Photo credit Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters, from Time magazine.

Keynote address delivered on 17th October 2011 at ‘Language and Social Cohesion: 9th International Language and Development Conference, Colombo co-organized by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Ministry  of Education, GIZ, AusAID and British Council.

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Approach

Language is never a simple issue of communication; in contemporary social and political practice everywhere, language goes much beyond its basic utilitarian purposes. In this sense, Sri Lanka is no exception. By now, Sri Lanka has ended an immensely destructive military conflict that had much to do with a crisis of identity linked as much to language as to ethnicity and contested notions of binary-nationalisms and competitive interpretations of history. In this context, this is a crucial time to seriously consider the politico-developmental position of language in imagining the future of the country.

Today, I will briefly focus on the historical development of the politics of language in Sri Lanka and explore the dynamics of the specific political process that has emerged out of privileging and de-privileging language use in the country. This necessarily has to focus on the policy discourse that has enhanced language regulation and legislation in Sri Lanka as well as political impediments that have retarded the comprehensive implementation of the provisions of these legislative provisions and regulatory frameworks. For me, heading for the future and imagining the future after a catastrophic and very painful recent past and without the hindsight of the larger history that has molded our collective personality is a recipe for future instability.  And it endlessly disturbs me that often we as a people seem very reluctant to learn from our own history.

History of Politics of Language

Both Tamil and Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’) during the colonial period in the early 20th century aimed at promoting Sinhala and Tamil.  So contrary to popular belief today, politics of language have not always been a reflection of inter-ethnic rivalry.  In its initial stages, the demand for swabasha reflected class connotations even though blurred outlines of Sinhala aspirations could also be detected.  But such aspirations were not clearly articulated, and did not receive popular support at these stages.  Demands for swabasha was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, privileges not open to the masses educated in the local languages.

In 1944, J.R. Jayawardena moved a resolution in Parliament to declare “Sinhalese as the Official Language of Ceylon within a reasonable number of years”.  An amendment was proposed by V. Nallaiah, a Tamil state councilor, for providing both Sinhala and Tamil the status as Official Languages, which was seconded by R.S.S. Gunawardena, a Sinhala state councilor.  The resolution in this form was approved by 27 to 2 in the Sinhala-dominated legislature, another sign of the lack of ethnic overtones in language politics at this stage.  The resolution specified that Sinhala and Tamil would become the languages of instruction in schools, examinations for public services and legislative proceedings.

In 1946, a committee under the chairmanship of J.R. Jayawardena strongly recommended the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English while recommending that the transition take place over a period of ten years.  But there was no serious movement in the language front despite these official conversations. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP in 1951 citing the government’s inaction in implementing the new Official Language Policies, and launched a concerted attack on the UNP claiming to see “no difficulty in the way of the early adoption of our languages.” Soon after his resignation, Bandaranaike organized the SLFP and began mobilizing forces supporting the swabasha movement within Sinhala society to form a broad-based coalition to wrest political power from the UNP in the upcoming general election.  However, the language issue had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage as exemplified by the SLFP manifesto which claimed that “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

By the late 1950s however, this cross-cutting interest in empowering local languages diminished in the context of emerging and divisive ethnic politics. It is in this context that  S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was elected as Prime Minister in 1956.  His main election promise to establish Sinhala as the Official Language of the country replacing English was fulfilled soon after the election, giving no status of parity to Tamil. This is the manner in which language politics as we know it today was introduced into the Sri Lankan political discourse.  All of us are quite aware where these politics have lead us since that time.

Language Policy History

Let me take a moment to briefly reflect upon the policy formworks that have impacted the language situation in the country.  In 1966, ten years after the passage of the Sinhala Only Bill, the use of Tamil as the language of administration in Northern and Eastern provinces was begun after the implementation of the provisions of Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 (1958) mostly due to pressure from Tamil political parties.  In 1987, through the 13th amendment to the Constitution Tamil was also decreed an Official Language of the state and the legal basis for parity between Sinhala and Tamil was clearly established by law.  In addition, both languages were also defined as ‘national languages’ while recognizing English as the ‘link language.’ 

