Former speaker : M.H. Mohamed: A colossus among men

M.H. Mohamed

I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of Marhoom whose sixth death anniversary fell a few days ago. I have known M.H. Mohamed for decades, both as a politician and a person. 

His political career, spanning seven decades, is worthy of being included in a time capsule and earmarked as a precedent for the present-day youth, especially among those, who intend to venture into politics.  

Mohamed’s advent to politics wasn’t accidental or inadvertent. He hailed from a family of a longstanding line of people’s representatives in local government politics. His great grandfather M.C. Abdul Rahman was a member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon, the precursor to the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1876. His granduncles M.I.M. Haniffa and M.L.M. Zainuddin were Members of the Colombo Municipal Council (MMC) from 1894 to 1900 and 1900 to 1907 respectively. However, the route he took to launch his political career and the challenges he chose to face while voyaging through the initial years as a politician, emphasised the fact that the summits he reached in his political career were all hard-earned and were an attestation to his diligence as a statesman.

Mohamed, first became a municipal councillor at the age of 24. Initially, he set foot on an ideological journey as an ardent leftist with Communist leanings inspired by such stalwarts as Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, Peter Keuneuman and Samasamajists like Dr. N.M. Perera and others. 

He and V.A. Sugathadasa were followers of the Ceylon Labour party in which Al Haj Mohamed’s Father N.M.M. Haniffa and uncle N.M.M. Ishak too remained strong supporters – and eventually became members of the Colombo Municipal Council. Young Mohamed while still a sympathiser of the Ceylon Communist Party, as early as 1947 got elected for the first time to the Colombo Municipal Council from the Maligawatte ward as an Independent Member. He held the seat without a break until 1965, to enter Parliament. 

He became the Mayor of Colombo from 1960 before he entered parliamentary politics. He contested the Borella electorate in the 1965 General Elections, beating the fiery Samasamajist Viviene Goonewardena. As a young parliamentarian he earned a place in Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet as Minister of Labour, Employment and Housing. He successfully regained his Borella seat in 1977, when J.R. Jayawardena appointed him to the Cabinet as Minister of Transport. He would retain his seat until 2010 in the consecutive elections that followed. In 1989, Mohamed was elected as the Speaker of the 9th Parliament of Sri Lanka by R. Premadasa’s Government.

For most part of his political career, Mohamed represented the Borella electorate which was predominantly a Sinhalese electorate where he received immense respect and support. In fact the renowned Bhikku Rev. Mohottawa Amarawansa Thero had opposed Mohamed’s nomination initially because of his Islamic background, but eventually became a staunch supporter of Mohamed’s political career, upon coming to realise the truly pan-Sri Lankan approach displayed by him. 

Mohamed was a great friend of the Sinhalese people, while he did not neglect to advance the needs of his community. His affinity towards assisting the cause of Buddhist temples and Dhamma schools was special. For example, upon being appointed as the transport minister, he gave free bus passes to the Buddhist students who used to attend Dhamma School on weekends. For this gesture, M.H. Mohamed was referred to as “Sinhala Mohamed”. 

In reality, Mohamed did not expect to be called a “Muslim leader” when embarking upon his pursuits in politics or religious matters. He was equally comfortable with all religious leaders, associating with Muslim Ulemas as well as the clergy of other denominations – for whom he extended respect and honour without distinction. 

Mohamed had felt the urgency to bring communities together in a spirit of “live and let live” and perhaps create in this island a thirst for a “country focused” approach above narrow communal interests where Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim leaders would work towards national reconciliation, the cardinal prerequisite for national progress, resembling the mood of the country in the years which followed immediately after first independence. 

At a stage where our Motherland was labouring to spawn communities pregnant with mistrust, communalism, ethnocentric nationalism and jingoism M.H. Mohamed’s vision was indeed very futuristic. Especially considering what such narrow communalistic ideas have brought forth in the recent past, politicians of the ilk of M.H. Mohamed have been dearly missed, as he was a pragmatic politician who dreamt of a Sri Lanka where we would all live together in peace and harmony. His leadership and presence – a shield against such vices – is what we all vehemently long for. 

M.H. Mohamed was a person committed to promote inter-racial amity and brotherhood. It is noteworthy that he formed a forum for National Amity and Understanding albeit under the roof of the Sri Lanka Islamic Centre, in an effort to promote international peace and harmony. 

He showed remarkable statesmanship, when he got, among others, erudite Buddhist scholars like Ven. Kumburugamuwe Vajira Nayaka Thero (VC of Sabaragamuwa University) and Ven. Banagala Upathissa Nayaka Thero (Chief Sanganayaka Thero of Japan and Chief of Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka) to occupy prominent positions in this forum, sponsored by the Rabitat al-Alam Al-Islami (also known as the World Muslim League) in Mecca, Saudi 

Arabia – and was its founder member of the Sri Lankan Chapter of the organisation and a Constituent Councillor as well. He was instrumental in securing financial and material assistance from the World Muslim League, and the Islamic Development Bank to help the needy. His absence I am sure is particularly felt by the impoverished, especially during these testing times. 

Hailing from a deeply religious family, M.H. Mohamed did not neglect his religious functions, or associations or activities. One of the major contributions with far-reaching beneficial effects for the Muslim community of Sri Lanka by Mohamed was the establishment of an independent Department of Muslims Religious Cultural affairs in 1981 during President J.R. Jayewardene’s government. As the Minister in Charge of Muslim Religious Affairs, Mohamed efficiently addressed the issues of the Haj pilgrimage by Sri Lankan Muslims. For the first time, a Waqf Tribunal, an appellate body, was created in addition to the Waqf Board. 

M.H. Mohamed would be remembered as a true patriot, a devout practical Muslim, his vision fundamentally Universalist, his political career a perfect template for any budding politician, and indeed he is the quintessence for future Muslim politicians in Sri Lanka. His name would be remembered for many more years to come as a people’s man, and as someone who would have been a perfect foil against racism and miscommunications that arose between brotherly communities during the last decade. Above all he was a humanist ready to serve the people he represented. 

May Almighty Allah accept his services and grant him Jannathul Firdous. 

 Faisz Musthapha, President’s Counsel 

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