THE tragedy of September 16 involving an MI-17 helicopter of the Sri Lanka Air Force above the Urakanda mountain range in the Aranayaka area in Kegalle district of Sabaragamuwa province resulted in the death of a dynamic political leader of the island - Cabinet Minister M.H.M. Ashraff. Along with him were killed 14 others including crew members, security personnel, personal staff and political supporters. Investigations are on to ascertain whether the crash was an accident or the result of sabotage. Wha tever the outcome of the probe, there is no denying that the demise of Ashraff, the founding president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the island's largest Muslim party, has created a political vacuum.
Muhammed Hussain Mohammed Ashraff was a pioneering leader of Sri Lankan Muslims in particular and the country in general. He was ahead of his times in more ways than one. He realised the vast untapped political potential of his community and strove to ch arter a course that would have enabled his people to have their grievances redressed and aspirations fulfilled. At a time when the conflict within the island was perceived in simplistic terms as a "Sinhala versus Tamil" issue, the efforts of Ashraff brou ght to the fore the problems faced by Muslims. The eloquent and effective advocacy of the Muslim cause by Ashraff led to a general awareness that the seemingly intractable ethnic crisis was not merely a Sinhala-Tamil bilateral issue but a trilateral one involving Muslims too.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka, also known as Moors, have a unique ethnic identity. Constituting 8 per cent of the island's population, they are distributed somewhat evenly with about two-thirds of them in the seven predominantly Sinhala provinces and the rest in the Tamil majority North and East. The bulk of the community including sections living amidst the Sinhala population speaks Tamil at home and are classified as Tamil speaking. The medium of instruction in schools is chiefly Tamil. The community has a lso thrown up a number of Tamil scholars, writers, poets, journalists and artists who have reached eminent positions. In spite of this, the community does not perceive itself as being "Tamil" but "Muslim". The Muslim self-perception is based on ethno-rel igious and not ethno-linguistic lines. This socio-cultural reality has acquired sharp political dimensions in recent times.
Although they are a scattered population, Sri Lankan Muslims have their single largest concentration in the Eastern Province where the ethnic ratio according to the 1981 Census (the last official count) was 42 per cent Tamil, 33 per cent Muslim and 25 pe r cent Sinhala. It is unofficially estimated that at present the Sinhala component has risen considerably while the Tamil component has declined and that the Muslim count remains even. Muslims of the Eastern Province live interspersed among Tamil village s along the littoral areas known as "Eluvaankarai" (Coast of the Rising Sun). The majority of the Eastern Muslims are farmers and fisherfolk. The "enclave" factor has helped the Eastern Province Muslims to elect at least four to six parliamentarians from the Province at each election. The Eastern "bloc" has at times constituted almost 50 per cent of the total Muslim representation in Parliament. Despite this advantage, the overall leadership of the community was not in the hands of the Eastern Muslim. T he comparatively advanced Muslim leaders from the Central, Western and Southern provinces were in charge, lording it over the Muslims from the Eastern backwaters. All this, however, changed with the arrival of Ashraff.
Ashraff was born on October 23, 1948 in the Muslim village of Sammanthurai in Amparai district. He grew up in the town of Kalmunai, in the same region. After schooling in Kalmunai, Ashraff entered Law College where he passed the examination with first cl ass honours. Ashraff went on to acquire a bachelor's and later a Master's degree in Law from Colombo University. The latter feat was achieved in 1995 when he was a Cabinet Minister. He took silk in 1997 as President's Counsel.
Ashraff began his political career like many an Eastern Muslim leader as an admirer of the Tamil father figure S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the founder leader of the Federal Party. He spoke on F.P. platforms and in 1976 attended the historic Vaddukkoddai Confer ence where the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) unanimously adopted the demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. In 1977 Ashraff was the driving force behind the Muslim United Front. He signed an agreement with Appapillai Amirthalinga m of the TULF, which helped MUF candidates contest the elections under the TULF symbol on an Eelamist platform. Ashraff did not contest, but actively campaigned. The highlight of Ashraff's speeches then was his public pronouncement that even if Amirthali ngam himself abandoned the goal of Eelam Ashraff would continue to strive for it. While the Tamil candidates of the TULF swept the polls, no Muslim from the party won a seat in the polls.
Ashraff parted ways with the TULF in 1980 and the MUF entered a state of decay. He founded the SLMC on September 21, 1981. At that point, the SLMC was more or less an Eastern outfit concerned with socio-cultural issues. The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom an d the consequent escalation of armed Tamil militancy led to a situation where Muslims became increasingly insecure and apprehensive of their future in a "Tamil" state. On the other hand, the contemptuous manner in which the J.R. Jayewardene regime dismis sed the Muslim opposition to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel touched a raw nerve in the community. Ashraff was instrumental in organising protest demonstrations over the issue. However, Sri Lankan Muslims were immune from the global tr end of growing Islamic consciousness and radicalism. The Muslim community in the East also produced a new generation of educated and ambitious youth. All this created a suitable climate for Ashraff and his brand of politics to arrive on the national scen e.