Section 21 of the Constitution under the 16th Amendment offers extensive provisions and rights for the language of administration to be available in both Sinhala and Tamil.  In addition, Section 23 of the same amendment provides that the language of legislation will be Sinhala and Tamil while a translation of these legislative enactments and laws must be available in English.  Further, Section 24 of the same amendment provides that the languages of the courts in the country will be Sinhala and Tamil.

Chapter IV of the Constitution and the 13th and 16th Amendments in particular, formally recognize the earlier mistakes of language politics, and provides for extensive and legally binding solutions.  In effect, Chapter IV as it appears today provides for the equitable use of Sinhala and Tamil in all areas of social and political activity.  In that sense, the Constitution is both a historical text of mistakes and also their correction, and a point of departure for the implementation of the Language Policy that has been so exhaustively articulated.  When it comes to language rights, the issue is no longer with the Constitution or with regulations, but with their practical implementation.

In 1991, the Ministry of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Home Affairs issued a circular under the title ‘Implementation of the Official Languages Law – Trilingualization of Forms,’ and made the following directive: “It was decided that forms of all government institutions should be made available in the three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English printed in the same paper.  All old forms not satisfying these criteria should be withdrawn.  Secretaries of all Ministries and Provincial Councils should be responsible for implementing this decision”.

This was a conscious attempt at implementing some of the most basic provisions in exercising language rights that affect people in routine circumstances.  In 1992, the same Ministry issued another circular under the title ‘Preparation of Infrastructure for the Implementation of the Official Languages Law.’  It stated that the government’s objective was to implement the language legislation as laid down by the Constitution, and urged heads of government agencies to recognize and address these issues.  More importantly, the circular requested Secretaries of Ministries to investigate and report the lapses in implementing the Language Policy in departments and institutions under them.  Further, the circular categorically stated that lack of language skills and lack of equipment would no longer be entertained by the government as excuses for the delays in implementing the Official Language legislation.

The repeated issuing of these circulars point to a number of realities.  The constitutional changes made were serious and these circulars indicate numerous attempts made over the years to implement the provisions in the Constitution.  They also point to the failure of the Official Languages Policy at the level of practice due to sheer lack of capacity, mechanisms, skills and the recognition of such lapses as well as a pronounced absence of political will and interest at the ground level.  The narratives emerging from these circulars suggest that the government’s interest was the speedy implementation of the Language Policy rather than first establishing a long term and robust framework for its implementation.

On 30th June 1998, President Chandrika Kumaratunge writing to her Cabinet of Ministers also made a clear statement regarding concerns over the failure of implementing the Official Languages Policy:

Several Instances of failure on the part of Government Institutions to comply with Constitutional provisions relating to Official Languages have been brought to my notice.  These are serious omissions as they cause immense inconvenience and hardship to members of the public who are not conversant with Sinhala.  Besides, it also amounts to a violation of the law.  I dread to think of the plight of citizens who receive letters in a language which they do not understand.  This is tantamount to denial of that citizen a fundamental right.

However, despite good intentions and various attempts outlined above, the overall damage caused by the initial phase of politics of language, and the suspicions these politics created in the minds Tamil-speaking people remain un-addressed at the level of both country-wide practice and felt experience.  In other words, the vast gap between the official recognition of Tamil as an Official Language and the practical implementation of the provisions and conditions it entails, is yet to be bridged.  As recently as 2005, the government’s Official Language Commission made the following crucial observations with regard to the implementation of Language Policy in a wide-ranging document titled the Memorandum of Recommendations:

The facilities for communicating with the central government in obtaining its services in Tamil are minimal.  This situation amounts to a violation of constitutional rights of the Tamil speaking citizens of the country.  Apart from the indignities they are made to suffer, they are put into innumerable inconveniences in transacting business with the government.  The provincial administration including that of the North East miserably fail in serving citizens inhabiting those areas who are not proficient in the language of the administration of the respective province in their own language which has Official Language status.

These statements summarize the social and political repercussions of the politics of language in this country as they exist today despite numerous attempts taken to address them.  On the other hand, some significant measures adopted seem to have been formulated in an ad hoc manner despite the articulation of a language sensitive ideological commitment resulting in their state of unsuccessfulness.

