears and suspicions were, by and large, economic. To begin with, the Muslims of this area were feeling discriminated against vis-à-vis the Sinhalese in terms of employment in the Cement Factory at Puttalam. There were about 2,000 workers in this factory, and hardly a couple of hundreds of these were Muslim. According to a spokesman of the Muslims, even these had no feeling of security because of a Buddhist monk who, he alleged, had been inciting the Sinhalese workers to ‘get rid’ of the Muslims.

Further, the State had taken over certain coconut estates owned by the Muslims in Puttalam under the Land Reform Act. It had thereafter given these lands, in many instances, to Sinhalese belonging to outside areas in preference to the poor Tamil or Muslim residents of Puttalam. This led eventually to a new type of Sinhalese settlement in predominantly Muslim areas. The Muslims resented this development. It became a source of much bitterness among the residents of Puttalam.

While the Puttalam incident might not have been the decisive issue in the election, its significance lay in its being a symbol of Muslim resentment of alleged discrimination in matters of employment. It was also a manifestation of the efforts of the Muslims to maintain their group integrity at the village level.

Comments made by some Muslim leaders of the Eastern Province in this context make interesting reading. While they held that the 1976 communal violence was unfortunate, they argued that Tamil-Muslim tensions were not absent either from their Province. Sometimes these tensions arose from inter-village feuds and were aggravated by some of the racially partisan police personnel. At other times they were manifestations of the frustration engendered by the economic patronage provided by a Sinhalese or Tamil official or political leader.

There was a certain amount of caution underlying such statements so far as the Tamil community and its leadership were concerned. An overview of the interaction between the Muslim and Tamil political elite in electoral politics would bring this out quite well. In the election of 1956 two Muslims presented themselves as candidates of the Tamil Federal Party and won. Both of them joined the MEP soon after it came to power.

In July 1960 also the Federal Party fielded two Muslim candidates – A.L.Sinnalebbe (Batticaloa) and M.C.Ahamed (Kalmunai). On being defeated, Sinnalebbe changed his party affiliation. And he won the seat in the next election as a UNP nominee. Ahamed resigned from the Federal Party in 1961, on the plea that the policies of that party were not ‘in the interests of the Muslims’.27 For the rest of the Fifth parliament he functioned as an independent member. He participated in the 1965 election as an independent candidate but was defeated. When a by-election was held in Kalmunai in 1968, he presented himself as an SLFP nominee and won the seat. He managed to retain the seat as a nominee of the same party [now the United Front consisting of the SLFP, the Communist Party (CP), and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in the 1970 election.

The Federal Party fielded three Muslim nominees in the 1965 election. Of these, only one won. The lone successful candidate was M.E.H.Mohamed Ali, who later moved over to the UNP. Both in 1970 and in 1977 the party had little success so far as the Muslim candidates fielded by it in the Eastern Province were concerned. As a representative of the sub-nationalist sentiment of the Tamils, the Federal Party – the major constituent of the TULF – did not seem to make headway in eliciting the support of the Tamil-speaking Muslims.28 It also might be added here that in the Eastern Province, the TULF was able to win only four seats. As against this, the UNP fared very well. Eight of its candidates won: five Muslims, two Tamils and a Sinhalese. A member of parliament elected on the TULF ticket crossed the floor to join the UNP subsequently, when the first UNP budget was submitted. This reduced the strength of the TULF to three in the area.

As for the parties of the Left, they had little success in wooing the Muslims. Only once – in 1947 – did the CP put up a Muslim candidate, but this candidate, M.E.H.Mohammed Ali, lost that election. In the three subsequent elections he preferred to contest as an independent candidate. The Trotskyite LSSP put up a candidate in 1947 and again in March 1960, and both times without success. Thus, partly because of their image among the Muslims as anti-religious parties and partly because of their status as minor parties, the parties of the Left failed to win over the Muslim leadership.

