MUSLIMS & TAMIL EELAM
An Introduction to the Muslim Question
- From a paper presented at the
International Federation of Tamils Conference "Towards a Just Peace"
The origins of the Muslims in the North-East of Sri Lanka, as accepted by many
historians are obscure. It has not been established whether they are the descendants of
the Shafi Sect of Muslims who migrated to Sri Lanka from Arabia as far back as the nineth
century or those of the migrant Muslims who became a settled community in the early
The Muslim elite has also been refuting the point of view of Sir Ponnambalam
Ramanathan, a Tamil member of the Executive Council of Ceylon, that the Muslims of Sri
Lanka including those settled in the North-East originated from South India and were
Tamils who embraced Islam.
The same elitist group, while admitting that the Muslims use Tamil as their everyday
language and their ancestors took Tamil women as their partners, denied that they were
culturally similar to the Tamils. This group also maintained that they were a distinct
religious and ethnic group.
The Muslims of the North-East who constituted only 38% of the total Muslim population
of the Island engaged themselves mainly in agriculture and fisheries for their livelihood,
whereas the rest of the 62% living in the South are primarily traders and businessmen. The
Southern Muslims are also educationally and economically more advanced than those of the
North- East. This accounts for their dominant political role and leadership.
The Muslim political leaders, mostly from the South, decided the destinies of their
brethren in the North-East. They also fully aligned themselves with Sinhalese political
parties which formed the successive governments and implemented the repressive measures
which affected the rights, liberties and freedom of both the Tamils and Muslims.
This clearly explains the lack of consciousness and non- participation of the vast
majority of the Muslims of the North-East in the non-violent agitations and liberation
struggle of the Tamils. Their leadership, by keeping their people out and avoiding
involvement, achieved their two objectives of earning the sympathy of the majority
Sinhalese leaders in power and maintaining their separateness as a distinct ethnic
minority different from the Tamils.
This isolation of the Muslims and their leaders, however, should not in any way affect
the decision of the Tamils to secure and guarantee the safety, rights, freedom and
development of the Muslim minority in the traditional homeland of the Tamils. Steps taken
for a just peace in the Island of Sri Lanka, therefore, should include this as a key
element in the agenda for any lasting and just peace.
Muslim elitist writers highlighted in their writings the consorted stand of their
leadership that the first Arabic settlers of the Island were Hashemites, a migratory tribe
who left Arabia in the seventh century because of persecution as a result of a change in
the ruling dynasty.
This was purely to refute the hypothesis advanced in the latter part of the ninteenth
century that the Ceylon Moors/Muslims were descendants of South Indian Tamils converted to
Their objective was to distiguish the Ceylon Muslim from the coast Moors of South India
and the Ceylon Tamils.
However it is believed that a few hundreds of Shafi Muslims of the Shafi Sect began
migrating to the Island as far back as the nineth century. They came as traders and
extended their interest from import/export trade to internal trade. By the beginning of
the twelfth century Muslims were emerging as a settled community. They were scattered
along the coastal areas but some of them moved into the interior. A considerable number of
those settled in the coast of the then Eastern and Northern provinces earned their
livelihood by engaging in agriculture, fisheries, and local crafts.
It is also believed that the Muslims who settled in the Southern sector of the Eastern
Province took Tamil women as their partners. The arrival of the Portugese hindered the
traditional occupation of the Muslims of the South, namely trade. These Muslims were also
subjected to persecution. However the economic activities of the Muslims of the North-East
remained unaffected even after the arrival of the Portugese to the Island.
The revival of Buddhism and the entry of the emerging class of Sinhalese traders into
the arena resulted in a clash of trading interests between the Sinhalese and Muslim
traders. This also promoted economic competition which culminated in a number of clashes
between the two groups. In the meantime, antagonism against the coast Moors was building
up in the Sinhalese areas because of their pawn-brokering and money-lending activities.
An attempt was made in this hostile atmosphere by the coast Moors to interfere with the
religious activities of the Buddhists at Gampola in the Central Province which sparked off
the riots of 1915.
Even though these riots did not affect the Muslims of the North-East, the attitude of
Sir P Ramanathan in taking a positive stand against the harsh action of the British
colonial Government to curb the riots and his support for the Sinhalese did not meet with
This also strained to some degree the relationships, generally between the Tamils and
When the demand for 50/50 representation in the proposed parliament was placed before
the Soulbury Commission as a panacea for the minority problems in Ceylon, the All-Ceylon
Moors' Association which represented the entire Muslim population withdrew its support for
This action of the Moors' Association had a dual purpose.
Their contention was that supporting the 50/50 proposals of the Tamil Congress would
tantamount to accepting Ramanathan's hypothesis that they were descendants of Tamils who
embraced Islam and would go against their own identity as a religious ethnic group. By
their not supporting this move and taking a pro-Sinhala stance in independent Sri Lanka,
they would according to them safeguard their trading and commercial interests.
CURRENT SITUATION (1992)
Many attribute the present state of affairs in the East to the Second Eelam War in June
1989 and the collapse of the talks between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the
Sri Lanka Government. But the fact is that the relationship between the Tamils and Muslims
had been strained for sometime before the Second Eelam War and even before the 1987
Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
Again, any meaningful consideration of the Muslim question cannot be separated from
a consideration of the strategy adopted by the Sri Lankan Government to deny the Tamils a
separate homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Over the past several decades, the
Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan Government has adopted three main strategies to counter the
Tamil demand for recognition of the Tamil homeland.