The Present

Through that rather turbulent road with too many blind corners we come to the present; and the question is what does the present hold? Quite literally, if we had followed the road signs that we ourselves had established in the form of rules and regulations, our politics, at least with reference to language, would have been quite different; if so, we would have been discussing very different things in this conference today.

Last year (2010), about one and half years after the conclusion of the war, at the invitation of the Ministry of Official Languages and Social Integration, I visited Vavuniya and Jaffna between 1st and 3rd December to undertake a quick assessment of what the language situation was at ground level in two primarily Tamil speaking areas. Without going into details, I will only offer a summary of my experience which will place in context, the prevailing situation. The Divisional Secretariat for Vavuniya where the GA is based, services mostly a Tamil-speaking population. While government circulars received by this office as a rule come in all three languages and sometimes in two, a great majority of routine communication from government agencies continues to be in Sinhala. This includes communications from the Ministry of Public Administration, Ministry of Heath, Pensions Department, Samurdhui Authority, Widows and Orphans Fund and the Ministry of Economic Development. A cursory survey of the daily ‘in-try’ of mail for the GA for the 1st of December 2010 indicated that the majority of the mail was in Sinhala, a few regional letters in Tamil and almost no Sinhala language letters were accompanied by either Tamil or English translations.

The Vauniya Police has a similar situation with regard to language of service. In a force of about 300 officers and constables attached to the Vavuniya Town Police, only about seven are competent in Tamil. The police acknowledge that with the end of active war, the numbers of people coming to police stations in the region have increased considerably, and that their ability to serve the people in their own language needs to be vastly improved. At present, all complaints are only recorded in Sinhala; a Tamil-speaking person can relate his or her compliant in Tamil, and if one of the handful of policemen competent in Tamil is available, the narrative is translated into Sinhala which is recorded. None of these are trained translators and the possibility of errors and inaccuracies seeping into the recorded statements are significant.

Structurally, the situation in Jaffna is quite similar to Vavuniya suggesting the existence of a pattern in similar ethno-cultural conditions where the official languages policy is faltering seriously in the process of implementation. The Jaffna Hospital receives most of its instructions and correspondence from state agencies in Sinhala in a situation where it does not have formal mechanisms to translate these documents. It is clear that Ministry of Health is one of the most consistent violators of the official languages law. The great majority of correspondence from this Ministry comes in Sinhala which includes letters of appointment, salary increments, and above all, disciplinary inquiries.  The police in Jaffna Town has a force of about 600 officers and constables; out of this only about 7 are competent in Tamil though serving an overwhelmingly Tamil majority population. As in Vavuiya, officers have to take procedural detours to manage with what is available and depend on informal systems when the formal structures are dysfunctional.

This state of affairs poses a series of problems which seem to crop up regularly in other central and local government bodies in the north which indicates a consistent pattern and deeper malaise.  That is, despite the constitutional and legal right of the people to receive information and services from central and local government agencies in their own language, this does not happen on a routine basis. So, despite the existence of an ideal legal and constitutional framework for the implementation of the official languages policy, it is consistently violated as these examples and people’s experiences indicate. While this has lead to a situation of frustration and lack of trust towards the state, people also seem reluctant to take legal remedies to rectify the situation though such procedures exists, for fear of reprimand.

It is in this context that we finally come to the attempted ban of the Tamil version of the national anthem which is entrenched by the Constitution. The Minister of Housing quite loudly and without wisdom called the Tamil version of the national anthem a ‘joke,’ while the proposal received considerable support from some of the top leaders of our political spectrum, based on spectacularly false information and assumptions. Naturally, if the direct translation of the original is a ‘joke’, then so must be the original. But as we know quite well, our national anthem in Sinhala, Tamil or any other language is a fine and exemplary text that defies divisiveness in all its forms, and upholds the value of a collective identity.  The fact that the ban was not carried through is another matter. I find it extremely unfortunate that such an unenlightened political debate emerged in the first place, barely one and half years after the conclusion of the an immensely destructive war, and while our collective sorrow over the losses in war was still quite painful, and ‘reconciliation’ had become a free floating word in the local political discourse.  Perhaps that word has lost its meaning just the same way our post-independence language policies have lost their direction. It is in this context that I would like to reiterate a point I made at the very outset. That is, if we do not learn from our history, from our collective past, from our mistakes and from our strengths, we will be the architects of our own future destruction just the same way we have been of our recent past.

