Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict

Shedding the Master: The Challenge for the Muslims

Shanthi Sachithanandam

“There is among the Ceylon Moors diverse opinion on this question in this house and throughout the country. Those who are living in the Sinhalese areas are definitely for the Bill. Some of them are most enthusiastic. But my own view is that, in the final analysis the choice for us is between two masters one of whom is not so hard a task-master…”
A.H. Macan Markar, MP Kalkudah electorate
Speaking on the Sinhala Only Bill in 1956.

This was during the post colonial period. The Southern Muslim political leaders, who formed the mainstream of that community’s politics, did choose their master, whom they considered not so hard a task master; or rather, to put it in another way, the master who commanded most influence and was able to distribute privileges and positions. Eminent personalities like Razeek Fareed and Badiuddin Mohammed set the tone for the Southern Muslims’ participation within the UNP and the SLFP, the main parties of the South. They were amply rewarded with ministerial positions in every government. This trend continues to date where even the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), an independent party representing the Tamil speaking Eastern Muslims with ambitions for pan island leadership, in most cases end up in a coalition partnership with the ruling government, with ministerial portfolios thrown in.

It is significant that Macan Markar chose to describe the Sinhalese and the Tamils as some sort of Masters. The Muslims’ numerical strength, or rather the lack of it, seemed to play a large role in their perceptions of themselves. Indeed, we see this attitude colouring most political positions taken by the mainstream Muslim leadership. One cannot question one’s master; this relationship is always about bargaining for what one may receive; therefore, it is soft on the articulation of rights related to one’s own status, much less related to others who might be affected by the same Master. In fact, the hostility is directed more against those fellow servants than the Master himself, especially when they dare to demand their rights and displease the Master.

In 1938 Badiuddin Mohammed, speaking at a meeting organized by the Muslims of Galle, said; “If the Muslims learn Sinhala, all the misunderstandings between the Muslims and Sinhalese will disappear and peace and goodwill will flourish. Muslims did not get any benefit by accepting Tamil language; on the contrary it has been an obstacle for their progress…” It is alleged that he was the first Sri Lankan to demand Sinhala as the only official language as early as 1938. Thus, a political path was forged.

Today a crisis has loomed in the form of abductions of Muslim businessmen, which has forced the Muslim community to revisit this path. The government, naturally, is baffled. Only two Muslim businessmen were abducted! Why is the Muslim community raising hell for an incident which is in such a small scale that it might have been carried out by the under world, for all they know! Former Deputy Mayor Azath Sally has even exhorted the Muslims to rise against these terrorizing acts. It is not even like the cases of over 70 Tamil businessmen who have been abducted for huge ransoms. So, on one hand they sent Intelligence sleuths to ‘quiz’ Mr. Sally for two hours, while on the other hand hurriedly organizing a press conference to be conducted by Muslim Ministers. The Ministers were also provided with a brief on what should be said. This brief could easily have passed for a comedy script.

Kidnapped Muslim Businessmen
Kidnapped Muslim Businessmen

While Muslim businessmen have been lured to places like Kandy and Habarana to be locked up or taken away by force right in the face of the security forces manning the checkpoints in the streets, after millions of rupees have changed hands, and all this happening after hordes of Tamil businessmen have been abducted in a similar manner for over a year, Minister Amir Ali had this to say: – “Over 75,000 Muslims were evicted from the North during the UNP regime eighteen years ago. These persons are still in welfare centers in Puttalam and other areas but the opposition members did not utter a single word about it. (They are only making a noise for these few abductions.) The UNP was obviously envious of the President winning over the Muslim community and therefore is engaged in rumour mongering for petty political purposes.” They proclaimed that the President was merciful. This is what is meant by serving the master in true style. Even the SLMC leader tried to evade the issue by sending his deputy General Secretary to be part of the press conference team instead of attending it himself.

The Muslim community for its part had its logic worked out, simple and straightforward. If it were the underworld gangs which were involved in all the abductions, and if it was money they needed, then there are large numbers of Sinhala businessmen who have far more resources than the few hapless Tamil businessmen who were abducted. If so, why were the Sinhala businessmen spared? It is because some force was targeting Tamil businesses with the aim of destroying the economy of the Tamil community. This can only be a political force that controls State power, which represents the majority community of this country. Or, on the other hand, this can be the work of a gang which knows for sure that if they lay hands on the Tamils the security apparatus of the State will look away, allowing them to continue with impunity. Looked at either way, the conclusion was the same. A minority Nation is at peril, at the hands of the Sri Lankan State.

Now when the incidents of abductions of Tamil businessmen begin to dwindle, the spate of Muslim businessmen being abducted begin to rise. After the Tamils have been milked dry, they have laid hands on the Muslims. The Muslim community’s worst fears were beginning to be confirmed. Whether they learnt Sinhala or not, whether they were in the government or not, they will always remain, in the eyes of this State, a minority community. That is why it is not surprising that even before the authorities or the media can confirm definitely the numbers of abductions involved, several Muslim businessmen have apparently made moves to shift their businesses and families to countries such as Malaysia. One of the abduction victims was reported to have said; “We had so much hope. We believed we have integrated so well into this community. We employ more Sinhalese than Muslims. But we are helpless. We know our complaints will never be entertained or investigated. So why bother?” This statement is significant in that he is unambiguously clear on his identity as a member of a minority community, and the fact that under a system which is governed by a chauvinist majoritarian ideology, this community has to always engage in defensive actions like ‘employing more Sinhalese than Muslims’. We never hear Sinhala businessmen explain their position by saying that they employ more Tamils and Muslims than Sinhalese, do we? Only the minorities are required to legitimize their existence through extending that extra bit towards the majority community. Remember the statements by the managements of the Hatton National Bank, and the Maharajah Organization during their own crisis points, that they employ more Sinhalese than Tamils….

SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem was more explicit in his interview. “We must remember that (in the 1960s) certain political decisions deprived this country of some enterprising as well as hard working Tamils and Muslims of Indian origin who strengthened the economy of this country. Most of them fled this country as a result of oppressive legislation that was brought in to discriminate against them. …This is the first time (since then) we now observe a similar situation where citizens of this country for the reason that they belong to the minority communities are having their economy targeted…”

In the early twentieth century, the then Ceylon Muslims looked towards Turkey for their cultural, political and intellectual sustenance. Then, after the oil boom in the seventies and the emergence of the Arab states as an economic power in the Islamic world, they switched allegiance to Saudi Arabia. Now in most parts of this country, in terms of customs and especially attire, both male and female, they try to follow in the steps of the Gulf Arabs. Do we detect here a sense of uncertainty as to their own identity as a people who have as deep roots in this country as any other? A people who, by this time, should have evolved customs, rituals and cultural practices that reflect their special history and have a distinctively Sri Lankan Muslim character? Is that why they indulge in and seek shelter under patronage politics, as any ethnic group would do?

The Muslims in Sri Lanka are a Nation in their own right; they just have to claim it. Claiming that right means shedding the Master; adopting the discourse of individual and collective human rights rather than that of grievances and privileges ; taking a stand on any issue of justice, rather than attempting to share the spoils of a divide. This is only possible when they grow confidant in their own history and cultural past, here in this country. This is their challenge.

Also read:
The wages of passivity
The flipside of Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka
Please leave us alone; a voice from Muslim community
Thoughts on Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity

This article reproduced with permission from Montage Vol 1 Issue 7, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at]