The party traces its origin to a meeting of like minded Muslim intellectuals and activists held in Kattankudy deep in the heart of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka in 1981. Alhaj Mohamed Hussein Mohamed Ashraff a young lawyer was the convener and the key organizer of the meeting and the subsequent mobilization of the party. The party had its strong roots in the Eastern Province where nearly one third of the entire Muslim Community of the Island is concentrated. This mass Muslim base in the Eastern Province enabled the party to make a decisive impact on Democratic electoral politics of Sri Lanka.
While traditional Muslim politicians sought to represent the Muslims through major national political parties, the SLMC served a historical necessity of giving voice to the Muslims who formed the second largest minority group in the country. This was a time when communal identity politics isolated the Muslim minority bereft of an articulate voice. The founding leader M H M Ashraff filled that void with the SLMC.
M.H.M. Ashraff: The legendary Muslim Congress Leader
M H M Ashraff was born on 23rd October 1948 at Sammanthurai, Sri Lanka.He was the grandson of Marhoom M. M S Kariappar, who was one of the most notable Muslim political leaders in the East.
He had his primary education at Al Azhar School and Fathima School. 1961-1966 He completed his secondary education at Kalmunai Wesley High School. 1969-1974 He entered Law College, Colombo and graduated as a Civil & Criminal Lawyer in February 1974. At Law College he won the 1970 and 1971 coveted best performance prizes.
He practiced on his own for a brief period of one year in Kalmunai. Thereafter he went to Batticaloa and successfully practiced as a Criminal Lawyer. His notable success won the admiration of the people as an eminent Criminal Lawyer. He had good oratorical skills and a charismatic personality.
1977-1984 In 1977, together with a few educationists and politically interested people of the east he formed the Muslim United Liberation Front. Marhoom Ashraff started his political career as a Legal Advisor to the Muslim United Liberation Front which formed an alliance with the Tamil United Liberation Front for the 1997 general election.
Marhoom Ashraff contested unsuccessfully at this election. After his defeat he left the MULF and formed his own party.
1981 On 11th September 1981 the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was established at Kathankudy in the Batticaloa district under the Chairmanship of Marhoom A. L. Ahmed. Marhoom M H M Ashraff was elected its Founder President. This Party was formed by a small group of Eastern province political leaders.
Marhoom Ashraff was a good motivator and the key mobilizer in organising meetings, and questions and answer sessions with Muslim youth, where he began to get people to think seriously and question the Muslim leaders under the majority Sinhalese parties. He had the ability to inspire the younger generation of Muslims who were losing faith in the country. He aroused tremendous hope and optimism by talking little things to people.
1986 In November 1986 the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formally inaugurated as a political party at the “badsha” festival held in Colombo with Marhoom Ashraff, as its Leader.
1989 Due to the untiring efforts and dynamic Leadership of Marhoom Ashraff, in the February 1989 elections, 2 parliamentary seats were won by the SLMC and in the August 1994 general elections 7 members of the SLMC were elected to Parliament and 2 members were placed on the National List.
He espoused the political aspirations of the eastern Muslims.
Marhoom Ashraff was elected Member of Parliament in 1989 and and in 1994 received the Portfolio of Minister of Ports Development/Rehabilitation/Reconstruction.
Whilst he was serving his people in Kalmunai that the 1983 ethnic problem started, and he underwent emotional hardships during this time. At that time he along with his family decided to move to Colombo and settle down.
He made many sacrifices for the people of his constituency. He worked untiringly for the welfare of the community. He also assisted the terrorist affected people and found jobs for the young.
He worked hard to lay the foundation for the upliftment of the Muslims of the East and achieve a better life standard for them as they were only interested in themselves. He wanted them to change their outlook in life. He was an active social service and religious worker.
During his tenure as Minister he proposed to set up the South-Eastern University and Port in Oluvil. It was his desire to see these two projects materialize. He also wished to see the students graduate from this University.
As a Minister he had access to a level and his main aim was modernizing the East, which included the University, Port. improvement of roads, housing etc., which were achieved..
His quick decisions used to surprise people, but he was praised, for the outcome used to be always positive.