I would like to conclude my reflections with a few not so well known words from one of the greatest political leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” My wish today is that our political leaders would somehow find the wisdom to be guided by this simple logic. I also wish that wisdom would come to govern our politics in general and our politics of language in particular.

(The speaker is Professor and former Head, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo)

  • Kusum

    tututut…..

    We have always been learning that SWRD Bandaranaike
    i. left UNP in 1951
    ii. his election manifesto in 1956 had ‘Sinhala Only’ in 24 hours and
    iii.

  • Ward

    Dear Professor
    Thank you for the timely lecture. Many conscientious Sinhalese would be thankful to you speaking on their behalf and relieving them of a great deal of guilt.In a few years there may not be anyone to speak the reality if the reality you’ve portrayed is not addressed.

    This is a ready-made lesson for the busy teachers in Peace Education/Citizenship Education.

    ‘Sinhala only’ was implemented in lightning speed because there was politicL will conveying the will of the South.
    Post-1966 or post-1987 laws on official language were not implemented because there was no will in the South to be portrayed by a ”political will” – the laws were made out of pressure from the North and from outside the country.

  • Travelling Academic

    Thanks for the nice thoughts here. Enjoyable read.

    During one of my many visits back home recently (having lived away from SL for several years), I did this little thought experiment of switching off all my knowledge of Sinhala and most of my English when travelling around. How would I perceive and experience my country if I only spoke and understood Tamil and a few words of English? I tore up my notes without sharing on GV, as I had intended to do, for I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s joy of doing that experiment themselves.

  • Roger

    http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Sep2010/John%20Goonaratne.pdf
    Dr John Goonaratne to LLRC, 15 September 2010:

    ”…. I gave a very practical kind of suggestion and we don’t have to start innovating new techniques. There are Commissions of official languages and there are always complaints that the official language is not been properly implemented and my suggestion was okay
    lets see; lets have a chart where you see which Ministries are implementing; which Ministries are not implementing. So if you have like say twice a year some kind of a chart saying this Ministry is
    not doing enough etc. at least it gives an incentive for officers to be at their job in implementing whatever the legislation is there.
    This was a subject that in the light of often made complaints that I used to even suggest to some of the officers in these Ministries “why don’t you come up” and their reply was “don’t be mad”, and a little more of the thick ones “thamseta pissuda”. So I kind of left it at that.”

  • silva

    ”attempted ban of the Tamil version of the national anthem”:

    http://news.nidahasa.com/news.php?go=fullnews&newsid=1125
    Tamil Education Director Killed for Speaking Against Sinhala Only National Anthem; A Sri Lankan Right Group Says, 30 December 2010

    • yapa

      A Rip Van Winkle. Ha!Ha!!

      Thanks for entertainment.

      • Kusum

        Yapa
        You are a true ‘patriotic’ Sinhalese.

      • Buddhika

        Dear Yapa

        SWRD Bandaranaike was entertained when the Tamil parliamentarians were brutally attacked by Sinhala mobs while the police ordered to stand by just obeyed their masters and stood by on 5 June 1956.

      • PitastharaPuthraya

        Kusum,

        Can you just tell us what you mean by a ‘true patriot’?

      • PitastharaPuthraya

        Prof.,

        Thanks for the nice lecture. However, there is nothing more than what we already know. The question is whether our political leaders have the will to address them. The answer is no. The reason is that the Sinhalese in the south do not give a damn about them. As far as they are concerned the LTTE is no more and there is nothing more to do apart from organizing trips to Nagadeepa. It has become similar to the majority of Jewish mentallity in Israel about the occupied territories. As far as they are concerned there is no humans in Gaza and West Bank.

