The Arrest, Release and Future of Azath Salley


The main political drama over the past several days was the detention of Azath Salley and the hunger strike he had launched while in detention. During the few days that he was in CID custody Salley was being transported from the CID headquarters to hospital and back in the full glare of media attention. He was visited in the hospital by the Chairman of the Human Rights Council as well. The present writer has known Salley from the time he was in the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party and later the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna led by Chandrika Kumaratunga. In 1994, he joined the UNP with Dr Rajitha Senaratne. He was able to make some headway in the UNP even becoming the UNP Deputy Mayor in Colombo.  Salley’s arrest came as a surprise to those who knew him, including this writer. Salley is an excitable person, with a tendency to talk out of turn and a great love for publicity. The two are not connected. The talking out of turn comes naturally to him – it’s not that he talks out of turn deliberately in order to gain publicity – he does so without thinking.

Seeking publicity is a different activity. As far as publicity goes, this was the biggest moment of his life. Unfortunately he was not able to revel in it as he would have in normal circumstances due to the stress of detention, the hunger strike and the refusal of medication. Salley had been going through a bad patch during the past few years. Though he managed to get as far the Deputy Mayor’s post in the Colombo Municipality, there was no sign of his being able to get any further than that in the UNP. The UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe did not like Salley and Salley did not like Wickremesinghe. Had he remained in the UNP, so long as Wickremesinghe was the party leader, he would not have got the Colombo mayoral candidacy. Indeed it seemed that he would not have got even the deputy mayoral slot which he held for a while earlier. With these differences and disappointments in the background, he broke away from the UNP when Sarath Fonseka became the opposition’s common candidate and joined the UPFA government.

The expectation when he joined the UPFA was that he would become the UPFA’s mayoral candidate in Colombo. But that went to Milinda Moragoda. Another complicating factor was the breakaway of the then parliamentarian Mohamed Maharoof from the UNP.  The UPFA had to give prominence to Maharoof over Salley. The latter resented the intrusion of both Moragoda and Maharoof into what he considered his preserve and he made known his misgivings on this account to the president. Salley did not understand or care about the fact that Maharoof was a more senior person in the UNP and someone who had been in parliament and therefore with a claim to priority over Salley. He made no attempt to understand the pressures faced by the president in this matter and was only mindful of the fact that he had not got what he thought was his due. However the president had managed to persuade Salley to contest the CMC election and he was elected to the council. The last straw was when Milinda Moragoda resigned from the CMC and Maharoof was appointed leader of the opposition in the CMC in his place.

Always a loose cannon

This led to Salley leaving the UPFA in a huff and contesting the 2012 eastern province elections under the SLMC banner.  The SLMC won one seat in the EPC from the Batticaloa district. Salley got 6,000 odd votes and came second in the Batticaloa district, but the candidate from the area got 11,000 votes and won the seat. Salley was left high and dry again. Then there was a very public falling out with the SLMC leadership as well.  Then Salley set up a name-board party and became a part of the Vipaksaye Virodhaya,  the common opposition set up by the UNP. It was in this unpromising situation that Salley organised a meeting to protest against the activities of the Bodu Bala Sena and to promote national reconciliation at the JAIC Hilton. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were due to attend. The invitation card for the event had their names slotted as speakers. Even with names on the invitation card, only about a quarter of the seats in the function room of the JAIC Hilton were occupied. Chandrika never turned up, nor did Ranil. They both know Azath Salley well, and they may have been worried as to what he will say. In any case, the meeting was a spectacular flop as far as attendance was concerned. The present writer stayed on until Salley completed his speech and then left.  As a favour to Salley, I wrote not a word about that meeting.  I did not want to embarrass him any further.

Politically, Azath Salley had reached a dead end when this arrest took place. After his arrest and his hunger strike and now his unconditional release, many people say that his fortunes have changed for the better dramatically. Some say that many Muslims now feel that he was the only Muslim politician who spoke up when all remained silent with regard to the Bodu Bala Sena and allied matters. The high drama of his arrest has now made him a hero among Muslims, they say.  What the future holds for Azath Salley is yet to be seen.  By now, Salley has quarreled with everybody. The only politician he has never quarreled with is Dr Rajitha Senaratne.  Senaratne had been against his arrest from the beginning and he and Vasudeva Nanayakkara had played a backroom role to get him released. The fact is that anybody who has known Salley over a period of time will not take anything he says seriously. So even though the police appear to have taken his statement made to the Junior Vitekan seriously, all those who have known Salley will dismiss anything he says as ‘typical of Salley’ and nothing to worry about.

Those close to Salley say that when he gave that interview to the Junior Vitekan,  he had just heard that his mother had expired;  and Salley who is a loose cannon even in the best of circumstances, could well have said what he should not have said in that obviously disturbed state of mind. In any event, no one who has known Salley will take it seriously even if he calls for a nuclear attack. However, Indian intelligence agencies have been jittery about Pakistan using Tamil speaking Sri Lankan Muslims to make inroads into South India. It is obvious from the sequence of events that the Indian intelligence agencies have provided the Sri Lankan defence authorities with all details of Salley’s visit and whom he met and what he said etcetera. The former Pakistani High Commissioner in Colombo, Bashir Wali Mohamed, a former head of Pakistani intelligence, was one of those suspected by the Indians of using Tamil speaking Sri Lankan Muslims to make inroads into South India.