At meetings he would first talk on ‘Unity of the Community’ and only then would he get down to business. He had the knack to win over ideas he had. He was a man with a vision He said his one big goal was to unite Amparai.
In September 2000 when he addressed a meeting at Ampara he said that after elections he will work as a Leader outside Parliament and guide them.
From an early age he had been a talented short story writer, contributed many articles to the newspapers. He was also an eminent Poet. His book of poems in Tamil titled ‘Naan Enum Nee’ was released.
He received the Vishwa Prasadini award (political category) He got married to Ferial in 1977 and has one son Aman Ashraff.
Marhoom Ashraff proved his talents as a Lawyer, Politician and Poet taking both failure and success in his stride.
He established a good rapport with all Party leaders who mattered. He was highly regarded both as a Politician and Lawyer.
Marhoom Ashraff was a dynamic Leader, a dedicated Member of Parliament and a Minister with a vision. His valuable contribution and efforts for our nation and the Muslim community in particular cannot be erased from our memory. The ideals of the Muslims who lived in Ceylon started way back in 1915.
At the time the British were ruling the problem that cropped up between the Muslims and Sinhalese and the riots that took place and the subsequent things that happened made the Muslims realize that they should be united.
After the riots, it was a person of the calibre of Wappuchi Marikar who started the Muslim Kalvi Sangam (Muslim Educational Society). After this Society was formed the Muslims got together.
After that, the Muslims who were living at that time wanted to bring the Muslims together to build a broad-based Muslim Society. So people like Sidi Lebbe and T B Jayah on their own initiative formed more Muslim organisations.
Under British rule there were many leaders who wanted to bring about Muslim unity but they were not interested. In the same way other communities including the Muslims thought they were divided and they all got together and came under one roof to form the United National Party (UNP).
When we achieved independence in 1948, all communities came together at that time. Muslims were serving the Majority Parties and building up their own image and not interested in Muslims coming together as a Muslim community. At that time the political situation was such that most attention was given for a one-man show. All Leaders of the Country were following British Customs. Education was given abroad and English was the main language of the country.
As a result the national languages and their culture were fading away and this made a section of the majority community to start the swabasha slogan.
Because of this reason, in the General Elections that took place in 1956 we were able to witness an unfortunate turn in the country and the most affected community from the minority at that time were the Muslims – language wise.
Tamils were waiting for an opportunity to be identified as a separate minority community. So were the Sinhalese people who wanted to be identified as the majority Sinhalese community and the Muslims who were in between were the most affected lot. At that time a certain section of the Muslim Leaders were in favour of identifying Muslims as a separate community hardly realizing that there were Muslims living amongst the Sinhalese and Tamils and as a result they were divided further. They also gave their full support to the majority party and they were uttering nonsense.
All the Muslim members who were elected at that time were doing everything according to the wishes of the majority party and they did not independently voice the grievances of the Muslim community.
When the situation was like that, in 1960 the members of the Muslim League formed the Ceylon Islamic Front, a political party which was accepted by the Election Commissioner. Surprisingly, the members of the Muslim League who formed the Party, they themselves said that Muslims need not have a separate Party and the Party was put in the backseat and did not function after that.
In 1971/72 the Sinhala extremists started functioning effectively and with that the Tamils were alert on the situation, but the Muslims thinking on the situation was low-key.
In the East where the Muslims were scattered, the Leaders who were selected to represent the people did not think of the Muslim community, but on building up their image. As a result there were many Leaders coming up and it is in this situation that another Muslim Front was started by the youth in 1976. All efforts to get recognition by the Election Commissioner failed.
Then in 1977 the Muslim youth were so disappointed that due recognition was not given to their Party that they were forced to join the Tamil United Front on an understanding that they will be contesting the 1977 Elections under the TUF banner.
It is in this important situation, that the late Leader M H M Ashraff made his contribution. In that election, the Muslim United Front under the TUF symbol ‘Rising Sun’ contested Kalmunai, Puttalam and Sammanthurai and lost miserably. The reason for this defeat was because the Muslims had some misunderstanding with the Tamils.