        According to Ksuam talking about these things would be anti-patriotic.

  • veedhur

    It is a good speech, but would not want to isolate the language politics from the context of ethno-religious politics which had a longer pedigree – Sinhala Muslim riots, dis enfranchisement of plantation tamils etc…

    To keep complaining of lack of translators, lack of typewriters (PCs), lack of paper etc denotes a deeper malaise than only a legal-institutional framework.

    btw, am curious to know if Prof.Sasanka Perera can speak/write/read Tamil.

    • Buddhika

      What is important is that he went to Jaffna and Vavuniya to find out exactly what is going on and made this speech which is a good lesson in its own right.

      It doesn’t matter if he can read or write Tamil.

  • silva

    ”I used to even suggest to some of the officers in these Ministries “why don’t you come up” and their reply was “don’t be mad”, and a little more of the thick ones “thamseta pissuda” :

    ”If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, it will be curtains for me” – Sri Lanka: Indian Delegates go Home Empty Handed, Kumar David, 15 June 2011 ( http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers46/paper4558.html)

  • Neville Perera

    Thank you, Prof Perera.

    There was no political will to implement the language policy.
    – the same goes for devolution of political power:

    A publication of the Institute for Constitutional Studies, ‘Twenty Two Years of Devolution – An Evaluation of the Working of Provincial Councils(PCs) in Sri Lanka’, launched on 21 December 2010 says:
    ”Recentralization is the hallmark of the system. Today, PCs have become a means by which the centre controls regional resources. They have also become the avenues through which the centre consolidates its political power.”

  • Vino Gamage

    We need another to speak on our Land policy: the following is a glimpse into the huge problem, esp. in the Northeast:

    High Security Zones and haphazard land grab by government departments and the armed forces

    Glimpse into it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN-rckqZh68&feature=related

    http://groundviews.org/2011/10/03/re-displacement-of-menik-farm-inmates-to-kombavil-mullativu/

    http://www.asiastudies.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=161&catid=53&Itemid=80
    ”That lands, supposedly taken over for public purposes or for state backed activities were being handed over to new Sinhalese settlers…Sinhalese settlers had illegally and forcibly occupied lands on both sides of the 50km new road between Seruwila Buddha Vihara and Somapala Vihara.”

  • Buwa

    [The Vauniya Police has a similar situation with regard to language of service. In a force of about 300 officers and constables attached to the Vavuniya Town Police, only about seven are competent in Tamil]

    Who to blame? Prof. Perera acts dishonestly by not stating the reasons behind this. Tamil police officers were ordered to stand down or join LTTE, or they were killed. This was the reason why there were very few number of Tamil speaking personnel in military / police other than in intelligence. Prof. Perera blames ONLY the government for the situation.

    • Vino Gamage

      After 1961 satyagraha(LTTE was not born then) was crushed by the armed forces, the recruitment of Tamils into armed forces began to drop fast.
      Recruitment into government service have been also falling from the 50s onwards.

  • Vino Gamage

    Dear Professor
    Politics of language is the same as the politics of everything else in our land:

    http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/2759
    SITUATION IN NORTH –EASTERN SRI LANKA: A SERIES OF SERIOUS CONCERNS, M.A. Sumanthiran, 21 October 2011

  • The Owl of Minerva

    1.If the existing laws re the use of Tamil are implemented fully and sicerely and without resevation as per John Gooneratne’s suggestion,most of the other issues in the process of”reconciliation”will pale into relative insignificance. It will be the most powerful instrumentation with which to integrate the Tamils into the nation-state as well most of the Muslims.It may cost some money but think of the savings that will made in the defense spending!

    2.One of the puzzling features of Tamil-Sinhala conflict is why the Sinhala “patriots” cultivate this spirit of hostility to the Tamils.After all, the Sinhala people are in an overwhelming majority in the country,control all the major political,social and economic and military and propaganda institutions, have powerful ideological resources in Buddhism and the Mahavamsa, and yet have this sense of powerlessness and feel the need to be intolerant towards a minority!!Even a rational and pragmatic proposal that it is more efficient as well as humane to communicate with the citizens in a language which they can understand eicits rage.
    What benefits do the more viulent of the chauvinists get from their rabid posturings? Do they derive some kind of “psychic income” to overcome a sense of inferiority they experience? I wonder where this feelings come from… Or is just an irrational and groudless phobia? Is it rooted in the phoney history created by irresponsible propagandists?

