The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has become the focus of attention over the recent dispute over a Muslim mosque located within the Dambulla sacred area and the onus is on party leader and Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem to ensure a peaceful settlement of the issue.
Meeting The Sunday Leader at his office located at the premises of the Carnival ice cream parlor in Colpetty, Hakeem took some time out of his busy schedule to respond to queries on the latest situation with regard to the Dambulla mosque issue and his role in an ultra nationalist government.
Since the dispute over the Dambulla mosque commenced a few weeks back, Hakeem and the SLMC have taken the firm stance that the mosque should not be relocated and that there was no necessity for an alternate land in the event the government tries to forcibly relocate it.
However, Hakeem denied media reports that the SLMC would quit the government over the mosque issue saying it would impress upon the government to address the issue in a just manner to all communities.
Following a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week, the SLMC leader ensured that the President would address the issue without allowing the matter to get out of hand.
When asked if there has been any finality over the mosque dispute reached with the President, Hakeem told The Sunday Leader that there is no finality in the issue.
However, he noted that the indication is that the status quo would remain since emotions have been aroused and any attempt to forcibly relocate will only aggravate the situation.
In a pensive mood, he observed that the government needs to reflect on this issue and resolve it without hastily resorting to any unilateral decisions.
“I indicated to the President that it is best we discuss this issue, to which he replied he needed time to study the issue a little more.”
The President had told Hakeem that he needed to talk to others including the Prime Minister before initiating a dialogue with the Muslim ministers.
A thoughtful Hakeem then said that as a mature politician and head of government, the President is in a very unenviable position.
“It is a challenging situation, which I’m sure he would handle pragmatically.”
The SLMC leader explained that the majority in the government is disturbed by the manner in which the whole Dambulla mosque issue was brought to focus. He noted that the government members are conscious of the consequences of the issue. “On our part too, we feel we have spoken enough and need not be stirring the pot any further. Best to keep quiet now so that saner counsel will prevail upon this situation,” he said.
Difficulties in a nationalist govt.
Being a leader of minority political party in a government that thrives on nationalism and pushing such sentiments is not an easy task. The SLMC’s position in the government is therefore unenviable. Nevertheless, a resolute Hakeem when questioned about this issue responded calmly that one should speak at the right time. He explained that all minor political parties in a coalition would feel somewhat intimidated by the very size of the government and it’s quite natural. “You need to be patient, pragmatic and where necessary speak your mind without allowing the worry of your leverage inhibit you when it comes to the right issues,” he said.
Nationalism vs. reconciliation
The UPFA government is currently under pressure locally and internationally to expedite the reconciliation process in post war Sri Lanka.
However, patriotism and nationalism being pushed by the government seem to be a stumbling block in this path to reconciliation and the Dambulla incident is witnessed as a fall out of nationalist extremism.
When inquired if the nationalism would hamper the country’s path towards reconciliation, Hakeem reminded of the saying; “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
“At time you feel like that some xenophobic forces trying to take cover under the label of nationalism or patriotism and disturb the path to reconciliation. We must have the courage of our conviction to speak our mind out when thuggery, intimidation and harassment is implied to achieve their objectives,” he said.
He made a point that in a multi ethnic country like Sri Lanka there’s enough space for everyone to prosper, provided every one agrees to resolve differences by way of discussions rather than through demonstrations and public shows of defiance.
Hakeem also warned that resorting violence could have its own repercussions as well.
He explained that the danger in resorting to violence on one side is that there is a tendency on the other side to resort to violence as well.
“Such tendencies need to be restricted by the mature intervention by the top not to allow racial hatred to dictate the agenda,” he said.
Given Hakeem’s maturity and sentiments of bringing reconciliation to post war Sri Lanka, the question that remains is whether his voice and opinions are being heard in the government.
When asked if he felt he was being heard in the government, Hakeem is confident that his voice is heard at the right times.
Referring to the Dambulla mosque issue, the SLMC leader said the message has sunk in.
“We must also realise the limits of combative language and allow things to de-escalate,” he said.
He noted that members of the government were aware of the consequences of issues like the recent incident in Dambulla could have on the country.
“There is realisation that this issue has a tendency to polarise communities and therefore the best option would be to allow things to settle down for a while,” Hakeem observed.
“Time is a great healer!”
Confidence in reconciliation be that as it may, the main challenge before the government of which Hakeem is a member of is to bring about reconciliation.
Even three years after the end of the war, reconciliation still seems distant.
Hakeem however seems quite confident that the current administration headed by President Rajapaksa could bring about reconciliation.
He pointed out that the issue is that the country has not had a leader with such an overwhelming mandate particularly from the South, who has the capacity to market a reasonable compromise.
He observed that both Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and J. R. Jayewardana had squandered such opportunities since they hibernated for a long time.
“History tells us that economic prosperity is possible only when there is a strong climate of law and order where rule of law prevails.”
The SLMC Leader noted that in the post conflict situation, this government can exploit the prevailing conditions to maximise investment opportunities and with a massive development drive could take the country forward if a genuine attempt is made to resolve the contentious issues that remain particularly that of a political settlement.
Hakeem is currently engaged in an endeavor to get the TNA back to the negotiating table with the government in order to persuade the party to participate in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to formulate the final political solution to the national question.
“I’m now making an attempt to talk to the TNA and the government to try and break this deadlock and create a win-win situation where the TNA could be persuaded to engage the government and to participate in the parliamentary select committee process,” he said.
He believes that the inhibitions on both sides could be overcome with some simple confidence building assurances.
Nevertheless, he says that it is too early to comment on any possibility of a success, since he has just begun to listen to TNA’s side of the story.
“I’m confident that their misgivings could be resolved by having a broader framework agreed upon. The trajectory of the talks thereafter will have to be managed by the stakeholders through consensus and where that is not possible, at least by reaching a majority consensus,” Hakeem said.