It is noteworthy that only once during the period 1947-70 – viz in the election held in July 1960 – did some Muslims decide to form a communal group called the All Ceylon Islamic United Front (ACIUF). Two candidates – M.S.Kariapper (Kalmunai) and M.Z.K.M.Kariapper (Pottuvil) – entered the electoral fray under the banner of this organization, but were defeated. M.S.Kariapper contested the subsequent election successfully as an independent candidate. Nothing more was heard of the ACIUF after that. However, certain Muslim organizations – as, for example, the Ceylon Muslim League, the Islamic Socialist Front (ISF, headed by Badiuddin Mahmud),29 etc – did put their organizational weight behind certain candidates in the various elections. Affiliated to the SLFP, the impact of the ISF in the election of May 1970 ‘was far from marginal; our investigations indicated that in the Sinhalese areas sections of Muslim opinion had been weaned away from the UNP as a result of the ISF’s campaign’,30 In the 1977 election, however, the ISF campaign did not seem to cut much ice.

The party orientations of Muslim members of parliament indicate that though some of the stalwarts have loyally remained with either the UNP or the SLFP, others have changed their party labels according to political exigencies. Whenever they have found party labels none too helpful, they have preferred to contest as independent candidates. However, with the party system gradually getting entrenched in the island, more and more Muslims have tended to shed the ambivalent ‘Independent’ label. The electorate in any case has not viewed with favour those who have chosen to contest as independent candidates, particularly in the last few elections. Party affiliation does help candidates, in that it makes available to them considerable assistance, organizational and material.

This point is well exemplified in Table 4 and can be elucidated further by means of brief biographical sketches of some Members of the last three parliaments.31

Muslim Members of the last Three Parliaments

Muslim stalwarts in the UNP include Falil Caffoor, M.A.Bakeer Markar, M.H.Naina Marikkar and A.C.S.Hameed.

Caffoor emerged as the virtual political successor of M.C.M.Kaleel when, in 1965, at the age of sixty two, Kaleel decided to retire from electoral politics. A wealthy gem merchant of Colombo, Caffoor was born in 1907. He won the Colombo Central seat on the UNP ticket in 1965 and retained it in the 1970 election.

M.A.Bakeer Markar, a proctor of Kalutara, was born in 1917. He has been a member of the UNP since its inception. He was Chairman of the Beruwela Urban Council during 1951-54. He won the newly created Beruwela seat in March 1960 but has lost it in alternate elections to I.A.Cader of the SLFP since then.

Naina Marikkar is a BA, LLB, from Canterbury (United Kingdom). Since he was twenty eight, he has been a lawyer in Colombo. He has also taught in the Law College there. In 1959, when he was forty two, he joined the UNP. It was in March 1960 that he contested an election for the first time. Upon the retirement of H.S.Ismail, who had earlier represented Puttalam in parliament, he contested the Puttalam seat on theUNP ticket and won it. He represented Puttalam continuously for a decade. In 1970 he lost to the SLFP candidate. However, the victorious SLFP member died in May 1971. The by-election held in October 1972 put Marikkar back in the political saddle again. In the 1977 election also he retained the seat.

Among the younger members of the UNP mention may be made of A.C.S.Hameed, a teacher. Hameed joined the UNP in 1956 at the age of twenty nine. In March 1960 he presented himself as one of the candidates seeking to represent the newly created 2-member constituency of Akurana. He won. And he has retained the seat ever since.

Muslim Members of parliament belonging to the SLFP include A.L.Abdul Majeed, I.A.Cader, C.A.S.Marikkar, and last but not least, Badiuddin Mahmud.

Badiuddin Mahmud is one of the founder members of the SLFP (as well as of the ISF). He was an appointed member of parliament during 1960-65 and again in 1970-77.

Abdul Majeed entered politics at the age of twenty eight when he relinquished his position as the principal of a school at Trincomalee in order to enter politics. He won the Mutur seat on the SLFP ticket. He has held the seat since then.