    • wijayapala

      Dear The Owl of Minerva

      One of the puzzling features of Tamil-Sinhala conflict is why the Sinhala “patriots” cultivate this spirit of hostility to the Tamils.

      To me, the answer to that question is relatively simple. The more crucial question is why more Sinhalese do not openly challenge this sort of thinking.

    • silva

      ”I wonder where this feelings come from…”

      Politicians’ policies, speeches, …..

      Haven’t you seen textbooks that are meant just to do that? Many examples have been given here a lot of times.

      The way news from the Northeast is (is not) reported.
      eg. LLRC proceedings

      Some articles here and transcurrents.com bring news not covered by the media.

  • Kusum

    PitastharaPuthraya

    I like to see Tamils/Muslims get justice asap in all possible ways.
    I’m ashamed to see the things that have been happening in our land.

    Unless the leaders stop lying through their teeth when they go abroad, we are not going to see any solution, for foreign governments like to believe what any other government says:
    http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-business/sri-lanka-slams-advanced-economies-20111027-1mlro.html
    ”He also said Sri Lanka, the next host nation for CHOGM, had been successful in maintaining confidence over the past six years “because we have been able to provide a political consistency”.
    Economic growth in the north and east regions, which had previously been affected by conflict, was growing by 22 per cent, he said.”

    • silva

      ”Unless the leaders stop lying through their teeth …”

      How else did we have a dozen ”commissions” in the last 25 years?

      SRI LANKA: TWENTY YEARS OF MAKE-BELIEVE. SRI LANKA’S COMMISSIONS OF INQUIRY, 11 JUNE 2009
      http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA37/005/2009/en

      President Rajapakse has been continuing the tradition and has appointed at least three commissions in the six years of his rule. Two Commissions(APRC and CoI-Udalagama) produced reports in July 2009 but the President has been refusing to publish them. The third commission, LLRC, was going to release its report in mid-May but it was postponed to mid-November and recently it has said that it would release it in October 2012:

      ”Sri Lanka’s Special Envoy Mahinda Samarasinghe to Inner City Press: ”the government’s Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission report, due November 15, will be presented nearly a year later in October 2012 to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva” – http://www.innercitypress.com/sri1upr102611.html

      Is this a step towards reconciliation?

  • wijayapala

    Dear Buddhika

    SWRD Bandaranaike was entertained when the Tamil parliamentarians were brutally attacked by Sinhala mobs while the police ordered to stand by just obeyed their masters and stood by on 5 June 1956.

    Then why is Sampanthan praising SWRD as the greatest Sinhala leader???

    http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=37394

    • silva

      Bandaranaike praised by Sampanthan?

      Nauseating.

      Perhaps grudgingly we’ve to look at the context he has put it:

      ”Had Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact been implemented the country could have avoided the armed struggle of Tamils for their rights. The Pact was meant to protect the cultural and linguistic rights of the Tamil people. But the implementation of the pact was not possible thanks to the political rivalry of two main Sinhala parties.

      The Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact too could have stopped the country leading towards bloodshed and destruction had the then Sinhala leaders given a serious thought to implement it. It too was not possible as the two main parties could not see eye to eye on the issues pertaining to our people, Sampanthan said.”

      But then The Island is not very reliable as far as reporting news about the Tamils is concerned.

      • luxmy

        I’d like to know what the hansard says:

        a Tamil praising SWRD Bandaranaike when some Sinhalese cannot ?

      • wijayapala

        Dear silva

        But then The Island is not very reliable as far as reporting news about the Tamils is concerned.

        That may be true in this case- I hardly see how the Banda-Chelva or Dudley-Chelva pacts would have prevented the war.

  • This is refreshing- thank you.The Sinhalese should try to identify with Tamils and feel what they feel. In their place, I would feel immense pain, fear and desperation.

