The Political Column
24th September 2000
Muslim politics sans Ashraff
By our Political Correspondent
|The death of
SLMC and National Unity Alliance leader M. H. M. Ashraff has created a
void in minority politics. Mr. Ashraff who launched his political career
in the 1980s rose to be a formidable politician within a short period,
eclipsing other Muslim politicians in the country.
Some described him as a politician who thrived on communal politics, while others said he was an opportunist who got the best deal for his party and the community. Whatever it may be, Minister Ashraff had his community's interest at heart, especially that of the eastern Muslims. He was like a Thondaman to many Muslims. But now the eastern province Muslims are without a strong leader who could take up their cause.
Can Deputy Minister M. L. A. M. Hisbullah fill this void? Mr. Hisbullah himself, a popular politician in the east, lacks the charisma that Mr. Ashraff had. He is reported to have said he was not interested in any ministerial post when the President asked him before she offered the post to SLMC co-leader Rauf Hakeem.
But Mr. Hisbullah also had a problem within the party. Mr. Ashraff, a few days before his death, had decided to take him to task over an allegation that he had helped someone from his Batticaloa constituency to get a liquor licence.
On September 15, Mr. Ashraff sent a letter calling for explanation from Mr. Hisbullah. Excerpts from the letter:
"I have received your letter admitting the fact that you have recommended a liquor licence to someone in the Batticaloa District and later withdrew it.
"However, we regret to inform you that your letter does not give sufficient reasons as to why you wrote that letter notwithstanding the fact that you are a member of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
"You know it very well that the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) are the supreme guidelines of our party — Article 1:3 of the SLMC Constitution. Further, you are aware of the fact that you are the son of a respected Alim of Kathankudy. In the circumstances, your conduct in issuing that letter is beyond my imagination.
"Unless you show sufficient cause as to why you wrote that letter in clear violation of the provisions of the Constitution of the SLMC and its Code of conduct, I am reluctantly compelled to dismiss you forthwith from the party notwithstanding the fact that you are the Deputy Group Leader of the NUA in the Batticaloa District.
"You are hereby given time till the 22nd September 2000 till 12.00 midnight to show cause as to why you should not be dismissed from your membership of the SLMC as well as your membership from the NUA."
According to SLMC insiders, Mr. Ashraff's behaviour during the final phase of his life was quite unusual. One close associate told this column that at times he acted like a military administrator and there was no opportunity for anybody for compromise. He had his way. He sacked the eastern province councillor Aboobucker and suspended the National List member M. M. Zuhair. Then he asked Mr. Hisbullah and Rauf Hakeem to resign from the posts they held in the SLMC. Thereafter, he appointed them to the NUA.
All this was one-way traffic. He did not consult anyone when he wrote a 50-page letter to President Kumaratunga pointing out his support to form the 1994 government.
Then he discussed with the President several issues that needed clarification. He made his usual demands and compelled the President to tender a public apology over Minister A. H. M. Fowzie's remark on the SLMC. Critics said that on earlier occasions, too, the President had tendered apologies to minority party leaders such as Saumyamoorthy Thondaman but not publicly. In short, Mr. Ashraff had his way because it was election time.
After his famous verbal clash with Mr. Fowzie, Mr. Ashraff left for Mecca for an Umra pilgrimage keeping the future of the PA-SLMC ties in the balance. Many ministers tried to persuade him to back the PA once again. But he even refused to see some of the Ministers who gathered at his residence.
From Mecca Mr. Ashraff demanded the removal of Minister Fowzie from the government and on his arrival at the Colombo airport he brushed aside government security and drove in to Colombo in his car. Thereafter, he wanted to sever all connections with the PA. But later he met the President and once again ironed out differences while Mr. Fowzie reiterated his position that Mr. Ashraff could not win more than five seats if the SLMC contested on its own.
Mr. Fowzie earned the wrath of many of his cabinet colleagues and the President for his conduct. Mr. Ashraff's NUA, meanwhile, decided to contest 13 districts including Colombo and Batticaloa on its own but made it a point to contest the Digamadulla district in alliance with the PA. That was after calculating the number of votes he would poll against the UNP and the PA.
He was determined to reduce the number of seats that the UNP could gain in the Digamadulla district. He thought the best way to do it was to have a direct competition with the UNP and decided to contest on the PA ticket. But his rivals say another story: it would have been rather difficult for him to get elected if he contested on the NUA ticket.
But Mr. Ashraff was shrewd enough to disregard these political analyses and to take a firm decision to contest under the PA mainly to give his UNP rivals, My Own Mustapha and Segu Issadeen, a hard time. After taking all these decisions, he told NUA candidates that they were contesting these elections as a single minority party to strengthen the hand of President Kumaratunga. Thereafter, NUA posters appeared in Colombo and elsewhere carrying the pictures of Mr. Ashraff and President Kumaratunga. The PA did not take to this kindly.
Mr. Fowzie and some other ministers complained to the PA General Secretary saying that their voters would be distracted if the NUA was allowed to use the President's picture. Thereafter, President Kumaratunga issued a directive not to misuse the picture and PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne issued a statement saying that the PA had nothing to do with the NUA.
This infuriated Mr. Ashraff. Thereafter, a day before he met with his tragic death on Saturday September 16, he hurriedly dictated a news release stating he had severed all links with the PA. But this baffled many observers who were wondering as to how he could conduct the campaign in the Digamadulla district where the NUA candidates contest on the PA ticket.
A few days before he left for Mecca, he threw a party to his close friends to mark his wife's birthday. What was unusual was that it was the first time that Mr. Ashraff was hosting a party in a five-star hotel.
