By Dr Harsha De Silva
Passionate in his noble thoughts with an undying belief in unity for the sake of peace, coexistence and, above all, the development of the nation, Deshamanya Al Haj Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar was a prominent lawyer, a formidable politician and a loving family man who has left his mark in every Sri Lankan’s heart.
It is very hard to eulogise any man, to capture in words the very intimate details of his life, and it is even harder to do so for a prominent figure in history, who moved a nation towards unity and harmony. However, I consider it a privilege to write about the remarkable life lived by Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar and will attempt to capture in words the true essence of his life.
Bakeer Markar was born into a respectable family in Beruwala in 1917. After completing his primary school education at St. Sebastian’s School, Hulftsdorp, he had the privilege of joining Zahira College, Colombo for his secondary education. He passed out as a lawyer and commenced his legal practice at the Kalutara Bar in 1950.
Due to the perseverance and study he put into his practice of the law, he had clients, both Sinhalese and Muslim, flocking to him. Legends are many of the several instances where he appeared for Sinhalese clients in cases filed against persons of his own community, thereby following discerningly the commandment in the Holy Quran that one must ‘stand up for justice’ even against one’s own kith and kin. Like it is said, he never wavered from the courage of his own convictions.
His initial steps into politics, was in 1946 when he was sub-warden at Zahira College, Colombo. Then Dr. T.B. Jayah contested the Labour Leader A.E. Goonesinghe at the General Elections of 1946, to the State Council. Bakeer Markar was entrusted the task of carrying out Dr. Jayah’s election campaign, which he did successfully. Dr. Jayah was elected Member of the State Council.
The leadership of Dr. Jayah was laudable. With this kind of inspiration, experience, and the taste of political nectar, Bakeer Markar pursued in the footsteps of his political guru Dr. T.B. Jayah. Bakeer Markar began his political career as a young member of the Beruwala Urban Council in 1950. It would have been evident even at the time, where this young and amateur politician was heading when he was elected Chairman of the Council in his first year as a member.
Early in his political career at the Urban Council, he earned a name as a servant of the people; an honest, hardworking and approachable man with excellent knowledge of his constituency and its citizens. That reputation naturally paved the way for him to become the Member of Parliament for Beruwala and later the highest position in the Parliament of Sri Lanka, the Speaker of the House in 1978.
His time as the Speaker earned him respect and appreciation from parliamentarians of both sides of the House. He continued to serve as the Speaker until 1983 when he was appointed a Cabinet Minister without portfolio. After ending his parliamentary career, he was appointed as the first Governor of the Southern Province.
Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is appropriate to remember Bakeer Markar as an icon whose qualities set him apart from everybody else. His memory is still fresh in the minds of the Sri Lankan people as a man of robust principle and strong character, never seeking wealth or glory through his political ambitions and responsibilities.
His home electorate of Beruwala is and has always been, a complete image of the diverse ethnic and religious communities of Sri Lanka. Engaging these various groups towards a common cause and a shared political goal was never to be an easy task. Only a man of exceptional character and an unwavering will, like Bakeer Markar, had the ability to do so.
“Though I belonged to the minority community, I was able to enter the national and international arena only because I was able to go forward with the majority community,” were words spoken by Bakeer Makar himself as an advocate of national unity. In the name of harmony and unity, Bakeer Makar was a prominent figure at the Beruwala Urban Council who pushed the moving of the resolution to recognise the Sinhala language as the official language. In his efforts to unite the Muslim youth with the Sinhalese, Bakeer Makar earned the affectionate nickname “Sinhala Bakeer”.
Further, he wholeheartedly supported the policy adopted by then Leader of the Opposition J. R. Jayewardene to avoid stirring the simmering anger of a vast section of the public of Sri Lanka towards violence. Moreover, speaking on the special allowance to plantation workers on 6 October 1965, he spoke on behalf of the estate workers, referring to them as “Ceylonese” which emphasised his vision “one identity under one nation”. He believed and espoused the true spirit of equality for everyone.
Bakeer Marker secured a special place in the hearts of the people as he worked tirelessly to change the lives of poor and desperate. Economic policies of Sri Lanka from 1970-1977 which created hardships for most people, made Bakeer Makar see the harshness of poverty and the struggle of the poor in the country. He knew the only way to change the lives of the poor was to change the government.
Bakeer Marker’s remarkable contribution towards the United National Party is not to be forgotten. With a strong will and lasting belief in fellowship, he worked tirelessly to support the regrouping of a demotivated United National Party after the catastrophic defeat at the parliamentary election in 1970. His work in the party, especially in the Kalutara District was an illustration of the positive contribution he and few other politicians made towards reorganising the party network and regrouping its members.