Firstly, planned state aided colonization
and settlement of Sinhala peasants.
Secondly, the establishment of a permanent military divide at Manal Aru to drive
a wedge between the North and East.
Thirdly, securing a permanent rift between Tamils and Muslims in the East by
making land as the bone of contention.
Security forces have not succeeded in de-linking the supply lines to the East at Manal
Aru. But the Sri Lankan government has succeeded in creating a rift between the Muslims
and Tamils in the East. However, there is no guarantee that the Sri Lankan government will
not let down the Muslims in the long term perspective. In the event that Tamils are
defeated in the East, Sri Lankan government will have no further use for the Muslims.
Again if the Tamils progress towards their goal of separation what of the Muslims? In
the alternative if the Tamils decide to consider any make-shift solutions, what then could
be the solution for the Muslims? Finding a solution for the Muslims will be the main
factor that will be going against a peace settlement.
In the early 1980s, when the liberation struggle of the Tamils intensified, in the
East, several Muslim youths joined it. Some became martyrs. But when it came to a question
of reprisals by the Sri Lanka army, the Muslims because of their separate identity,
enjoyed a measure of security.
Those Muslims who did not like to lose this privilege tended to maintain a 'neutral'
attitude towards Tamil militant groups. However, even in the mid 80's, till the emergence
of the Jihad movement created by the Sri Lankan Government, the relationship between the
Muslims and the Tamil militant groups was generally speaking, not hostile.
The Government created the Jihad movement mainly to prevent the Tamils and Muslims from
joining forces. They felt that in this way, they could destroy Tamil militancy in the
East. With the emergence of Jihad, the relationship between the two communities
deteriorated. Jihad and its sympathizers opposed the presence of Tamil militants in the
There were sporadic incidents of violence. The suspicions between the two communities
became sharper. As the Sri Lankan army was always in the background, the Tamils claimed
that they were the most affected by these clashes. But the confrontation was not as
fierce, as it is now. There were clashes in '85, '86 and '87.
These clashes increased with the induction of the Indian Army in 1987 and 1988. When
the Indian Army entered Tamil homeland, it was seen as a force supporting the liberation
of the Tamils. In the North, it perceived as the force which saved the Tamils from
'Operation Liberation'. In the East, it was seen as a force against those Sinhalese
colonists who threatened the Tamils and as a force which strengthened the Tamils who had
been attacked by the Muslims.
The Tamil groups who came along with the Indian Army took revenge on the Sinhala
colonists as well as those Muslims who had earlier harassed the Tamils. As a result many
Muslim villages were badly affected. Muslims who were already prejudiced against India
because of their affinity towards Pakistan, hated the Indian Army as well as the Tamil
groups. This hatred made them turn towards the Tigers and support them in larger numbers.
It was at this stage the Muslim Congress entered the political scene.
Muslim Congress is a party based on religion. It had mosques as its base. They
participated for the first time in the December 1988 Provincial Council elections. The
Muslim Congress which was opposed to India highlighted in its election campaign the
atrocities perpetrated by the Indian forces on their women and the desecration of their
places of worship. This emotional appeal succeeded tremendously.
The Muslim Congress emerged as a powerful party in the East based, on religion. The
Muslim Congress opposed the Tamil national liberation struggle. It feared that the Muslims
would get immersed in Tamil nationalism and lose their religious identity.
Within a short span of their political existence, the Muslim Congress had to face and
take decisions on complicated emotional issues. Such decisions which were taken in haste,
showed a sense of political immaturity. There was then a sudden transformation and the
Muslim Congress spoke in support of the Indian Army's presence in Sri Lanka.
This turn about by the Muslim Congress, according to informed sources, was due to the
fact that the leader of the group had been indirectly intimidated by an armed group,
supposedly pro-Indian. Thereafter, it was alleged that he had received financial
assistance from the Indian Government. Later two hundred Muslim youths were reported to
have received training at the hands of the Indian Army at Uppukarachi in the Akkaraipattu
Thus when the Second Eelam war started, the Muslim Congress supported the Sri Lanka
Government. It lacked the foresight to ponder on the after-effects of such an attitude on
Propaganda against the Tigers commenced in mosques in the East. Tigers did not lay
restrictions on their Muslim cadres regarding their religious observances. At the mosques
these cadres listened to the propaganda aired against the Tigers. They were also treated
as outcasts and exhorted to defect with their arms. After such exhortation twenty Muslim
youths deserted with arms and joined their fold.
Many other Muslims who were in rival set-ups against the Tamils, joined their ranks and
supported the Army. The Tamils least expected such desertion from their ranks and they
still hold the view that they were deceived by the Muslims. It was hatred towards the
Indian army which drove them into the Tiger-fold. This support was withdrawn as suddenly
as it came.
This sudden turn could be attributed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Regardless of these
facts, the spark that set off the Second Eelam War was ironically concerned with an
incident in which a Muslim tailor figured.
Today the Muslims have been displaced in the North.
They have no protection in the East where they have to be under the full protective power
of the Army. In such a predicament where they have to be at the mercy of the Army, the
Muslims have mostly lost their bargaining power with the Sri Lankan Government. This
plight has to be interpreted as a humiliating political defeat for the Muslim Congress.