Cader, born in 1917, has been with the SLFP since the very beginning of his political career. A proctor, he was once President of the All Ceylon Moors Association. Beruwela is his major support base.

As against these Members of parliament, there are people like M.M.Mustapha and M.S.Kariapper, who have changed their party labels several times and have yet survived politically.

Gate Mudaliar M.S.Kariapper was born in 1899. He is a wealthy farmer, as well as a coconut planter. He retired from his position as Chief Headman at Kalmunai in 1947 and made his political debut that year by successfully contesting the Kalmunai seat on the UNP ticket. On his failure to retain the seat in the 1952 election on the UNP ticket, he took to local politics for a time and became Chairman of the Kalmunai Town Council. He contested the 1956 election on the FP ticket but crossed the floor within six months to sit on the Treasury bench. In March 1960 he presented himself as a candidate for the same constituency as an LPP candidate and won. In July 1960 he changed his party label once again. He was this time a candidate of the ACIUF, an organization of his own creation. Towards the end of 1960, the Thalagodapitiya Bribery Commission found him guilty of corruption. This, however, did not deter him from participating in the 1965 election as an independent candidate.

Kariapper is the only member to have returned to the 1965 parliament in spite of having beeen found guilty by the Bribery Commission. Three others who tried to stage a come-back in 1965 to the political arena were badly defeated at the polls. However, while the electoral verdict went in his favour, the legal verdict went against him. Late in 1965 he was deprived of his franchise for seven years under the Civil Disabilities (Special Provisions) Act, on the ground that he had been found guilty of corruption by the Thalagodapitiya Commission.

The political style of Kariapper, viz that of changing political colours, has a close parallel in that of M.M.Mustapha, a proctor. Mustapha won the Pottuvil seat in 1956 as a nominee of the FP but joined the MEP soon after. He contested the March 1960 election as a candidate of the LPP but was defeated. In 1965 he was the successful UNP candidate in Nintavur. In 1970 he won that seat for the second time on the UNP ticket. In 1974 he crossed the floor and joined the ruling United Front to beome a Deputy Minister. The cross-over, however, proved costly in political terms; in the 1977 election he was unseated.


These brief biographical sketches and the patterns of political alignment of the Muslim elite underline the fact that the era of Muslim ‘notables’ contesting as independent candidates is almost at an end. The political alignments of the Muslim elite have gradually approximated to the national pattern. Secondly, Muslim politics has started attracting not only rich merchants and traders but also professionals. Thirdly, the Tamil parties and Front have not succeeded in mobilizing the Muslim elite. The Muslims are in fact oriented to the major parties and support either the SLFP or the UNP. Even their political organizations have not cared to display much autonomy, but operate in alliance with one major party or the other.

Several socio-economic factors can be mentioned by way of an explanation for such an orientation. If the spatial dimension of the Muslim community is one reason, the economic avocations and interests of the Muslims all over the island are another. Besides, in the competitive party system of the island, both the SLFP and the UNP have tried to keep the elite groups of the minority community on their side by rewarding the loyalists in many ways. Thus, virtually in all the Cabinets, there has been one Muslim Minister and one or two Parliamentary Secretaries. For instance, the Education portfolio in the last government (1970-77) was looked after by a Muslim. And so was the Secretaryship of the Cabinet. The Deputy Ministerships in the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Justice have also been in Muslim hands since 1976.

The present Cabinet has more Muslims than any other Cabinet formed since Independence: A.C.S.Hameed is Minister of Foregin Affairs; and M.H.Mohammed is Transport Minister. And there are two Muslim Deputy Ministers – Naina Marikkar (Planning and Economic Affairs) and Abdul Majeed (Agriculture and Lands). And at no time have the Muslims held such important portfolios. This is part of the strategy devised by the UNP President, J.R.Jayewardene, to earn dividends as much at home as abroad.