His victory at the General Elections of 1977 was the dazzling landmark of his political career. At this General Election, he was returned with a remarkable majority of 27,000 votes, with a total poll of 49,000 votes. This electoral victory of 1977 was a historic gift to the respectful minority.
On 4 August 1977, he was elected Deputy Speaker. This was a short stint. He was thereafter elected to the high office of Speaker on 21 September 1978, being the unanimous choice of the Government and the Opposition. He was the last Speaker of the old Parliament at Galle Face and the first Speaker of the new Parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura.
On his elevation to the position of Speaker, he stood by the great traditions and decorum of the Speaker’s Office. He did not want to be a nominal Speaker, merely presiding at parliamentary sessions. The Office of Speaker was made most significant. The mace was not any more mere symbolic. The Speaker’s mace was made the due symbol of authority. The Speaker’s traditional robe was reintroduced, which to this day has its glamour. Dignity was restored and redefined to the Speaker’s office.
Above all, Speaker Bakeer Markar saw to it that the annual audit of the Parliamentary administration was brought under the direct supervision of the Auditor General, making Parliamentary affairs and administration transparent. As the Speaker, he also maintained an excellent rapport with the diplomatic community. Further, he made sure a roster was drawn to ensure that equal opportunities were given to all Members of Parliament to go abroad on official duties.
Bakeer Markar was internationally renowned and countries in the Middle East and the Far East held him in high esteem as he proved to be a great Ambassador of goodwill for Sri Lanka. He went on to excel in international relations and established close connections with the Iraqi Government. Through this connection, he built an entire village in Eravur, in the East. He was the founder President of the Iraq-Sri Lanka Friendship Association and remained in that position until his demise. He was fortunate that he did not witness the dismemberment of Iraq which would have grieved him immensely.
In addition to his extraordinary political career, Bakeer was an extraordinary humanitarian. Large gatherings from all walks of life were constantly seen at his Arab Road residence in Beruwala and each individual was attended to their satisfaction. He attended weddings and funerals and went wherever and whenever he was needed as President of the Muslim League Youth Front. He travelled to all corners of the country, continuously meeting people and addressing their needs. All petitions and requests were perused in his chambers and the relevant ministers were summoned to deal with and give redress to the humanitarian problems of all concerns.
He was also known for advising his security to ensure that the public was made comfortable when visiting him, for he believed that without the support of the common man he would not have reached the heights in life that he has. It was precisely this goodness in his heart that he carried and the deeply embedded love he had for his people that makes him unforgettable.
Bakeer Markar’s legacy lives on through his children and grandchildren. The public standing and love his eldest son Imthiaz Bakeer Markar is enjoying throughout the island is a testimony to this. Imthiaz Bakeer Markar similar to his father, is a well-respected, politician and a man of robust principle and strong character. His grandchildren Asaf, Azam, Fadhil, and Insaf continue to carry on their grandfather’s legacy by working tirelessly towards social justice and equality. I take this opportunity to remember not only the soul of Abdul Bakeer Markar but also the young and wise soul of his loving grandson Adhil Bakeer Markar.
This giant in history demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough and that no matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions. Bakeer Marker was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. He was not only a leader of a movement that pushed for equality and unity but also a skilful politician who understood the ties that bind the human spirit.
With a strong belief in reconciliation and coexistence and a will to contribute in his utmost capacity towards the harmonious development of the nation, there was a tone of sadness in his final address to the Parliament when he stated, “It is my regret that I shall no longer be with you when you add chapter to shining chapter in Sri Lanka’s history.”
He dreamt further when he said: “The time is not far off when Ceylon will sit in the Assembly of Nations, as a well-developed country and take its rightful place there and play its role.” This goes on to show Abdul Bakeer Markar’s deep-seated love for his nation, every community that makes Sri Lanka the beautiful diverse island it is, and his undying belief of the heights the nation can reach coupled with his vision “one identity under one nation”.
It is no doubt that his political legacy and the memory of his magnificent soul continue to secure a hopeful future for Sri Lanka and all its people.
An appeal to President
This is to request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow burial of COVID -19 infected corpses of Muslims in the burial ground close to the residence of the diseased instead of sending them to Otamaavadi. It goes without saying that all Health protocols and regulations will have to be stringently adhered to for the burial at the existing burial grounds.
I hope that this request will be granted as the experts in Virology have confirmed that there is no ground water contamination with the burial of those dying of Covid-19.
This will reduce considerably logistic issues and cost to both the State and the family members of the deceased and at the same time expedite burial.
COVID-19 has opened up the doors for an umpteen number of “talk shows”: of various types, conveying different TV messages to our people on how to cope with the many daily problems faced by them, including the now prevailing pandemic.
At a time the public are very effectively advised by the relevant health authorities delegated with that task, and highly competent to educate the masses how to cope with this pandemic, what purpose these “shows” give our people hungry for news is left for anyone to guess.