Earlier the Muslims joined the Thamil Arasu Katchi and started their political career. When the Muslims were treated like second class citizens they got depressed and left the Thamil Arasu Katchi.
Thereafter they joined the majority Sinhalese Parties and got elected to Parliament, because of that the Tamil and Muslim alliance was rejected by the Muslims.
If the Muslims had joined the Tamils with an understanding a new chapter would have been opened for the separate identity of the Muslim community, which the leaders of that time for their selfish motives did not make use of the opportunity. At the same time the Muslims of that time were slaves to the majority community and they behaved in such a manner to bring about disunity amongst Tamils/Muslims. In the same way the Tamil Liberation Front behaved in such a manner, that the Muslims were not satisfied with them, as a result the late Leader Ashraff used his influence and started his activities.
Then the late leader realizing the need to join hands with the Sinhalese majority and at the same time preserve the identity of the Muslim community started his journey towards it.
The Muslims who were in politics at that time realized what Leader Ashraff said was correct and they gave their support. As a result of that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Muslim United Front joined together. Unfortunately, late Ashraff’s ideas did not materialize.
For their narrow political gains, the Muslim United Front instead of identifying themselves separately they permanently joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This disappointed late Ashraff who decided that Muslims must stand on their own as a separate Party. Therefore, he decided against joining the already recognized big parties at that time, as they were all opportunist, who were using the Muslims to get political mileage for themselves.
Starting a separate Party is a long journey, but still late Ashraff took the first step to achieve that. Therefore on 21st September 1980 the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formed in Kattankudy. It was the brainchild of late leader Ashraff
It was started very effectively, but did not get the support as expected in the beginning. The reason was, the Muslims at that time thought that this was not a political party they could rely on.
Most of the members of the Muslim Congress were earlier in the UNP and the SLFP. They on the whole were treating the Muslim Congress as a Social Party that does only social service. As such it was very difficult to make them understand the real purpose of the Party so the Party’s progress was very slow.
In the year July 1983 when the riots started the Muslim Congress was not active, so was the Muslim community, but Leader Ashraff was the only Leader who was very vigilant. It was his statements and speeches that appeared in the newspapers now and then.
It was during the July riots that the Tamil demands became internationally known. The Muslims were also to be included in the Tamil community and be made an international affair and this led to late Ashraff to think very deep into the matter.
It was in 1985, that the Muslim Congress started its activities and progress which was a very important period for the Party. When there was no one coming forward to join the party and work for it, with a broken heart late Ashraff thought he will put an end to his political career and think of starting his legal profession.
Mr. Ali (the writer of this article) and his friend a Civil Engineer – Ismail, who were in Saudi Arabia had read some of late Ashraff’s articles in the newspapers and decided to come to Sri Lanka and join the Muslim Congress and work with late Ashraff, who was in a state of disappointment as the Party was in a poor state. At the first instance ‘we decided to get all the members who were in the Muslim Congress to come together for which we had spent our full time and we were successful. For nearly six months we worked full time and gave strength to our Leader and in that direction we are proud to say we were successful. On many instances our Leader gave us respect and due place, which we can never forget.
The Muslim Congress at that time made the members of the whole island feel the difference between the rights and concessions. ‘It was not sufficient to get the rights of the Muslims from the Sinhalese community only, but it must be got from the Tamil community as well’. The Muslim leaders realized this later.
The Sri Lanka and Indian governments were agreeing to bring the North and Eastern provinces together to solve the ethnic problem. It was late Mr. Ashraff who voiced his protest against such a move and since then the Sri Lankan and Indian governments started paying their attention towards him.
The Muslim community will never stand in the way of the Tamil aspirations. Still for all in a political solution the position of the Muslims have to be safeguarded. This was the stand of the Muslim Congress.
If the Muslim aspirations were met in the solution of the conflict of the North-East, then the Muslim Congress will be more than satisfied for such a solution.
In such a situation in June 1986, when there was an All-Party Conference, the Muslim Congress was not in a position to take part in the Conference as it was not a recognized Party, as the Muslims who were in the majority parties represented the Muslims and betrayed them at the Conference.
