‘We cannot be pushed too much’

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Rauff Hakeem. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Interview with Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and former Minister.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and former Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education Rauff Hakeem has a track record of making deals to keep his community safe. Before the 2002 accord between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Hakeem struck a deal for the Muslim community with the LTTE.

When peace talks, facilitated by the Norwegian government, started in 2002 between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, Hakeem, then a Cabinet Minister, represented the Muslims of Sri Lanka at the negotiating table. This was the first time that Sri Lankan Muslims were included in negotiations as a direct party. (“There are implications for Muslims in every issue that will figure in the discussions,” he said.) Politically, the SLMC has a history of holding ministerial positions in governments, thereby keeping Muslim interests on the national radar.

Following the April 21 explosions, the leaders of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka face the biggest problem in their political careers ever. Majoritarian forces in Sri Lanka have targeted Muslims and Ministers from the community. A Buddhist monk, who was an MP, began a fast demanding the sacking of two Muslim governors and a Minister, who, in the view of the ultra-right, had either protected or were in league with the perpetrators of the attacks. There was no evidence to support the allegation. Hakeem, the most senior Minister from the Muslim community, was of the view that such divisive politics, aimed at making an entire community responsible for a despicable act of violence, would destroy the country. He spoke to Frontline on June 3, hours before resigning as Minister.

What has changed for the Sri Lankan Muslim community after the April 21 attacks, which killed over 250 people across Sri Lanka?

As a community Muslims have been equally shocked and dismayed about the existence of such a dangerous terrorist outfit within our community. We have expressed outrage and condemnation in no small measure and have also sincerely sought to engage in a serious introspection on how such a deviant ideology could have nestled within a close-knit community like ours.

The fact remains that there have been many lapses on the part of the people in authority when it comes to security and intelligence. When alarm bells were rung by the community itself—responsible leaders in the community took it up repeatedly—about the conduct of the leader of this group, particularly after the discovery of a small group in Mawanella which started vandalising Buddhist statues [in December 2018], it was clear to all of us that this group was out to harm the Muslim community more than anybody else, that it was acting as the agent of an outside force to create communal disharmony in the country and perhaps also had other motives, though we didn’t at all imagine that it could unleash such a terrible terrorist carnage.

Right now, though, we are confident that this cult has been identified and all those involved have been taken into custody and the investigations are continuing. Some of the xenophobic forces have now taken it upon themselves to keep the pot boiling and make the entire Muslim community victims.

Isn’t the demonisation of Muslims already happening?

It is happening. A variety of side shows are going on in an attempt to once again instigate violence—it has already happened in Kurunegala [a town in Central Sri Lanka] and North Central province almost 30 days after the incident. Violence was engineered by restive political elements hell-bent on using this to their political advantage, and also looking at the prospect of an election very soon [the presidential election will be held on December 7].

The security forces, as usual, took some time to contain the violence. By then serious violence had taken place. Twenty-nine mosques and several business establishments and dwellings of Muslims were destroyed. Moreover, the damage to the economy, because of the drop in the tourism sector, is going to affect everybody.

But Muslims are bewildered…. Though very patronising remarks are made by security higher-ups and political leaders, such as “don’t blame the whole community” and “all of them are not responsible”, they keep repeating the phrase “Islamic terrorism”. This is very hurtful. These are terrorists, and they don’t need to be given a religious tag. However much we try to exculpate ourselves by saying that none of us has endorsed this, some of these xenophobic forces, together with international agencies which keep Islamophobia hype alive, are hell-bent on harassing Muslims.

Now it has taken a different turn. They are looking at lifestyle issues. They are looking at trying to introduce so-called reforms that are a little too intrusive. This is causing a lot of alarm. What we have assured the government is that as leaders we are prepared to engage in a very, very serious introspection and we are voluntarily willing to adopt certain changes to make healthy co-existence possible, and also address issues of suspicion and fear.

Because of continuous outrageous attacks and insinuations by the so-called majoritarian xenophobic forces over a period of time, the community is also becoming insular. We have to arrest that. We are now sincerely engaging in that exercise. But then we are not given the space for voluntary changes. They are trying to impose changes externally, which is not going to be received [well by the community] and that might—we fear—have the reverse effect of the same type of insularism taking root again and result in unfortunate polarisation.

That marginalisation will again be a fertile ground for radicalisation. This is a vicious cycle. I think both the minority and the majority have to realise this.

We don’t want to be slavishly living in a country where they expect us to compromise on our right to live and to be treated with dignity. These are the issues today. Right now all types of people are trying to win brownie points. Allegations abound against politicians, against every person who has some authority, if they are from the minorities. This has to be gently resisted. There has to be a prosper retrospection about what is happening.

The rulers are also handling some of these xenophobic forces with velvet gloves. That is not going to help. You need to be even-handed in trying to contain hate speech. That is not happening. Only when that happens can there be cohesion and coexistence. You need to have confidence in your security forces and in the state that institutional independence will not be compromised, and the rule of law will be maintained. That perception is important even for public order. There are a lot of rumblings in society. There is deep disgust and outrage at the manner in which the Muslim community is being treated in the aftermath of this.

Of course, we need to be thankful to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for the magnanimity he displayed in the initial period, which helped us a lot to engage in serious introspection and start doing something voluntarily to rid this community of all kinds of extremism, and do things right. But that space is not being given.

Repeatedly there is an onslaught on the community’s daily life and livelihood issues…. There are forces hell-bent on making political capital out of the misery of people. This is very unfortunate.