In fact when High Commissioner Mohamed’s motorcade was bombed in 2008, he immediately accused RAW of being behind the attempt to assassinate him. Unbeknownst to many Sri Lankans, the Indians and Pakistanis are at war with one another on Sri Lankan soil as well. However RAW was not behind that attack on High Commissioner Mohamed. LTTE operatives had simply mistaken his motorcade for that of a minister. Be that as it may, this issue of Tamil speaking Muslim in Sri Lanka acting as proxies to build up networks in South India has been an issue for India for some time. It was just this February that the South Indian city of Hyderabad was rocked by bomb blasts attributed to ‘Indian Mujahedeen’ groups. In such a situation, when a Sri Lankan Muslim politician goes to Tamil Nadu and talks of Muslims taking up arms in Sri Lanka, this would have set the alarm bells ringing in India. The Indians are probably unaware that Salley is just about the last Muslim politician in Sri Lanka who is capable of carrying out such a threat.

The political culture in India is different to that of Sri Lanka. Indian laws are very rigidly applied to all across the board. The Sanjay Dutt drama is a case in point. Had he been in Sri Lanka, Dutt would never have been convicted or even imprisoned for whatever offence he committed. Indeed, he may never have been even prosecuted. In this country, various mechanisms come into play to ‘shape’ things up to get prominent people off the hook.  In India things are different. Tamil politicians in Tamil Nadu do not dare utter a word about separatism in India because that would be a violation of the 16th Amendment to the Indian Constitution, and the entire system would come down on them like a ton of bricks.  In India, a word out of place is enough to get you into trouble. Even mavericks like Vaiko dare not utter any separatist sentiments. In Sri Lanka, however, these things are taken lightly. Even if something that is outside the law is said, nobody makes a big issue of it. What Salley said in India would have made the Indians come running to the Sri Lankan government with the details. In India, no politician would make such utterances.

Among those who had gone to try and persuade Salley to give up his hunger strike was Chathura Senaratne, son of Rajitha Senaratne. Chathura had gone to see Salley when he was brought to hospital from the CID headquarters. Chathura has known Salley from his childhood but even he did not succeed in getting him to give his fast. Some of his Muslim friends had tried to send a Sufi Moulavi from India to get him to stop his fast but since the Moulavi being an Indian did not have an identity card, he had not been allowed in.

A touchy government

Rescue parties were working for Salley even within the government. The day he was arrested, Rajitha Senaratne had told Lakshman Hulugalle that this is not a good thing. Salley has been in politics for a long time and knows virtually everybody. Even the president is no stranger to him. Salley was a prominent BNP participant in the ‘Pada Yathra’ organised by the Mahinda in the early 1990s. He was also active along with Mahinda in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka. And all these people know that Salley always talks out of turn and none of them would be inclined to take even a threat uttered by him seriously.  Some have suggested that the reason behind the arrest are the comments he had made during a Tamil talk show on TNL. Muslims who watched the show have no doubt that it was not the Junior Vitakan interview but the TNL interview that got Salley into hot water. One Muslim gentleman who had seen the TNL show told the present writer ‘kata kedichcha katha tikak kiuwa’.  

Well, he had said ‘kata kedichcha katha’ even in the Junior Vitakan interview, like saying that those who were working in petrol stations and supermarkets in the West had become ministers in this government. This is typical of Salley and the main reason why he has ended up fighting with every political leader he has worked with except Dr Senaratne.  When Salley fights with somebody, he says all kinds of things that make those at the receiving end close the door on him for good. Some have said that following his arrest and hunger strike while in detention, Salley’s stock within the Muslim community has gone up enormously and he will win a set at any level in any election he contests. But given Salley’s  history of fighting with every political leader he came into contact with, he may have to contest and win elections as an independent candidate or the representative of his own party because no political leader will give him nominations! It’s very doubtful whether even the SLMC will give him nominations again because of the very public fight he had with its leadership after the last Eastern Province Elections.

Be that as it may, it was Salley’s affidavit to the president explaining the Junior Vitakan interview and his association with the ‘Popular Front of India’ which got him released. What he had said in that affidavit is basically that he was misquoted in Junior Vitakan and that he has sent a clarification which has already been published in the magazine. He had expressed his regrets if anybody has been misled by the comments attributed to him. He had also stated that he had attended a gathering of the Popular Front of India without any knowledge of the background of that organisation and that it was the first time that he had any association with it. If he had said the same thing to the CID, instead of going on hunger strike, he may have secured his release.  But Salley loves histrionics. One feels that the idea from the beginning was to get the president to intervene. Even his daughter Ameena was appealing to the president to give Salley a glass of water ‘with his own hand’. Not that Salley has no right to appeal to the president. He has known and associated with Mahinda Rajapaksa for decades.