The Muslims at that time were given positions in a big and small way. When there was a demand from the Eastern province for a separate Muslim Province, it was the Muslim leaders who were against it and they were neutral in the issue for which they were awarded with foreign appointments, ministry posts, director’s posts and so on They made the Muslims feel that they were respected by such positions.
‘Whatever positions they may have got should have been got with honour. It should have been as a small gift and fulfilled the aspirations of the Muslim community’. This the late leader Ashraff brought to the notice of the Muslim community and showed a new path for them.
In a changing situation, in the Eastern province the Muslims were slowly joining the freedom fighters because they did not have proper leadership and it was late Ashraff who showed them a different path and prevented the Muslim youth from joining the Movement on a large scale.
Every nook and corner of the eastern province was going towards a destructive path. It was late Ashraff who took the message to the young Muslim people and changed their attitude and brought the entire youth under one leadership. It was late Ashraf who took the Muslim Congress outside the eastern province and made the people understand that it was a Party which cares for the people living outside the east. He did not care whether the leaders of that time supported the move or not, but his idea was to bring all the Muslims in the country under one banner.
During this time, the Muslim Congress received island-wide support and all started praising him for his courage. On 29 November 1986 at the ‘Badsha’ Festival in Colombo when the 6th Conference of the Muslim Congress was held it was declared a Political Party. What followed after the declaration was very encouraging and important.
When the 6th Amendment to the Constitution was to be taken up, the Tamil parties under the leadership of Amirthalingam was against such a move and left the country and went to India and returned after some years. When they returned late Mr. Ashraff and his members met Mr. Amirthalingam and put forward their grievances. At that time Mr. Amirthalingam informed Mr. Ashraf that the Muslims are not a separate community but a part of the Tamil community. He named them as Muslim-Tamils. For this Mr. Ashraff was completely against and he made a long statement explaining the position of the Muslims and he challenged Mr. Amirthalingam and at the ‘Badsha’ festival he declared the Muslim Congress as a political party.
After this declaration, it was the so-called Muslim leaders at that time who were really worried and called late Ashraff a ‘communalist’ and they said that he is a person who is trying to bring about Sinhala-Muslim clashes, but many Muslims supported the Muslim Congress move.
People like Prof. Newton Goonesinghe commented that a party of this nature should have been started a long time ago. Unfortunately, it was not started earlier. It is the Muslim Congress who wanted the Muslims of Sri Lanka as a separate community with a national identity. This and many other matters were put forward by the Muslim Congress.
The Muslims whose mother tongue was Tamil had to live under Tamil culture and the Muslims living under the Sinhalese community had to keep their mouths shut and live in fear. That is why we want the government to declare a Muslim state to fulfill the aspirations of the Muslims of the whole country. To achieve this end, the government must through the Education System Planning & Implementation and inform the people that if this country is to progress the Tamil crisis must be solved as soon as possible and not bring in communal and religious feeling amongst the people.
Tamil must be given equal status and Sinhala, Tamil and English must be taught from Year One.
The Muslim Shariah and whatever the government is planning has to be stopped.
With these proposals the Muslim Congress went to the people and they were received very warmly and to achieve their goal they were expecting a General Election.
At the start of 1987, when the District Council elections were to be held, the Muslim Congress could not contest as they were not a recognized party. Still for all, the Muslim Congress members decided to contest as an Independent Group.
During that time when the North-East conflict was at its peak, the Tigers wanted the elections to be boycotted. Through fear most of the candidates withdrew their nominations and many submitted their resignation letters. But the Muslim Congress candidates did not withdraw their nominations, but took part in the elections. This made the Tigers to send death-threat letters to the Muslim Congress candidates. If the candidates do not withdraw their nominations before the 2nd of August 87 at any cost their lives will be in danger were the letters sent to the candidates. The candidates who were really in a fearful situation wanted to withdraw from the elections and be out of it. Knowing their feelings, the leader summoned all the members who were contesting to Colombo, and delivered an important historical speech. What he told in the speech was he made them understand the necessity of the Muslim Congress Party to be in the forefront of the election. He also mentioned about Islam History. ‘What could be achieved by spending thousands of rupees we can achieve by sacrificing our lives for this cause. Those who wish to die with me can stay and the others can go away’.
