Parliament without Azwer, a chamber without eloquence

ahm azwerp

It is exactly two years since Marhoom Al Haj A.H.M.Azwer, Member of Parliament and twice Minister of State for Muslim Affairs and an efficient Minister for Constitutional Affairs, breathed his last. I was at his bedside during that moment and Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa echoed his feelings with tears in his eyes as “Magey Dhakunu Atha Kaduna Wagay” – “It is like my right hand been broken”. Friends gathered as many enemies too who nevertheless adored this likeable person. The present SLFP candidate for President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was one who, along with his elder brother made it a point to attend the whole of the funeral ceremony. I am sure that at this time of electioneering, Marhoom Azwer will be sorely missed. It was a very moving scene when His Excellency Zuhair Hamdallah Zaid, the Palestinian Ambassador in Sri Lanka, appeared at the time the coffin was being lifted, and insisted on seeing the face of this affable person to kiss his forehead and to carry the coffin along with members of the family all the way to the Dehiwela Muslim cemetery

Azwer, as he was known to all, was not just a politician or parliamentarian; he was a human being who felt more for the people of Sri Lanka than he felt for his own wife and family; one always dedicated to a cause he was entrusted with, and very loyal to the leader of whatever party he was a member or supporter of. This was seen when visiting him in the final stages of his illness, with his usual wit, he said “Don’t worry, I will be back campaigning for Mahinda soon”, but unfortunately it was not to be.

He showed his mettle on Saturday 29th November 2014 by resigning his seat in Parliament as a gesture of loyalty to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. At that moment, it seemed the end of the road, being 77 years old. Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the elections, but Azwer did not give up hope, he kept Mahinda’s flag flying despite severe criticism from some quarters of the Muslim community, who later realized Azwer was right.

His Excellency the Palestinian Ambassador was one who attended the late Azwer’s 40th day alms giving and seated next to me said that Azwer knew more about the Palestinian cause than he (the Ambassador) knew himself, and confided in me that just one day before his demise the late Azwer attended a Palestinian function with a tube stuck in his arm; having been discharged from hospital to honour his commitment and made a speech that was so heartwarming, without any signs that he was sick. That was Azwer true to the last, espousing the Palestinian cause.

Azwer never gave up hope and continued his efforts in what he believes in to the end. I knew him best growing up together, did politics together and shared the same interests.

Born on the 8th of February 1937 his father, Abdul Hameed, a harbour mason, and mother Ummu Razeena, daughter of another harbour mason, being people of simple means would never have imagined their first son will one day be in the national Parliament. Perhaps the World War II years, 1939 to 1942, provided the greatest opportunity for Azwer, being entrusted with Quranic and Islamic education with Seyed Mohamed Alim of Kalutara, teaching in a day Madrasah for children whose schooling was affected by the war. Seyed Mohamed Alim did more than teach Azwer to read the Qur’an, by teaching him Sinhala and Tamil. When he was admitted to Zahira College, Maradana, Azwer was already conversant in Tamil and Sinhala, and late Jiffrey Muhusin and Faleel, two teachers at Zahira, provided him skills in English. Having passed the SSC he became an excellent stenographer. He passed the Law College entrance examination, but financial necessities prevented proceeding with law studies, instead he had to find employment, before moving to politics.

Azwer’s interest in politics came in a mock parliament in a Zahira situation. Azwer did not want to sit even in a ‘mock parliament’ without knowing parliamentary procedure. Therefore, he studied Erskine May’s eponymous guide to parliamentary practice, “Treatise on the Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament”, often quoted by Dr. N. M. Perera. Incidentally, Azwer was an ardent admirer of Drs N. M. Perera and Colvin R. De Silva and of course the fiery Robert Gunewardena. This influenced him to join the LSSP and was imbued with socialist thinking learned from Dr. Osmund Jayaratne, Stanley Tillekeratne and V. Karalasingham. An irony of fate made him join the UNP in 1950, and possibly the same irony of fate took him away from the UNP to the SLFP in 2008. Similar to his loyalty to the LSSP and UNP, when with them, he was loyal to the SLFP and respected Mahinda Rajapaksa as the person who gave him a hand when he was completely down.

Skills in Oratory
Azwer’s skills in oratory were acquired through attending political meetings of the left parties and he always imitated the style of Dr. Colvin R De Silva.

His trilingual oratory skills and also an ability to translate into the vernacular speeches by national and political leaders are as yet unmatched in the Parliament chambers. His ability to recite trilingual “kavi” poetry is recorded in Hansard in many instances.

Entry to Parliament.
Azwer’s entry to Parliament was more by accident than by design. Incidentally, he was the only MP who held a seat without ever contesting for it. That itself is a record.

Prior to being selected by late Hon R Premadasa, from the National List, Azwer had been Public Relations Officer to Late Hon. M. H Mohamed, and later secretary to Speaker the Late Hon. Bakeer Markar. He was later appointed an Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a National List MP, which he resigned at President Rajapaksa’s request.

He was an active participant in parliamentary conferences. In parliamentary debate, he holds a record for interruptions to parliamentary proceedings and raising points of order. He was also carried out of parliament by his own party members for disobeying the Speaker, and not by the Sergeant – At-Arms. He has addressed parliament in all three languages. Azwer will certainly be remembered for his antics in and out of parliament. Incidentally, Azwer had a nickname for everyone by which nickname he would address them fondly

Azwer is now departed. When alive, he always praised those who deserve such praise. I shall recall his thinking – “Waalworai Walthuwom” – Let us praise those who are alive”. Let us therefore praise Azwer – he is with us although he has gone to a better place. May Allah grant him a special place in paradise!