To begin with, the 50-year old Hameed may, among other things, also provide an emotive link between Sri Lanka and the Muslim states, some of which have shown keen interest in the politics of the island. His membership of the Cabinet also gives a secular orientation to the politics of Sri Lanka without antagonizing the Sinhalese community, which constitutes the majority, because the Foreign Minister is the representative of Akurana, which is in the heartland of the Sinhalese-dominated Central Province. (He has represented Akurana without a break since 1960.) Thus, a Muslim Foreign Minister representing the Sinhalese heartland may be an excellent emissary abroad to explain the conditions of the Muslims in the island and the impracticability of the Tamil demand. Further, if Majeed belongs to the Eastern Province, so does the Tamil Minister of Justice. Also, Puttalam, the constituency represented by the Deputy Minister of Planning, is adjacent to the Eastern Province [sic!; Note by Kantha: not Eastern Province, but Western Province]

The Muslims themselves have greater weightage in the present Government than they have ever had. This is especially true of the Eastern Province, which, with twelve seats, has two of its Members of Parliament holding Ministerial posts. Ironically, this is a situation for which the credit must go in some measure to the TULF.

Even in the past, as we have already mentioned, the Muslims used to look to Colombo for solution of their political and economic problems, not to Jaffna. ‘We only want due recognition of Tamil as an official language,’ said an eminent Muslim leader, ‘but we are against any partitioning of the island. Sri Lanka is already a small country, and it cannot be sustained if it is further partitioned. It [i.e. a partition] is neither feasible nor practicable. In any case, only one-third of the Muslims are in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The rest are scattered all over the country, and we have close connexions with them.’

‘Besides, what will be the position of the Muslims in a separate Tamil State?’, questioned another Muslim leader. In the event of a partition the Muslims would become a ‘mini minority’ within a minority. ‘No Muslim would like to be a minority [sic] in a so-called Tamil State in which another minority will assume majority status. It would militate against our own self-preservation as a community.’32

It would thus appear that in the context of the demographic characteristics of the Muslim community and the past political traditions and present strategies of the UNP Government, the Tamil Front may find the Muslims of the area not only a major constraint but a rather serious imponderable in realizing its ideal of a Tamil State.

May 1978.

Foot Notes

(1) E.g. Rajni Kothari, ed., State and Nation-Building: A Third World Perspective (Delhi, 1976); Rounaq Jahan, Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (New York, 1972); and Iqbal Narain, ‘Cultural Pluralism, National Integration, and Democracy in India’, Asian Survey (Berkeley, Calif.), vol.17, no.10, October 1976, pp.903-17. For a detailed bibliography on the subject, see S.N.Eisenstadt and Stein Rokkan, eds, Building States and Nations (London, 1973), vol.1, pp.277-397.

(2) For the text of the resolution, see Ealam Tamils Association, Tamil Liberation Front (London, 1976).

(3) At the census held in 1824 the population of Ceylon was classified by caste, with the Europeans and Burghers appearing as separate castes. In the census reports prior to 1901, the Muslims were divided as Moors and Malays. See Ceylon, Department of Census and Statistics, The Population of Sri Lanka (Colombo, 1974), p.43.

(4) The Portuguese borrowed the word ‘Moor’ from the Spaniards and bestowed it indiscriminately upon the Arabs and their descendants. James Emerson Tennent, Ceylon (London, 1860), vol.I, p.629.

(5) Mohamed Mauroof, ‘Aspects of Religion, Economy and Society among the Muslims of Ceylon’, Contributions to Indian Sociology: New Series (Delhi), no.6 (1972), pp.67-68. Also see S.Arasaratnam, Ceylon (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1964), pp.117-123. On the controversy as to whether the descendants of the Moors are of Tamil or Arab nationality, see P.Ramanathan, ‘On the ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch, Colombo), vol.10, no.36, p.1888; and I.L.M.Abdul Azeez, A Criticism of Mr.Ramanathan’s Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon (Colombo, 1957) (originally published under the auspices of the Moors Union, Colombo, 1907).

(6) Ceylon, Department of Census and Statistics, Census of Ceylon: 1953 (Colombo, 1960), vol.3, pt 1, p.v.