Recently. I happened to watch two such talk shows telecast one after the other, where the same person was interviewed by two different interviewers on the same subject, as if competing with each other. More amusing was the pose shown to the camera by one of the interviewers at the end of the show, as if asking the viewers “how do you like my ‘show’?
These Talk Shows, similar to the virus, seem to be able to develop variants with time to cover other fields, too, such as economy, Port City, reforestation and lesser known local small industry entrepreneurs, diplomats and academics; and how to make Colombo a green city by a programme to plant thousands of trees to get off the ground immediately. Everyone knows that what is being planted are not trees but young plants, only a few weeks old, and no one knows when they will ever grow into a tree as imagined, if they survive the test of time and we are lucky to live till then. But repeating these shows as happening at the moment is a waste of time.
What I appreciated most in one special case was the liberal use of highly scientific jargon, even if the person to my imagination never studied science and more so the use of good English that was encouraging. But what worried me most was if someone else asked why these programmes are not conducted in Tamil?
Finally, the Telecom beats them all, where every call taken precedes a lengthy message on prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes repeated twice. It all ends with the message only. But not the call.
Eng ANTON NANAYAKKARA
Protecting Sri Lanka’s maritime rights
Your editorial, Poaching: Grasp the nettle (The Island of 09 June), provides a good analysis of the issue concerning the poaching of fishery resources in Sri Lanka waters, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.
The maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India was settled by two agreements entered into by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. Accordingly, fishing vessels and fishers of the two countries were debarred from fishing in the waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of each other.
Subsequently, the Maritimes Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 was enacted with provisions for the President to declare the limits of the agreed maritime boundary between the two countries, and different maritime zones of Sri Lanka, such as the historic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, pollution prevention zone and the continental shelf. This law prohibits unauthorised fishing in any of the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by any foreign vessel. The President did declare the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by a proclamation published in the Gazette 248/1 of 15-01-1977. Since then unauthorized fishing by Indian vessels on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became illegal.
However, part of the agreement relating to fishing has never been honoured by India, whose fishers continued to fish on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay, and on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar, which jointly form the historic waters of Sri Lanka. According to the Presidential Proclamation, waters on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while those on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea (provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 relating to internal waters and territorial sea do not contradict such declarations provided they are made on the provisions of the customary international law). On the other hand, although prior to signing of the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1976, Sri Lankan fishing vessels were fishing in the Wadge Bank, which fell in the EEZ of India since the Agreement came into effect, no Sri Lankan vessels has been found fishing in that area.
At present, three days a week more than 1,000 Indian trawlers fish on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary in violation of the law relating to fisheries in Sri Lanka. Any Sri Lankan vessel, irrespective of the part of Sri Lanka where it is fishing, should have been registered as a fishing vessel of Sri Lanka and obtained a fishing licence. Further, no such vessel is allowed to engage in mechanised bottom trawling.
There have been many discussions between the two countries since the 1990s to stop this illegal practice by Indian trawlers. Such discussions only end up with agreed minutes, but no solution. Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, No 59 of 1979 provides for a High Court Judge to impose a penalty of a fine of Rs. 1.5 million on any foreign vessels engaged in unauthorised fishing in Sri Lanka waters. However, this provision was never used against any Indian trawler caught in Sri Lanka waters with unauthorised fishing, owing to practical difficulties. Subsequently, in 2017, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 was enacted to impose a two-year jail term or a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 with a view to controlling this problem. Although the Sri Lanka Navy takes into custody Indian trawlers and hands them over with fishers to Fisheries authorities, the moment they get a letter from the Indian High Commission asking for their release, all are released. In this context, sinking unusable buses in the sea in this area appears to be a practical solution to the problem. For that also India has expressed objections. Sri Lanka has sovereign rights to take any decision in regard to its internal waters, and territorial sea (subject to the right of innocent passage of any foreign vessel) and historic waters (these form part of either internal waters or the territorial sea). Therefore, it is not necessary to stop this activity, just because India is objecting.
As regards the claim by India that Sri Lankan vessels also engage in unauthorised fishing in India waters, it should be noted that they are taken into custody rarely in very small numbers; that, too, mostly in the Indian EEZ, while they are returning after fishing in the Arabian sea. Any vessel has the right to navigation in the EEZ of any country. Even when innocent Sri Lankan fishers happen to be caught by the Indian authorities, they are made to suffer in Indian jails.
A few years earlier also, you expressed concern on this issue by an editorial, Saying it with fish, when Sri Lanka released all Indian fishers who were in jail in Sri Lanka pending trials, as a gesture of thanks for India’s vote at the UN in favour of Sri Lanka. Thank you for your concerns.
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