Latheef Farook (Daily Mirror)
Crucial Muslim support facilitated the process of Sri Lanka gaining independence from the British in 1948 and helped end almost four and half centuries of European colonial rule in the island.
Many still remember the leading role played by Muslim leaders such as Dr. T.B. Jayah, Sir Razik Fareed, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and Dr. Badi-ud-din Mahmud in the constitutional reforms of this country and their enthusiastic support for the demand of the Dominion Status and independence. They never obstructed the political progress of the country.
For example when the demand for independence began gathering momentum, World War 11 broke out in Europe. The British government urged all its colonies to support them assuring that they would be given independence after the war.
In the aftermath of the World War 11, agitation for political reforms and independence began to gather momentum. However the British government insisted that three quarters of the population should support the demand for independence to ensure that the rights of minorities were protected. With the Sinhalese community as a whole constituting less than three quarters of the population, this was an impossible demand to fulfil unless the minorities supported it.
Tamil Congress leader G.G. Ponnambalam demanded equal representation, better known as fifty –fifty. However the Muslims stood fully behind the majority community and helped to meet the British demand for the support of two third of the population, despite past sufferings and disadvantages.
Addressing a gathering at the Zahira College grounds under the chairmanship of Sir Mohamed Macan Markar to protest against the inadequate representation of Muslims in the Legislative Council, Dr. Badi-ud-din Mahmud, the Secretary of the All Ceylon Muslim Political Conference said on 5 March 1939;
“Let me assure my Sinhalese countrymen that I am one among them in demanding complete freedom for our country. They can count on me as one of the most ardent admirers of their legitimate national and cultural aspirations. In me and in my community, let them know that they find the most trusted friends and kind neighbours in this island. They would never find wanting in me or in my community that unflinching loyalty and patriotism that this little island would demand one day from its sons and daughters to carve out a niche of fame for itself as a self-respecting unit in a world federation. Let me also assure my Sinhalese friends that the brave community to which I belong shall never consider any sacrifice too great to make Lanka a happy, prosperous and glorious country in the world where not one section of its population but every son and daughter of her soil shall legitimately take pride in her glorious destiny”.
In keeping with this policy the three Muslim representatives in the State Council extended their whole-hearted support for the “Dominion Status Bill” – a Sri Lankan bill sponsored by the late Mr.S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike when it came for the vote on 9 November 1945. T.B. Jayah and Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel spoke in favour of the bill while Sir Razik Fareed and Dr. Kaleel voted in favour as Jayah was not present during the time of voting.
During his speech Razik Fareed said; “The All Ceylon Moors’ Association pledge their support to the resolution of the Hon. Leader under discussion today. Nothing else would at the moment give me great pleasure to do so, and to express my whole-hearted support to the Hon. leader’s proposal. As my community and I have always stood by them, I must say that in the hour of his triumph we join hands with him in the forward march to the goal of the proposal to which he aspires”…
Supporting the Sri Lankan Bill despite its disadvantages to Muslims and defining the attitude of Muslims towards the bill, Mr.T.B. Jayah said: “I am glad, Sir, that it has been stated that this is not the moment for jubilation or exultation or even for mutual recrimination. I certainly think that this is not the occasion to speak of the discomfiture of the minority communities or of the victory of the majority community.
As far as I am concerned, I speak with the full support of members of the Muslim community. I saw to it that the Ceylon Muslim League, representing the Muslim community of Ceylon, consulted Muslim representatives in different parts of the country on the important issues before the house and I am in a position to say that the Muslim members of this Council have the fullest backing of the Muslim community in this island.
When the Muslims of the Council decided to take a definite stand at the time the Sri Lanka Bill was introduced, they did so for one and one reason only. The reason was that where the political freedom of this country was involved, they were prepared to go to any length, even to the point of sacrificing advantages and benefit as a result of such action. As far as I am concerned, Sir, I do not consider any right greater than the right of political freedom and therefore, although I am fully conscious of those disadvantages of the Bill, looking at it from a narrow point of view, yet I am prepared to support this Bill.”
Expressing his gratitude to the Muslim members on behalf of the Sinhalese community, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike assured that he would consider any reasonable request by the Muslim community. Bandaranaike said: “I say that if any member has brought closer the achievement of agreement among the various sections of the people of the country by an attitude of generosity where even those with whom he is concerned to differ, I say the fullest credit must go more than to anyone else among us, to the Honorable nominated member, Mr. T.B. Jayah. He has made a speech today that will have a great effect in bringing unity among the people of this country in bringing some sense of reality to this struggle, however it may shape, that we are going to undertake to obtain a satisfactory measure of freedom”..
“What have the three members,T.B.Jayah, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and Razik Fareed, done? There is provided in the Bill, a Scheme of Representation under which the Muslim community in this country might suffer in the form in which it appears, but yet, he himself so sincerely determined to work for the main idea of freedom that he was prepared to vote for the principle embodied in the Bill.
But I can give the Hon. Nominated member, Mr. T.B.Jayah, this assurance on behalf of, I think, the vast majority, at least the Community that I represent, that in the struggle for freedom, whatever may or may not be the recommendation of the Soulbury Commission on our representation, he may rest assured that we will be quite prepared to consider any reasonable point of view that might be put forward.”
Thus the Muslims provided the required support of a two-third majority of the population, paving the way for the island’s independence on 4 February 1948 when Mr. D.S.Senanayake lowered the British flag and hoisted the Sri Lankan National Flag and declared the island’s independence.
Muslims have lived in harmony with the Sinhalese and Tamils for centuries and they want to continue to do so. As stated by former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva rightly that “Muslims have been a peaceful ethnic group interacting with other religious and ethnic groups, cordially interlinking those cultures with their own culture. They never organized themselves for armed insurrection or destruction”.
They were not party to the ethnic conflict. However their sufferings were immense.
What many conveniently forget is the crucial role played by the Muslims even in preserving the territorial integrity of the island. For example, during the early days, the Tamil militants’ call for a separate state had the full backing of India, and the island’s armed forces were not equipped or trained, as they are today, to deal with them.
From the very inception, Muslims throughout the country vehemently opposed calls for the division of the country and firmly stood for territorial integrity and unity. Nevertheless, they were entangled in this unfortunate and unwanted ethnic conflict only to face death, devastation, loss of properties and livelihood and displacement with no appreciation. Around 130,000 Muslims driven out from Jaffna have been still languishing in refugee camps in appalling conditions and their plight has been nobody’s business for more than 20 years.
Had the Muslims joined the Tamil militancy during its early stage the island’s fate would have been sealed and the history would have projected a new political landscape. It is unfortunate that these sufferings and sacrifices have never been highlighted in their proper perspective. I am sure the Muslim community is prepared to take ten steps if the authorities take one step to take them into confidence to pave the way for cordiality and communal harmony.