(7) The Population of Sri Lanka, note (3), p.46.

(8) D.L.Jayasuriya, ‘Development in University education: The growth of the University of Ceylon, 1942-1965’, University of Ceylon Review (Peradeniya), vol.23, nos 1-2, April and October 1965, pp.83-153.

(9) Silva, ‘Hinduism and Islam in post-Independence Sri Lanka’, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies (Colombo), new series, vol.4, nos.1-2, January-December 1974, pp.101-2.

(10) E.g. in a memorandum submitted to the Soulbury Commission in 1945, the Ceylon Moors Association demanded 12 seats in the legislature of 100 members. Ceylon Moors Association, Memorandum of the Ceylon Moors Association to the Chairman and Members of the Royal Commission on Constitutional Reform (Colombo, n.d.).

(11) Ceylon, Report of the First Delimination Commission: Sessional Paper XIII, 1946 (Colombo, 1946), p.6.

(12) Ibid, p.23.

(13) Ibid, p.24.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ceylon, Report of the Delimitation Commission: Sessional Paper XV, 1959 (Colombo, 1959), p.10.

(16) Ibid, p.12.

(17) Sri Lanka, Report of the Delimitation Commission: Sessional Paper 1, 1976 (Colombo, 1976), p.9.

(18) It may be mentioned here that the tabulation provided by Woodwards is at variance with the data provided in the publication of the Department of Elections on the elections held during 1947-70 as mentioned above. According to this, Ceylon Moors won eleven seats, not ten, in July 1960. Calvin A.Woodwards, The Growth of a Party System in Ceylon (Rhode Island, 1969), p.258.

(19) The constituencies where more tha 20 percent of the electorate is Muslim are: Nintavur (72.08 percent), Kalmunai (69.62 percent), Pottuvil (53.31 percent), Mutur (two members – 44.37 percent), Colombo Central (three members – 42.65 percent), Puttalam (35.62 percent), Batticaloa (33.99 percent), Kalkudah (29.26 percent), Mannar (28.13 percent), Beruwela (26.19 percent), Galle (21.47 percent) and Akurana (two members – 20.38 percent). For details, see Ceylon, Census of Population, Preliminary Release, No.2 (Colombo, 1972). This gives us the constituency-wise break-up of religious groups. The percentages were calculated on the data thus obtained.

(20) The case of Galle can be explained partly on the basis of the dominantly Sinhalese Buddhist ethos of this constituency of the Southern Province. Only once during the period 1947-70, in March 1960, did a Muslim (A.M.Ismail) contest this seat. He obtained only 131 votes and lost his security deposit. This was partly also due to the personality of W.Dahanayake, who retained this seat almost continuously from 1947 to 1977. (He failed in the March 1960 elections.) Dahanayake is viewed as a well-wisher of the Muslim community, one who facilitated the education of Muslim boys by opening several Muslim schools when he was Minister of Education during 1956-59. He, however, lost the seat in the 1977 elections to a UNP candidate.

(21) If the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist ethos of Galle can be said to account for the virtual absence of Muslims from the electoral fray, the predominantly Tamil character of Mannar in the Northern Province provides the rationale behind the Tamil candidates winning the seat since 1947. The only occasion on which a Tamil candidate failed to get elected was the by-election of February 1974. On this occasion a Muslim won on the UNP ticket by a narrow majority of 99 votes. In the 1977 elections the seat was won again by a Tamil.

(22) Kalkudah is a coastal constituency sandwiched between two multi-member seats, Mutur and Batticaloa, both of which have been returning at least one Tamil candidate since 1960. This explains, to some extent, the fact that only once – in 1956 – was a Muslim Member of Parliament returned from this constituency. In the 1960 elections the seat was held by a Tamil on the FP ticket. Since 1965 it has been held by one Devanayagam, on the UNP ticket.