Again, a few days before his death, Mr. Ashraff addressed a meeting of around 300 Muslim women in Colombo and in a strange twist of coincidence told them his family was prepared to accept the news of his death. "There has been several attempts on my life. So if I die suddenly, my family is prepared to accept it," he said.
As though he had a premonition of the events to come, he said his family would not be able to give him the final bath according to Muslim rituals because he thought he would not die under normal circumstances. He then spoke about his love for his wife Ferial who was also present at the meeting. He started his speech saying, "I request permission from all the guests including my dearest wife who has been fighting with me from the time I came there. My love for her is greater than her love for me. Even last week we had a big problem at home. She said that I did not care for her. So today I am going to declare my love for her," he said.
Winding up his address, he said, "Every citizen in this country be they Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim or Christian, has equal rights as the country belongs to everybody. None of us can go to another country and call it our motherland. So he said that his fervent wish was that nobody should be considered second class citizens in his or her motherland.
On Friday, he had a hectic time finalising his campaign arrangements for Colombo and other districts before his departure to Digamadulla, on Saturday morning.
He attended to problems of his candidates in Colombo and thereafter told his Colombo district leader A. J. M. Muzammil how he should organise his campaign. He told Mr. Muzammil who was to launch the NUA's campaign in the electronic media that he should "start batting" and handed over a note where he had outlined how he should present his TV speech.
By mid-night he told them to get ready for rehearsals and left his residence to meet a Moulana, a Muslim priest, to get his blessings. The Moulana was apparently also to leave the country the following morning. Mr. Ashraff returned home around 4 in the morning and told Mr. Muzammil to start his speech. When the first round was over, Mr. Ashraff told him that he (Muzammil) had not reached the required standard and asked him to do it again. After four rounds of his speech, Mr. Ashraff said: "I am now satisfied. You can go ahead and start batting."
He worked till about 11 o'clock. Thereafter, he retired to his bedroom saying he had to leave by 9 a.m. to Kalmunai. By 9.30 a.m. Mr. Muzammil received an urgent call from his brother-in-law and the Ports Ministry Secretary M. M. Junaid who said he had some disturbing news about the Minister and broke the news that the helicopter Mr. Ashraff was travelling in had been reported missing over Aranayake.
Mr. Muzammil immediately rushed along with Junaid to Aranayake and by that time the villagers were bringing parts of bodies of the victims to the Aranayake police station.
Rauf Hakeem who was at Kadugannawa at that time was the first to visit the scene of the tragedy and finally by 7.30 p.m. they managed to get the remains of Minister Ashraff to Colombo. From among the charred bodies, they picked the body which had the closest resemblance to Minister Ashraff.
President Kumaratunga who was informed of this tragedy immediately visited the Colombo residence of Minister Ashraff. The President spoke to his wife Ferial, for a long time and consoled her. Thereafter, the president told the SLMC leaders that she wanted to accord him a state funeral and that his body should be kept in parliament. But due, regretfully to the condition of the body, she was told it was not possible. Later, they decided to accord Mr. Ashraff a midnight funeral with state honours.
Among the large crowd at Mr. Ashraff's residence were several ministers. Mr. Fowzie also made it a point to visit the site of the crash as well as the burial ground at Jawatte. On the way to the Aranayake, Mr. Fowzie's motorcade met with an accident, but the minister escaped unhurt and reached Aranayake.
At the Jawatte cemetery, Mr. Fowzie had to face some hostile reactions from the crowd, but his security guards prevented the Minister from being manhandled. They fired shots into the air to disperse the mob. Even UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and ex-MP A. H. M. Azwer were also jeered by the crowd.
On Monday, the SLMC politburo met to decide that Mr. Hakeem and Ms. Ashraff be appointed as co-leaders of the party. The meeting at the SLMC headquarters "Darussalam" was described by insiders as a stormy session.
Later on Monday, Deputy Minister Hisbullah along with Mr. Hakeem met the President to convey the decision of the party. Mr. Hakeem told her that the party was of the view that the ministerial portfolios held by Mr. Ashraff should be allocated to him. The President then inquired from Deputy Minister Hisbullah whether he had any objections. When he answered in the negative, the President agreed to appoint Mr. Hakeem as the Minister of Ports Development Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.
Mr. Hakeem had another meeting with the President on Tuesday to convey the party's support for the PA at the general elections. He also said that Ms. Ashraff would replace her husband in the Digamadulla district.
By that time, the President had already spoken to Ms. Ashraff to ask her willingness to contest the Digamadulla district. When Mr. Hakeem said that Ms. Ashraff was reluctant to accept the nomination, the President once again telephoned her in the presence of Mr. Hakeem to persuade her to contest. Finally, Ms. Ashraff agreed to take up the offer. But she is unable to move out of her house in keeping with the Islamic tradition which requires a widow to mourn for four months and ten days after her husband's death.
SLMC sources said their members are campaigning in the Digamadulla on behalf of Ms. Ashraff and she would win easily given the sympathy wave in the East.
However, there had been a couple of instances where some eastern Muslims had opposed the appointment of Ms. Ashraff, probably because their opposition to Muslim women taking part in politics. Some people are asking whether she would go the Srimani Athulathmudali way.
There was also opposition to the appointment of Mr. Hakeem as the co-leader of the party because the Muslims of the East wanted someone from the east to lead the party. Under these circumstances, will the NUA emerge stronger without Mr. Ashraff is the question raised in political circles.
There is no doubt about Mr. Hakeem's ability. He has conducted himself very well as the Deputy Chairman of Committees and proved to be a versatile politician. Mr. Hakeem who entered politics through the national list of the SLMC is leading the NUA in Kandy district list. Elevated to the ministerial post, Mr. Hakeem would now have a better chance of being re-elected to parliament from the Kandy district, observers say.
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