After his speech, the candidates were in a quandary and some left the place and a few stayed back and the Muslim Congress leader embraced them and told that they were the true members of the Muslim Congress and one of those who left this important meeting is a present leader who is a challenge to the Muslim Congress.
‘Later I realized that the Muslim Congress political struggle was a bed of thorns.
The day that this incident took place, the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was to come to Sri Lanka to sign the Sri Lanka – India Accord. In Colombo, here and there were protest meetings and in some places shops were set on fire. Seeing all this, the members of our group left the following day to their respective places to take part in the election activities.
It was then that the government announced that the District Council elections were to be postponed and they were preparing to bring the Indian Peacekeeping Force to Sri Lanka. With this announcement, the Muslim Congress political struggle took a turn for the better.
There was a group who did not even care for their lives and were supporting Ashraff, and the Muslim community in general. This the government and the freedom fighters started realizing and all the leading newspapers from then onwards were paying attention to the Muslim Congress.
For signing the Sri Lanka – India Accord there was an appeal by a section of the community that J R and Rajiv Gandhi must be given the Nobel Prize for signing the Accord. More than the Muslim community, they were praising Jayawardena
and they gave preference to Jayawardena than to the Muslim community. In this situation only late leader Ashraff made his objections to the Accord. He also said that JR had stabbed the Muslims in the back. He also made the whole world understand that this was a move against the Muslim community.
The terrorism that was going on in the North-East and the 5/6th majority that the government received at that time did not prevent late Mr. Ashraff from voicing his objections.
Finally, when he started realizing that his struggle was justified, that the Indian High Commissioner and the government and others were interested in discussing matters with late Ashraff and the Muslim Congress.
Until such time, the Muslim Congress was not recognized as a Political Party but on 11 February 1988 the Party was recognized. After 28 years Ashraff achieved what he wanted and the Leader declared that day as the ‘Muslim Political Freedom Day’. That day is to be celebrated by the Congress Freedom fighters every year and all are also asked to observe a day of fasting.
In 1989, when the Provincial Council Elections were held, other than in the North East the people gave their whole-hearted support and elected the Muslim Congress members. By that their identity was established.
Thereafter elections were held in the very important North-East, on condition they support the North East Council where the Muslims could give their support for such a move. Leader Ashraff wanted to contest elections at any cost and gave reasons for same. He said areas where Indian Peacekeeping forces are stationed it was important that the Muslims field their own candidates and take part in elections. If we did not, those areas would have been filled by the Tamils and people by being against the Muslim Congress our representation would have been completely deprived.
Thereafter, in the Provincial Council Elections 17 members of the Muslim Congress were elected. Still, as the security situation was not conducive the members could not take their oaths. After 6 months when the security situation improved and the members took their oaths they started functioning in the Council.
After taking part in the Provincial Council meetings that we were able to witness the ‘Tamil Only’ slogan and as a result it was felt that a Muslim Provincial Council was a necessity.
When the Provincial Council met once there was a motion brought up by the Tamil parties to join the North East as one Provincial Council, but to this the leader voiced his protest. He summoned all the members to Colombo and instructed them as to what they should say at the meetings.
The Tamil parties did not like the motion to be objected by the Muslim Congress and made an appeal to one of the Muslim Congress members to boycott the sittings and he was successful in that and the Muslim Congress instructed their members to boycott the sittings.
Knowing that there were some black sheep in their midst Leader Ashraff was very alert.
It is under the Tamil majority Provincial Council that in the East many Muslims were killed under state patronage. Even Provincial Council members were killed.
When there was a move to send the Indian Peacekeeping Force out of Sri Lanka it was leader Ashraff who wanted the Muslim areas to be protected. He said if the Indian forces left the country all of a sudden those places maybe filled by the Tamil groups which will be a permanent danger. For this he was graded as a stooge of the Indian Peacekeeping Force. Also, they said he was against the progress of the country and they were against his action.
The people who were against the Muslim Congress found fault with late Ashraf and Provincial Council members.