(23) For a succinct account of the attitude of the Muslims in the 1956 election, see I.D.S.Weerawardana, Ceylon General Election, 1956 (Colombo, 1956), pp.193-5.

(24) These Muslim members of parliament were: (1) Sir Razik Fareed – Colombo Central (originally UNP); (2) M.S.Kariapper – Kalmunai (initially FP); (3) M.M.Mustapha – Pottuvil (initially FP); and (4) M.E.H.Mohammed Ali – Mutur (initially an independent candidate). Information culled from Ceylon Daily News, Parliament of Ceylon, 1960 (Colombo, 1960).

(25) Speaking in parliament on 3 February 1976 on the incident, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike stated that for some time communal tension had been building up between the Sinhalese and the Muslims at Puttalam. Early in January a Sinhalese bus conductor was assaulted by some Muslims at the bus stand. At this the entire staff of the Ceylon Transport Board at Puttalam threatened to go on a strike unless the bus stand was shifted elsewhere. Consequently the bus stand was moved temporarily to a site near the railway station. This disturbed Muslim business interests. The Muslims found the removal of the bus stop inconvenient for their business, and in retaliation some Muslims set fire to a bus in Puttalam town on 14 January 1976.

This was followed by a series of incidents between the Muslims and the Sinhalese business establishments, and the Sinhalese set fire to several Muslim houses in villages close to the town. Soon after, the Muslims started attacking the buses and lorries plying through the town and manhandling the Sinhalese crew and passengers. When the Superintendent of Police in charge and his deputy went with a police party to bring the situation under control, they found a crowd of about 1,500 Muslims gathered in the market near the turn-off to the Mannar road and the mosque. According to the Superintendent of Police and his deputy, they were armed with clubs and firearms and began to fire at the police. The crowd moved back to the mosque premises, but even as it did so, it kept on firing at the police party. The police returned the fire. In this shooting, six persons lost their lives, and about four were injured. Ceylon Daily News (Colombo), 4 February 1976.

(26) The last portion of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s statement, however, was controverted by some of the leading Muslims. They maintained that on every Friday the turn-off to the Mannar road and the mosque used to be kept blocked to enable the Muslims to hold prayers in peace. The police removed this blockade. This upset the Muslims, and they gathered to discuss the issue of blocking the road on Friday and of re-establishing the bus stand in its former place. The police ordered them to disperse. The Muslims refused. They walked into the mosque. The police then fired at them. This led to Sinhalese-Muslim assaults and counterassaults and loss of life and property. Based on interviews with several Muslim leaders in Colombo during May-June 1976. Also see the letter dated 12 February 1976 from M.C.M.Kaleel, President, All Ceylon Muslim League, to prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

(27) Parliament of Ceylon, 1960, note (24), p.116.

(28) Vijaya Samaraweera, ‘Sri Lanka’s 1977 general elections: the resurgence of the UNP’, Asian Survey, vol.17, no.12, December 1977, p.1206. For a detailed analysis of the votes polled by the TULF in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, see ‘The Mandate of Tamil Ealam’, Economic Review (Colombo), vol.3, no.4, July 1977, pp.12-14; and Tissa Balasooriya, ‘Tamil mandate from Ealam: Fact or Fiction?’, Tribune (Colombo), vol.22, no.14, 24 September 1977, pp.10-11; and vol.22, no.15, 1 October 1977, pp.14-16.

(29) Apart from these groups, there are Muslim organizations concerned primarily with the socio-cultural amelioration of the Muslims. Mention might be made in this context of the Islamic Moors Cultural Centre, the Islamic Secretariat (a conglomeration of 20-odd Muslim societies), and the Young Men Moors Association.

(30) A.Jeyaratnam Wilson, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (London, 1975), p.133.

(31) Information for the biographical sketches has been culled from the following publications of the Ceylon Daily News: Parliament of Ceylon, 1947 (Colombo, 1947); Parliament of Ceylon, 1956 (Colombo, 1956); Parliament of 1960 (Colombo, 1960); Parliament of Ceylon, 1965 (Colombo, 1965); and Parliament of Ceylon, 1970 (Colombo, 1970). Data relating to the 1977 election have been gathered by means of interviews with various Muslim leaders. See note (18).