The catalyst was the outbreak of violence between Tamils and Muslims in the Kalmunai-Karaitheevu areas in 1985 which was aided and abetted by agents of the state. Threatened by Tamil militants, Ashraff was compelled to shift to Colombo. There his politic al horizons began to extend beyond the East. He recogised the disappointment among the Muslim masses with their elitist leaders. Ashraff identified the need and yearning of the community to assert boldly and articulate their identity. In 1986, he redefin ed the objectives and redrafted the constitution of the Muslim Congress to make it an all-island party. It was formally accredited by the Election Commissioner and allocated the symbol of the tree on February 11, 1988. The proportionate representation sy stem helped the fledgling party to record an impressive showing in the provincial council elections. The Muslim Congress had come of age.
Although he was not happy with the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 which he felt neglected the Muslim viewpoint, Ashraff supported its provisions. The Muslim Congress participated in the North-East provincial council elections of 1988 and became t he chief Opposition party. The SLMC also supported Ranasinghe Premadasa in the 1988 presidential elections. In 1989 the Muslim Congress contested the parliamentary polls and won four seats. Ashraff himself was returned with a massive number of preference votes. The SLMC discovered that in spite of its all-island appeal the parliamentary seats it was able to garner came from the North-East alone. Ashraff realised that if the party was to maximise its representation, tactical compromises would have to be made and strategic alliances with major parties formed. In 1994 he did just that in the accord with Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance. The SLMC contested under its own symbol in the North-East and on the P.A. ticket in the other provinces. The pa rty won six seats and got another three on the national list.
The SLMC played a constructive "Queen maker" role to install the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in a hung Parliament. Ashraff became Minister for Ports, Shipping and Rehabilitation. Later he lost shipping in a reshuffle. Two other SLMC members, Hizbull a and Aboobakr, became Deputy Ministers. SLMC general secretary Rauff Hakeem became Chairman of committees.
Ashraff's ministerial tenure was eventful and controversial.
He was accused of providing Muslims jobs on a massive scale in the various harbours coming under his purview. Likewise he was faulted for giving priority to Muslim areas in the matter of rehabilitation projects. A tempestuous feud between Ashraff and ano ther Muslim Minister, Fowzie, saw sparks fly at regular intervals. This led to Ashraff throwing political tantrums at every turn and threatening to resign. In the most recent episode of its kind, his resignation over the Fowzie issue was not accepted by Kumaratunga.
Ashraff was also autocratic in his handling of party affairs. He was the supreme "Thalaiver" and brooked no nonsense from within. At the time of his death, he had suspended the party membership of three MPs and sent a show-cause notice to another.
Apart from the charismatic sway Ashraff had over the Muslim masses, his strength was his adaptive flexibility . The SLMC's fundamental demand had been for the creation of a territorially non-contiguous Muslim majority council consisting of the Muslim div isions in the North and East. Ashraff's rationale in this issue was to preserve for the Eastern Province Muslims their 33 per cent representation as far as possible in a proposed merger situation where it would have dwindled to 17 per cent. The inspirati on for the territorial non-contiguity principle was the Indian model for the Union Territory of Pondichery, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe where areas far apart came under a single administrative system. When he found the demand unachievable, he substituted it for the South Eastern Provincial Council comprising the electoral divisions of Sammanthurai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai. He gave up that too when it became necessary and opted for a merged North-East with adequate safeguards for Muslims including a de-merger proviso by referendum in 10 years's time.
While the interests of his own community were paramount for him, Ashraff was also extremely sympathetic to the Tamil problems and grievances. Except where the interests of Tamils and Muslims clashed directly, he tried to help realise the legitimate aspir ations of Tamils. He also arrived at an understanding to achieve a working relationship with the Ceylon Workers' Congress representing Tamils of Indian origin.
Ashraff's greatest virtue was his metamorphosis from a "sectarian" leader to a "national" one. He set up the National Unity Alliance comprising all the communities. The NUA was scheduled to contest in four districts in the coming elections. The NUA's bir th indicated that the one-time "Tamil Eelamist" supporter who pioneered an exclusive party for Muslims had reached an evolutionary stage where his outlook was blossoming into a nationalist one. That Ashraff's life was snuffed out at this critical junctur e is a setback to the limitless possibilities offered by the grand alliance.