The Muslim Congress and its members were acting in a very responsible manner and with dedication and left the entire issue in the hands of Allah.
After the incident that took place in Sammanthurai which the Indian Peacekeeping forces were also responsible for, Ashraf was prevented from entering the Mosque. They accused him of joining the Kafirs (non-believers) and made various allegations. He did not know what to do and started crying through pain of mind and we were able to witness that. He was feeling sorry for the people who did not know the truth and were doing all this to him. After much struggle, he went inside the mosque and delivered a speech and the people came to know the truth and asked pardon from him. This shows that he was a great man and had the ability to rule and had good vision.
In the 1989 elections, he was elected to Parliament. In the history of the Muslim community this was an occasion when a Muslim had been elected by the Muslims. He who formed the Party and made people join it and in that election the entire votes he got was nearly 99%, which was a big achievement the Muslims could have been proud of.
With a smiling face he entered Parliament on 9th March 1989 and started his maiden speech and for the last six years he has spoken in Parliament for 125 hours. Most of his speeches were about the Muslims and their political future and in his maiden speech he outlined the necessity of the Muslim Congress coming into Parliament. The unsettled conditions and various other reasons that necessitated the Muslim Congress to be formed.
In this country from time to time, the Muslims were giving their support to the UNP and SLFP. For the last 35 years their aspirations were not fulfilled. If the Muslim Congress was not established the grievances of the Muslim community would not have been looked into in the proper way. So the Muslim Congress was formed ‘to prevent the government from facing uneasy situations for which you will have to thank me’ he said in his maiden speech.
Though he was in the opposition bench, the way he performed was really creditable. The members who were there before him were not equal to him and nobody could find fault with him the way he performed his duties.
The JR administration was bringing legislation to deprive the minority community of their representation by 12.5%, which late Ashraff tried his level best to bring it down to 5% was one of his best moves.
From 1985 – 1994, was the best period of his time. Yet people who looked at him in a communal line brought in unwanted allegations against him, but he fought those battles bravely and performed his duties as a Minister effectively.
He had discussions with Neelam Tiruchelvam and other Thamil Arasu Katchi leaders from time to time. He spoke about the grievances of his people with them. He also spoke with late Thondaman and got an agreement signed with him. Late Ashraff was a soft spoken and an understanding man. He treated all alike and was not biased against caste creed or religion. He comforted all who came to him.
In 1994, it was the Muslim Congress which was responsible to form the government. He was very keen to fulfill the aspirations of the Muslim community and to this effect he signed an agreement. But most of the issues in the agreement were not fulfilled. The postal area issue was one of those which were objected by certain communal elements.
Out of the many issues Thavayippiya a holy area was to be declared a Muslim area which was rejected by the government.
His idea in establishing more Muslim government schools in the Kandy and Colombo areas did not get any response and was shelved.
Under these situations, when important issues were being rejected, he was preparing to meet the challenge of another General Election. He was very keen that in the 2000 General Elections, the Muslim community should not be deceived. Having this in mind he was doing all what he possibly could to safeguard the Muslim community.
On the one hand the crowd that was with him was more than satisfied with his achievements and on the other hand he has been disappointed even though he was a Minister he could not achieve what he desired.
In the final days of his life he discussed many issues with his freedom fighters and he exchanged his views with them in a free and fair manner.
In year 2000, when the Parliament was summoned and they were to elect a Speaker he used this opportunity to get some of his grievances which were unattended to, to be heard.
A 50-page letter was written by him and was to be sent to the President but unfortunately the letter did not reach in its full context. The people who were getting benefits out of their position have changed the substance of the letter.
His sudden death under unexpected circumstances left us all in sadness. The Almighty Allah had different plans for him. He had to leave behind his freedom fighters, his beloved friends and supporters.
His supporters have not let him down but they are going ahead with the aspirations towards the Muslim community.
The establishment of the Muslim Congress was to achieve a certain goal, which his supporters will take forward and late Ashraf’s name will not be forgotten.
A book is to be published regarding his entire political career. Insha Allah it will be published in the near future and given as a gift to the future generation.