(32) Based on interviews with several Muslim leaders during May-June 1976. Also see interview of S.A.Rashid and M.C.M.Kaleel by Shirley Candappa, in ‘The Muslim community in Sri Lanka and race relations’, Logos (Colombo), vol.16, no.2, August 1977, pp.56-59.

And now, Muslims driven to the wall

by M.Hamza Haniffa

[Courtesy: Lanka Guardian, May 1998, pp.16-17]

A spate of incidents involving Sinhalese and Muslims in the past few years in a number of Sri Lankan towns and villages ranging from Galle in the Southern Province, Beruwela, Alutgama and Kalutara in the WP [Western Province] and Ugurasspitiya, Madawela and Akurana in the Central Province culminating in the riots last month in Galagedera have caused tension, apprehension and anger among Muslims, who constitute the second largest minority in the Island. Whilst the earlier riots did not cause much damage and were brought under control quickly by the police (supported in some cases by stationing of soldiers), the incidents in Galagedera last month have raised fears amongst members of our community that it will not be the last one but may be a prelude to more serious attacks on Muslim lives and property. In all the incidents so far the Muslims have been at the receiving end. At Galagedera mobs torched and destroyed not only about 50 shops and homes belonging to Muslims but also a number of mills belonging to members of the community as well estates. The attacks which lasted for a few days subsided for a day or two and continued sporadically for a few more days.

What is causing concern not only among Muslims but even among government authorities and a number of Sinhala politicos is that all these riots broke out over minor quarrels between individuals or small groups belonging to the two communities but balooned into serious clashes with a communal twist. The Galagedera riots, for example, began with the opposition to a Muslim trying to ply his trishaw for hire from the town centre provoking opposition from a few Sinhalese who had a monopoly earlier. The argument that ensued had within hours flared into a major anti-Muslim war. The police force in the area is now being accused by leading Muslim politicos like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress [SLMC] General Secretary, who is Deputy Chairman of Committees in parliament, Rauf Hakeem and organisations like the All-Ceylon Muslim League of not only inaction but even connivance. In fact, Mr.Rauf Hakeem during the debate on the Emergency in Parliament (early April) went further and charged that there seemed to be an ethnic bias in the police force, adding that the usual government response of transferring the police station Officers in Charge (OICs) after the incidents was like the proverbial locking the stables after the horses had bolted.

Muslim political observers and analysts suspect that there are hidden hands or forces behind these attacks on Muslims which they say are now becoming more frequent. The monthly Al Islam trilingual paper that our Foundation publishes, the longest-published Muslim journal in Sri Lanka, has on many occasions during the past few years drawn the attention of the government and public to this anti-Muslim trend, particularly in the media and even in stage dramas and tele-dramas where the intention seemed to be to create suspicion and enmity among the majority Sinhalese, particularly Buddhists against Muslims.

The question is who is going to gain by Sinhala-Muslim antagonism. In the community, there is a strong feeling that only those plotting to divide our country a la Bosnia and cause chaos and mayhem, like the LTTE and their supporters or subversive organisations in the South would profit from a second ethnic/religious battle against Muslims and Sinhalese. Certain political observers also suspect certain NGOs behind the conspiracy because opposition from Buddhist organisations and the Sangha to their attempts to convert Buddhists could be covered and diverted by shifting the focus on imaginery dangers from and so-called exploitation by Muslims. ‘Al Islam’ has on a number of occasions quoted statements from community and religious leaders on the atmosphere of suspicion and hatred being created by certain individuals, organisations and sections of the media which only lead a slight match to ignite a conflagration.

