Sri Lanka: Tamil-Muslim relations: come together through Tamil

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 8 12:07:09 UTC 2006

 Copyright 1997-2006, TamilCanadian,

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Tamil-Muslim relations: Dont highlight only differences, mention the
commonalities also

By: Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby - Opinion

Despite numerous barriers that separate the Muslims and the Tamils at this
point of time, it was refreshing to hear SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem stating
that the UPFA government was on a campaign to weaken the Tigers and that
such a process should not be encouraged. One should thank Hakeem for
coming out with some pertinent truths at a time when some Tamils
themselves do not realise the gravity of this problem and have in fact
been persuaded to assist in the process. Hakeem, in making this statement,
is also insistent on the representatives of the Muslim community being
admitted as the third member with the Sinhalese and Tamils at the talks.
Before taking up the question of the need for the Muslims and Tamils to
develop a better understanding of each others positions, the question of
Muslim participation at the talks should be addressed.

What is questionable about the proposal of participating at the
negotiations as a third member in the talks between the Sinhalese and the
Tamils is that the latter two are protagonists of an armed conflict that
has been raging for almost 30 years. No one refutes the position of
importance the Muslims of the northeast occupy when factors relating to
their existence and continuity as a socio-religious group as distinct to
that of the Tamils are discussed. (There is no fixed position relating to
the role of the Muslims within the northeast it could be negotiated and in
fact, the ISGA speaks about Muslim representation at a district committee

Muslim problems within the northeast are definitely among those that need
to be discussed. This should be done primarily with the dominant ethnic
group in the northeast and with the knowledge of the Sri Lankan state.
There should be an understanding among the participants of what would be
the result if the Muslims and the majority community in the northeast come
together by themselves, or if need be with the Sri Lankan state, or for a
facilitator to take up exclusively those problems affecting the Muslims
including their loss and their suffering. If viewed within a slightly
larger framework, such a parallel meeting would help enable the factions
that are fighting against each other to settle the problems arising out of
the war. One should not forget that we are still in a no-war situation and
the parties remain hostile to each other. Demanding a seat between the two
at this juncture is not going to be of help to sort out the genuine
problems of the Muslims of the northeast.

It is the existence of such contentious issues that could be resolved
through parallel meetings between the Muslims and the Tamils, and any
others agreed upon by them. After all, even two-and-a-half years after the
establishment of the ceasefire, the question of the high security zone,
the establishment of certain security checkpoints either by the army or
the LTTE, are yet to be resolved. This, one hopes would be one way out of
the impasse. Once again, it is important to emphasise this way out will
stand in the way of the states moves to weaken the Tigers, which Hakeem so
rightly mentioned. If that is an agreeable modus operandi for a way out,
then the more pressing problems of the relations between the Tamils and
the Muslims could be taken up for discussion.

This is not the place to traverse the path of the history of misgivings
and fears that the Muslims and the Tamils have against each other.
However, one has to be clinical while exploring them without which we will
not be able to assess the situation properly. A major landmark in the
Tamil-Muslim relationship is the role played by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan
in the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots, which has become a racial memory for the
Muslims. The late Badi-ud-din Mahmud, who was minister of education in the
United Front Government of 1970-77 once remarked to a group of education
textbook authors including this writer that the Muslims could not afford
the repetition of 1915.

The role of Ramanathan in the riots and in the preceding debates on the
ethnology of the Moors in which leading Muslims of the day such as I. L.
M. Abdul Aziz played a part that should not be forgotten became vital
because, in real, political terms, the whole debate centred around Muslim
representation in the Legislative Council. In this regard the
anti-colonial sentiments of Siddee Lebbe too should be remembered, which
shows there was no tensions in Muslim-Tamil relationships. The Ponnambalam
family lived to regret their demonstrative political magnanimity when Sir
Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who was definitely more Tamil nationalist than
his brother, was refused a seat in Colombo by the Karaves of the western
coast. It is now an accepted fact in the history of Tamil nationalism that
Arunachalams Tamil political organisation, the Tamil Maha Sabai founded in
1924, was the first to openly take up the issue of the constitutional
position of the Tamils within Sri Lanka.

Muslim regret over the Tamil position in the 1915 riots did not manifest
itself in any significant way. However the late Sir Razik Fareed who was a
member of the Committee on Education in the State Council under the
Donoughmore Constitution was keen on limiting the numbers of Tamil
teachers in the Western, Central and Southern provinces. The northeast
however was not affected. If the Muslim were hurt by the Tamils position
in the Muslim-Sinhala riots, the Tamils were similarly hurt by the
position the Muslims took in the face of the Sinhala Only Act. Mahamud
went to the extent of making Sinhala the medium of instruction almost
everywhere outside the northeast, except perhaps in the Puttalam and
Chilaw areas.

It has to be said the Muslims of the northeast were never party to such
infamy and stood steadfast on the question of upholding Tamil as their
mother tongue despite efforts made to refer to Tamil as home language. The
Tamil position is that had there been a stronger demonstration by the
Muslims outside the northeast of their position on language policy, the
Act on the Reasonable Use of Tamil would have seen the light of day with
substantial support. Tamils believe that the role of the northeast as the
Tamil homeland became inevitable because of the refusal to allow at least
a reasonable use of Tamil outside the northeast.

Within the northeast, it is agreed by discerning Muslim intellectuals,
there is a substantial difference between those from the north and those
of the east. In the east Muslims have as much political clout as the
Tamils. In fact southeastern Sri Lanka is the only place where the Muslims
are a majority. This is despite colonisation schemes settling Sinhalese in
the area from the time the Gal Oya scheme was first implemented, to
carving out Amparai a separate district.

The political geography of the east is very different from that of the
north. It lies in the logic of history that the first political party to
assert the political identity of Muslim ethnicity had to emerge from the
Akkaraipattu-Sammanthurai area. (Up to about the 1960s eastern Muslims
were electing Muslims from Colombo as their MPs). In the east,
Tamil-Muslim political collaboration was a living reality. Muslim MPs of
the Federal Party (FP) were returned there. Equally important is the
concept of a Tamil-speaking nation, propagated by the FP, which was
developed to bring together the Tamils and the Muslims. (The All Ceylon
Tamil Congress ACTC used to cast very sarcastic remarks about this
alliance). Today however, the Muslims interpret the FPs convictions as a
ruse to deny them their identity. Mahamud, though certainly no
Arunachalam, lived to regret his role as full-scale Sinhalisation of the
medium of instruction in Muslim schools was introduced. It is now said
Mahamud was very keen to reinstate the Tamil medium because the option for
a Sinhala medium led to a Buddhist intrusion into Muslim schools
especially when Sinhala children living in Muslim villages joined Muslim

It was during the Ashraff period, which was post-Mahamud that the focus of
Muslim-Tamil relations shifted to the northeast. In the mid- and
late-1970s when armed militancy was becoming a major factor in Tamil
politics, there were Muslim youth too serving in the various armed groups.
However, the rupture took place and it did in the east. There had been
Tamil militant attacks on Muslim villages and on one instance even a
mosque was attacked. Losses to the Tamils in these clashes resulted in
Tamil villages in southeastern Sri Lanka being abandoned in the wake of

At one stage the relationship between the Muslims and Tamils was very
bitter and it was thought the twain shall never meet. But within a decade
the antagonisms subsided and a degree of understanding, however tenuous,
has resumed.

At this point a fact of Tamil literary history needs to be mentioned.
Around the 1980s, there arose in Sri Lanka a group of Muslim writers who
portrayed very vividly and effectively through powerful and moving images,
what suffering ordinary people underwent in the east. A young, brilliant
Muslim poet Cholaikizhi, in his poems unprecedented in their intensity of
evoking feeling, wrote almost in a new idiom. Many young Muslim poets
began to follow him. There were also brilliantly written short stories
that depicted internecine conflict. In my opinion the realisation that
these writings brought about created such a flood of goodwill in the east
that the Tamil and Muslim writers began to come together as they had in
the 1960s.

As the 1990s entered its twilight phase and the new millennium dawning,
with the new university established in the Muslim-majority southeast,
there has now arisen a group of Muslim youth guiltless about their
aspirations and quite articulate about them.

They now speak about a Muslim Desam (community/nation). The Tamil word for
nationalism  desam.  is a derivative of the word desam. As I have
mentioned elsewhere, the Tamil began speaking about desam. without
emphasising the word desam. But the young Muslims are emphasising desam..

In the north however things have been different. At the moment when
everyone thought the intertwining strands of friendship between the Tamils
and Muslims were thick as a rope that that they snapped. It was a
traumatic incident for a large majority of Muslims, many of them poor
villagers, jolting the trust, friendship and interdependency that had
developed between the two communities over the centuries. It was an event
that should not have taken place, but did. The only relieving factor is
that all, including the Tigers, now regret it and apologise for its
wantonness. For many Muslims the trek back home has now started. But there
are a number of problems to be sorted out.

There are a few home truths, which the Tamils should not forget. (a) The
Tamils should refuse to the Muslims what they are now demanding from the
Sinhalese; (b) for the Muslims of the northeast the area is much a
homeland as it is for the Tamils. Both these points are well understood
and unanimously agreed upon. Despite this, questions still lurk on both
sides. The Muslim fears are known and well articulated. They do not want
to be trampled upon politically and religio-culturally. They want to be
assured that their identity as an ethnic group continues.

There are also Tamil fears that should not go un-addressed. One of the
important concerns of the Tamils is that the Muslims, especially of the
northeast, have not so far highlighted the commonality of their linguistic
existence  that their mother tongue is Tamil. The Tamil grouse is that the
commonality of the language that both groups share has not been
articulated even at the fraction of the intensity that the Muslims
emphasise their politico-religious exclusiveness.

This writer has no doubt whatsoever that the Muslims will never abandon
Tamil as their mother tongue. As someone who has had the benefit of
Muslim-Tamil interaction helping his personality development I am
convinced that in spite of the differences the language culture we share
brings the Muslims and the Tamils together. Yet the Tamil wants to hear
from the Muslim that his or her mother tongue is Tamil as it is to the

It should also be said that the Tamils respect for Islam has never been in
question. It is no empty boast that Tamil is among the most significant of
Indian languages that enables multi-religious literary expression both
creatively and doctrinally. Tamil has the flexibility and richness to
articulate the intricacies and nuances of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam,
Jainism, Saivism and Vaishnavism. The history of Tamil letters is proud of
its multi-religious heritage.

My plea is, let us, while respecting each others individuality, come
together through Tamil to find a commonness that we sorely need today.
Where there is a will there is a way. And harsh political realities tell
us that the absence of the will prove burdensome not to one party, but to

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