A lot of Muslim politicians are unacceptable to the Sinhala right wing…

We formed a party [SLMC] to look after the interests of the Muslim community. We did not want to be antagonistic in our approach and we always felt that we must engage in an open dialogue with everyone. We also maintained our rapport with majority leaders in such a way that we do not become confrontational in pushing our rights agenda.

Our rights agenda has to receive some empathy and understanding only in an atmosphere of friendship. You should also not throw your weight around too much. It can be very distasteful. Political issues are sentimental and emotional stuff. We had the same rapport with our Tamil brothers, with whom we tried to reach certain compromises in arriving at an acceptable solution to the ethnic problem in this country.

There are some who wish to live in denial. You can’t simply say that you don’t have a problem. So these are symptoms of a larger disease. You can’t treat the symptoms and expect the disease to cure itself. That is the philosophy here. The symptoms have to be dealt with using the right approach. When it comes to law and order and law enforcement, there needs to be a balanced approach. This is where things go wrong.

There are a lot of institutional reforms that need to happen. This is where we believe we have stayed above controversy. But you never know. It only takes—in a situation of such ethnic polarisation—a few troublemakers and the law-enforcement machinery to look the other way for things to flare up. That is the danger here.

There was an efficient and strong response by the armed forces to this menace. We were able to quickly identify… we have realised where things have gone wrong and have taken corrective steps. Public confidence somehow has come back slowly. But these incidents [of attacks on minorities] are again disturbing the peace. This is where we need to insist that hate speeches and the culture of impunity be checked. If there is even the slightest feeling of a pervading culture of impunity coming in once again—we had that feeling soon after the war with the LTTE—it will derail this nation-building exercise.

The community has cooperated with the government and that is the reason so many were caught soon…

Yes. Within a month the entire cult was identified, and it has been virtually isolated. When it comes to efficiency, I don’t think we need to have any doubt about our intelligence and security apparatus…. The systems are there. But complacency had set in with 10 years of peace.

There is a view that what used to happen to the Tamils is now happening to the Muslims. At that time, Muslims did not really think that they should be with the Tamils. How do you view this?

That is a very generalised view. I think there is a lot of empathy among the Tamils about what’s happening to us now because of their own experience. But there will certainly be elements within civil society who will want to take political advantage, to settle scores for some grievance from the past.

But then we shouldn’t paint the entire community with the same brush. We are confident that among the Tamils, there are well-meaning leaders who will not be lacking in empathy. They are fully cooperating in resisting this tendency and working collectively towards nation-building. They have also learnt to compromise during the last few years. Of course, the same extremist xenophobic forces are not allowing a reasonable settlement to emerge and that, time and again, has been the bane of this country’s politics. But we have to, I think, do a soul-searching and engage in efforts where healthy compromises are reached.

But then, healthy compromises cannot be made in a slavish manner. The majority will be wrong if they try to impose solutions. Right now, it appears that there is a gung-ho approach by some of them. But we are gently resisting it and telling them that we cannot be pushed too much.

In the current situation, with the election about six months away, do you think peace is achievable? It always helps the majoritarian polity to have an enemy community from among the minorities…

It has happened in the neighbourhood recently. But in a mature democracy, such polarisation during election time is sometimes a given. Once in power, the realisation dawns that to rule, you need to have cooperation; you need to engage; you cannot then compartmentalise and continue to marginalise.

We see that happening post-election in India. If such a situation occurs here, a settling down will come about [after the election]. But the election period might become very tense and full of rhetoric and name-calling. I think it is happening in all democracies. Right-wing politics has come to stay, not only here but in much more mature democracies in the West. Because of economic deprivation and difficulties, there is a lot of blame game.

But I feel, though such issues will have some purchase given the emotive background, the vast majority of them are mature and they will accept the verdict finally. We have all embraced the Westminster system with some modifications in our electoral models. But we have a better system in that we have a proportional representation model. But there are even attempts to tinker with that and those are things we keep resisting because that’s where we manage to get our proper representation. And then we also have this healthy coalition approach where we work along with other like-minded parties to make sure that we have sufficient numbers and we have a say in both the Central government and the provincial governments.

This election is going to be a tough call, particularly for the ruling coalition. We are hopelessly divided, particularly with the President experimenting with all types of things…

That actually brings me to the performance of the government. The Tamil question, for example. There was some movement, but no progress beyond that. The October 26 drama, and the attempted unseating of the Prime Minister. The response to the April blasts. These three things hit you in the face regardless of the good things the coalition has done. So, how do you rate the government?

My experience of almost 25 years in national politics has taught me the lesson that if you want substantial or constitutional changes, you need to achieve this within the first six months of your getting into power. If you procrastinate, that is as good as not being able to reach your goal. This has happened time and again.

At least we were able to achieve the 19th Amendment [dilution of powers of the Executive Presidency]. Still people will criticise. There were dictatorial tendencies creeping in through the early 18th Amendment [which removed the term limit that a President can serve]. We have fortunately done away with this. At least the two-term limit is there.

We have now installed a prime ministership, which, in the term, will be stronger than the presidency because of the way in which it is structured now. So, that again gives a certain amount of hope that this kind of tug of war between the presidency and the parliament will not happen.

Here, we allowed the President to hold on to Ministries and then he is, to an extent, illegally holding on to one Ministry or the other. These issues may not happen.

Our institutions, particularly the judiciary, are also getting stronger, and their independence is a matter of consolation. Other institutions, like the Attorney General’s department, the Auditor General’s department, have displayed fierce independence. That gives us a lot of hope that things will change for the better.