There was nothing said in that affidavit about the TNL interview and he has not apologised for anything he had said in that interview either. So even though people feel that it is the TNL interview that got him arrested, the fact is that he would not have been arrested if not for the Junior Vitakan interview. In the 1980s during the J.R.Jayewardene regime, there were many Trotskyite political groups that used to openly declare that they are in favour of an armed rebellion to overthrow the government. But the Jayewardene government took not the slightest notice of these groups at that time because everybody knew that none of these groups had the ability to carry out what they were advocating. However, after the JVP actually launched an attempt to overthrow the UNP government by force of arms, the UNP government would have become less tolerant of those advocating armed insurrection.

 We have a similar situation here. After having crushed the LTTE with the greatest difficulty, the present government can be expected to be touchy about anybody, even a well known maverick like Salley talking about armed rebellion especially when such talk is aimed at a particular ethnic community.  When someone starts talking of armed rebellion not on behalf of any particular political organisation, but a whole ethnic community, the government has to sit up and take notice, because it’s a general call to arms, not limited to any particular political organisation. Besides, there would have been the Indian intelligence services screaming blue murder at the connections being fomented between radical groups in Tamil Nadu and Tamil speaking Muslim politicians in Sri Lanka who they think will become a fifth column for Pakistan.

 Opposition’s treatment of Salley

Salley is by and large a harmless individual. Most of the harm he does is to himself, and as such he did not deserve to be arrested. But at the time he was arrested, Salley made all the wrong moves. While we all know that he likes publicity, one would not have thought that his love of drama would have motivated him to take the drastic step of refusing food and water and even medication over an issue like this.  If he told the CID what he has said in his affidavit, he may have been released after recording a statement.  It’s a good thing that Salley secured his release with his affidavit.  Had he been released due to external pressure on the government, or deteriorating health due to the hunger strike, he would definitely have had to appear in courts. The government would have been trying to show the world that the arrest of Salley was justified and they would have been quoting local laws and presenting whatever information they got from India, in courts.  This is what has happened to Dr Shirani Bandaranayake.

The opposition made her impeachment a political issue and held doggedly to the position that Shiranai Bandaranayake was not guilty of any of the accusations against her. Now the government is out to prove that the allegations against her have substance. As a result of this, even after being sacked, Dr Bandaranayake has no peace and quiet and she has to suffer the indignity of appearing before the Bribery Commission. Even her passport has been impounded.  Salley however had the good sense not to leave any lose ends that the government may feel called upon to tie up. Despite his loose tongue and excitable temperament, Salley has always had the good sense to stop short of getting into really big trouble.

While Salley does have a tendency to quarrel with political leaders, it has to be said that he is not a vicious, scheming, undercutting type of politician. All those who know him, know that he is an affable, friendly, loose cannon who wears his heart on his sleeve. He says whatever that comes to his mind without thinking or calculation. His bubbly personality would have made him a roaring success as a shopkeeper because everybody would want to go to Salley’s shop and not even the Bodu Bala Sena would have been able to prevent patrons of all communities from patronising his shop.  But as a politician, this inability to rein in his tongue is a distinct disadvantage, and he may not be able to reap the full benefit of the publicity he got from this latest escapade. Even though he is now a member of the UNP led front called Vipaksaye Virodhaya, that does not mean that he will get anywhere under a UNP dispensation. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe openly says that while Vipaksaye Virodhaya will oppose the government jointly, they will contest elections separately.

So even if the UNP wins the next elections, that does not mean that Salley will get anything from that government. He was not getting anywhere in the UNP even when he was a member of that party. It is unlikely that he will get anywhere now that he is outside it. While there is this impression that his stock has gone up within the Muslim community because of his arrest, we will have to wait and see whether this translates into success at the political level. Even General Sarath Fonseka was a factor to reckon with so long as he was in prison. But the moment he was released he became a cypher. Similarly, Salley was suddenly popular so long as he was inside. Will the support last now that he is out once again? The opposition as can be expected, tried to make political capital out of Salley’s arrest. Some opposition party leaders have been saying that Azath Salley was released due to pressure on the government. To them Salley was not a man under arrest, but another point of contest between the opposition and the government. And they want to show that the government lost the contest by releasing Salley.

Now that Salley is outside once again, the opposition should be asked to put their money where their mouth is. An opposition hero cannot be a party-less political waif. Salley put up a courageous fight against the government and he came out. Now, let Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe officially declare him a hero, take him back into the UNP and make a public statement to the effect that if the Muslims of Colombo elect him to parliament, the UNP will give him a cabinet portfolio when they come back to power. The same challenge should be made to Mr Rauff Hakeem. Since Azath Salley contested the last Eastern PC elections under the SLMC, declare bygones to be bygones, forget the tongue lashings they got, take Salley back into the SLMC and give him a prominent party position. If all important slots are occupied, make Salley the official spokesman of the SLMC and show the world that the sentiments expressed for Salley when he was in detention were genuine.  The UNP and the SLMC wanted the government to put Salley OUT. Now that has been done, and it is up to the UNP or the SLMC to take him IN. They should make sure that the public sees no delay or hesitation in the UNP and the SLMC in offering a place of honour to Salley. Regardless whether he accepts it or not, the UNP and the SLMC have a duty to make him a good offer.

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