Fortunately, Sinhala Buddhist-Muslims’ friendly relations go back many centuries, as historians and scholars like Dr.Lorna Devarajah (The History of the Ceylon Muslims: Thousand Years of Harmony) have pointed out, and despite a few aberrations like the 1915 riots, the two peoples have lived side by side in harmony to their mutual benefit. From the days of the Sinhala kings, as Dr.Devarajah and similar historians have recorded, the adherents of Islam have been allies of the Sinhalese not only fighting foreign invaders like the Portuguese shoulder to shoulder, but even helping put the country on the world map through trade ties. The Sinhalese kings and even the Sangha reciprocated by rewarding Muslims for these services and loyalty, which certain mischievous forces are now trying to make the Buddhists our nation forget.

We Muslims, in modern times too stood for a united Ceylon opposing claims by Tamils for ‘fifty-fifty’, and our leaders also supported the introduction of the Bills to make swabasha the national languages of the country. Later, when the Tamil political parties and the armed militants demanded Eelam, despite claims by the Tamils that their struggle was for Muslims too (under the label of Tamil-speaking peoples) and offers of plums of office after Eelam is established, Muslims, not merely in the South but even in the North and East, where one-third of the total Muslim population in Sri Lanka lived, said ‘NO’ loudly and clearly to the Tamil entreaties. For this during this period after 1983, Muslims have suffered tremendously with members of the community being massacred in the hundreds (even whilst praying inside mosques) by Tamil terrorists, turned into refugees by the thousands, with the entire Muslim population in the North told to quit with just 24 hours notice by the Tigers, leaving behind properties, buildings and insitutions (schools and mosques) worth billions. In the East, thousands of acres of rich paddy land owned by Muslims cannot be cultivated at present because these are either under LTTE control or in areas which are unsafe.

Thus, there is a growing anger, almost exasperation, amongst Muslims, when Sinhalese individuals and organisations make statements utterly derogative of them, and act to prevent them from acquiring facilities which are available to others, and object to construction of mosques or calling for prayer (Azan) which does not exceed three minutes. Of course, Muslims understand that the overwhelming majority of Sinhala Buddhists do not support such attacks and opposition to Muslim activities, which many observe is not only illogical given Muslim opposition to demands for separation, but also smack of utter foolishness, stupidity, once they think of what could have happened if Muslims, particularly in the East, had not stood as a barrier, an obstacle, to Tiger penetration and expansion into Sinhala areas, in the NCP [North Central Province] or even Uva. On their own if the Tamil terrorists could hold back and even inflict big blows on the armed forces and important targets, civilian and military, will not those who are spreading poisonous propaganda against Muslims and even instigating riots against them, pause to reflect on the scenario with Muslims on the opposite camp, is a question posed by many intelligent individuals amongst both Sinhalese and Muslims, although it is shocking to find university dons like Professor H.M.D.R.Herath who told the Sinhala Commission in May that Muslims had collected elephant dung from Dalada Maligawa lands and built mosques from monies obtained from such work. Herath received a stinging repost from Muslims who said that the only place where there was dung in elephantine proportions must be in the Peradeniya lecturer’s brain.

It is hoped that through utter stupid provacative statements like this and actions to stop Muslims receiving due rights whether in the economic, educational or religious sphere, and frequent mini-pogroms, the majority community will not play into the hands of those who are really national enemies by pushing a community which throughout the centuries has lived and worked in solidarity and harmony, to the wall. What is required is quick action to nip these eveil designs in the bud, and ‘Al Islam’, four months ago banned headlined a call by ex-Foreign Minister A.C.S.Hameed for Muslims to probe this growing anti-Muslimism amongst Sinhalese. A dialogue between community and religious leaders of both communities, may be a positive step to stop this drift towards a new ethno-religious calamity. A calamity in which there will be no winners but only losers considering not only the international political fallout adverse to the country, which could be a bat, the Tigers could hit the Sinhalese with, by pointing out Sinhalese cannot live with any others, but also due to the economic and human aspect with more than 200,000 Sri Lankans living and earning billions for Sri Lanka from the Muslim Arab states.


  • Publication date: