By Randima Attygalle
The tri-lingual orator, lawyer, scholar and a politician of a different stock, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar is a paragon of a true Sri Lankan. Former Cabinet Minister of Media, Postal and Telecommunications and State Minister of Housing, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar was appointed Chairman of the National Media Centre in 2016. In an interview with Lankan Isle, this much loved leader of humility calls for a Sri Lanka, cemented by ethnic unity and social justice.
Young Imthiaz Bakeer Markar was driven from Beruwala to the kindergarten of Holy Family Convent, Kalutara by his father to the tune of olu nelala mala gothala…
The revered lawyer of the Kalutara Bar, the MP for Beruwala who lived in the hearts of the masses and later, the Speaker of the Parliament who stood for the grievances of the destitute, M.A. Bakeer Markar, stopped his Volkswagen to offer a ride to many of his people from Beruwala who waited for a bus. Young son Imthiaz who had to contend with sitting on the lap of a passenger was often late to school! On a few occasions he was caned for being a regular ‘later comer’. “Our Volkswagen largely served as means of public transport and one day when my mother raised her concerns, my father brushed them off with the response, ‘what matters to me is not a heap of iron but people,” reflects Imthiaz Bakeer Markar whose father’s words struck a permanent chord in him.
The lawyer-turned politician, gifted with a silver tongue, Imthiaz is loved by people of all walks of life transcending ethnic and religious divisions. The values championed by his forefathers, who prided in their love for the community have shaped him to become what he is today, says the ‘people’s man’ that he is. The first Muslim student to have led the Sinhala debating team of Ananda College, Colombo, Imthiaz turned tables at a young age,setting the example of what a modern Sri Lankan should be.
Contesting for Beruwala on a UNP ticket, M.A. Bakeer Markar made history in 1977 by winning his seat with a majority of 27,000 votes. “Our hometown Beruwala had only 8% of Muslims at this time and my father was elected as the MP by a Sinhalese majority which spoke for his popularity. My father never segregated people. No matter who turned up uncalled at meal times at our ancestral home, there was a seat at the table and extra food,” smiles Imthiaz who, just like his father, makes anyone feel at home in his company.
A descendant of an illustrious clan of indigenous physicians of the Unani school, Imthiaz recalls Maldivians arriving in bagalas (a kind of a raft) on the Beruwala shore in search of his grandfather’s healing touch. “I remember them bringing boxes of diyahakuru and bondialuva as tokens,” says Imthiaz who still cherishes the aromas of home-made oils which permeated a permanent whiff in his ancestral home. “My father who inherited his ancestors’ gift of healing, derived immense satisfaction indulging in the preparation of these herbal concoctions, an indulgence he never compromised despite his demanding schedule as a lawyer and later as a politician.”
Reputed as a politician of a different stock, Imthiaz credits his father to the ‘different perceptions to life’ he believes in today. A man of principles, his father earned less money and more people, says the son. “My father had a principle of never charging legal fees from destitute women who came for maintenance cases. As a father of three daughters himself, my father could never do so he used to say. Eventually the entire Kalutara Bar took a policy decision of appearing free of charge for maintenance cases.” The dinner time anecdotes his Speaker-father shared, are still etched in Imthiaz’s mind. “While he was the Speaker (from 1978 to 1983) my father also served as the Chairman of the Petition Committee of the Parliament which entertained grievances of the public through MPs. He derived a lot of satisfaction by enabling solutions to public grievances, so much so he continued to hold this post even after he resigned from the Speaker’s post on personal grounds.”
The decision of the veteran lawyer to admit his 13-year-old son to Ananda College in 1966 was a decisive move and as the son recollects today, was one of the best moves his father took. “My father was very keen that I mastered Sinhala, the reason which prompted him to admit me to Gampola Zahira College for a year before I came to Ananda as that was the only Muslim school at the time which had the Sinhala stream.”
Imthiaz emerged a watershed at Ananda College. Leading the Sinhala debating team, Imthiaz also made history in the leading Buddhist institute of learning as the first Muslim student to head its Junior and Senior Hostels’ Prefects Board. The choice of his fellow students at Ananda to appoint Imthiaz as the Secretary of Ananda Boarders’ Junior and Senior Sinhala Literary Associations was an index of his immense popularity in school.
Learning Pali from Ven. Rekadahene Chandrajothi Thera, with his school mate Sarath Kongahage (only two Anandians at the time to have offered the subject), Imthiaz was mentored by Ven. Kotagala WachiswaraThera, Hettimulla Wajirabuddhi Thera and Diviyagaha Yasassi Thera. “I never felt an outcast at Ananda which I believe was a manifestation of the true values propagated by Buddhism of equality and brotherhood. Ananda gave me everything in life I could have asked for,” reminisces the leader of people that he is today with unmistakable nostalgia.
The veteran politician translates his Ananda College experience to national reconciliation which has become not the norm but the exception today. “I was mentored by eminent Buddhist monks and teachers whom I venerate even today. For them it was irrelevant that I was Muslim boy,” recollects Imthiaz who eludes to historical evidence of co-existence and brotherhood which prevailed in the Asian fabric. “Historical sources speak for the fact that our monarchs sent those of Arabic origin to trading countries as ambassadors. If we look beyond Sri Lanka, Prince Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz translated Upanishad (the philosophical section of Veda books) to Persian language which enabled the West to learn about it. Similarly, Ramayanaya and Mahabharatha were translated to Bengali by Pathan Muslim rulers in the 14th Century. This is reconciliation.”
The futuristic thinker he is, Imthiaz laments that while countries such as Singapore and Malaysia had made diversity a strength, we made it a burden after independence. “If we are to look out for differences and create a rift rather than finding similar grounds propagated by the four great faiths this land is nourished by, we are going to be stagnating forever.” Urging all Sri Lankans to revisit the ‘freshly independent Ceylon’, Imthiaz cites the civil service, university education and projects such as Gal Oya which put the country on the world map. “Take countries like Dubai or Qatar. To plant a tree it takes a lot of effort for them but ours is a blessed and a fertile land where even a thrown mango seed will take root! All we need is the correct political will and a vision for the country.”
When the country should have ideally been politically a matured one, having navigated trials and tribulations since colonial times, Imthiaz laments that it’s on a reverse gear now. Once a nation which had foresight to garner the benefits of diversity, today it’s divided by ethnic differences which are germinated by those who cannot compete within a democracy, he believes. Moreover, we have become pawns of international forces promoting their own agendas here at home, says Imthiaz. “Be it politics or media, we accept everything that is dished out to us from the West without analyzing and knowing little that these are forces which fear the stability of the country. These are the challenges we need to overcome as a nation.”
Imthiaz who prides in the fact that he could still put an arm around his political opponents from his University time at Kelaniya and Law College days, attributes it to the healthy political fabric the country championed at one time, devoid of personal grudges. “For us it was a matter of principles and nothing personal,” smiles Imthiaz who could turn the hoots of his anti-UNP colleagues to applause as the first UNP student leader to have held the forts of the Kelaniya University’s Student Union. ‘A new page turns in the history of local university- A UNP MP addresses students,’ read the headlines of local English newspapers the day following the late UNP leader Gamini Dissanaike’s visit to the Kelaniya University to address its students. “This was in 1973 and the first time a UNP leader visited the campus and of course his speech was drowned amidst hoots by the Leftist supporters. The road was obstructed by them and Mr. Dissanaike who was then an MP, had to walk quite a distance to the campus. Despite all this, his charisma and constant smile prevailed and he continued to talk despite hooting,” recollects Imthiaz with a smile. He adds with a chuckle that the UNP leader could only be treated to a kahata koppe and a piece of hakuru at the University canteen!
Forging ethnic unity in a country enabled by equal opportunities is the ticket to future, reiterates Imthiaz who urges political leaders to take a ‘neutral path’. “We had a golden opportunity to reconcile after the end of the war which unfortunately was not seized. Still it is not too late for us to tread this neutral path as a politically matured country.” Urging political leaders and policy makers to take a cue from competitive countries such as China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Korea, the futuristic leader reminds that within a competitive fabric, social justice is paramount in the best interest of those who lag behind competition. “It is sad that nations such as Singapore which once aspired to be our understudies, are leading when we are still lagging behind with so much untapped potential. We are strategically placed with a skilled workforce replete with natural resources. We can achieve wonders with a collective will,” says Imthiaz who reminds the perennial truth of the celebrated lyricist Karunaratne Abeysekera’s lyrics: ‘negi sitiya heka eksathvee, bedee giyoth rata yayi sun vee..
The writer is the Co Editor of Lankan Isle. She is also an award winning senior journalist and a lawyer.