    • Nirmalie

      Sandy, thank you – you’ve spoken foe a large number of people.

  • luxmy

    Dear Professor
    Please persuade Friday Forum or Citizens Movement for Good Governance to look at other aspects too.

  • Merlin Van Tweest

    This is a very interesting and elucidating article. The much heralded advent of ‘swabasha’ (both Sinhala and Tamil) to the common Sri Lankan was the intention of the legislature since 1944. But it took another 12 years for it to be implemented and that too it was one sided although SWRD made the reasonable use of Tamil in the original legislation in the North and East. It seems that the delay in the practical implementation of the tri-lingual policy since the nineties has caused many a hardship to the ethnic Tamils in the North and East.

    Irrespective of the costs priority should be given to the implementation as per the legislation forthwith. In the educational sphere all children are now taught all three languages and it augurs well for the future. However it is imperative that the appropriate resources must be allocated to make this a reality. It is also important that the teaching of English (the language of Science and Commerce) should be pursued with the same vigour for international commercial reasons.

    The political repercussions of not practically implementing this parity of languages are grist to the mill of the LTTE supporting Diaspora and the misguided TNA. GOSL is scoring an ‘own goal’ by delaying this implementation and is giving the TNA and the LTTE supporting Diaspora another ‘whip’ to castigate Sri Lanka internationally.

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Prof. Sasanka Perera,

    You wrote, “So, despite the existence of an ideal legal and constitutional framework for the implementation of the official languages policy, it is consistently violated as these examples and people’s experiences indicate. While this has lead to a situation of frustration and lack of trust towards the state, people also seem reluctant to take legal remedies to rectify the situation though such procedures exists, for fear of reprimand”

    Since the ideal legal and Constitutional frame work exist does not the absence of assertion of their legal rights reflect adversely on the Tamil legal fraternity? What prevents the many powerful legal luminaries within the Tamil community from collectively taking this up in the Supreme court as a violation of the Constitution? What prevents them returning these letters through such a collective and demanding Tamil versions? Laxity? Are there no Tamils who can emulate Rosa Parks?

    You wrote “The Vauniya Police has a similar situation with regard to language of service. In a force of about 300 officers and constables attached to the Vavuniya Town Police, only about seven are competent in Tamil”

    This indeed is a sorry state of affairs. But it must be remembered that fear of the LTTE, prevented Tamils joining the Police during the war. I think in order to place a balanced criticism you should have compared the number of Tamil policemen in the Vauvnia Police before the advent of the LTTE to that of the present.

    I believe every school should teach Tamil to Sinhala students as a compulsory second language and vice versa in order to eliminate the communication gap forever.

    • Neville Perera

      Off the Cuff
      ”I think in order to place a balanced criticism you should have compared the number of Tamil policemen in the Vauvnia Police before the advent of the LTTE to that of the present”:

      See Vino Gamage’s comment above:
      ”After 1961 satyagraha(LTTE was not born then) was crushed by the armed forces, the recruitment of Tamils into armed forces began to drop fast.
      Recruitment into government service have been also falling from the 50s onwards.”

      It will be really good to see the effect of 1961 satyagraha as well as the effect of LTTE.
      It is very important to compare it with the recruitment and promotion of Tamils into government service after 1956 ‘Sinhala only’ aswell as after 1961.

      • Off the Cuff

        Nihal Perera,

        Yes please do. Let’s have a look at the facts.
        Can you present them?

    • Nihal Perera

      Off the Cuff,

      I believe every school should teach Tamil to Sinhala students as a compulsory second language and vice versa in order to eliminate the communication gap forever.

      How much would that cost? The implementation of a three-language system in the schools is not practical, given the already sorry state of affairs in the public schools. Sinhala-medium only or Tamil-medium only schools would lead to vast numbers of unemployed individuals considering that even the university graduates have difficulties finding work. Sinhala-Tamil medium schools would lead to a similar result. The best solution is to adapt the Singapore model, and make English compulsory for all public schools. This is essential if public schools are to become competitive with private schools.

      By the way, as part of your proposal for bilingual education, do you agree that defense expenditures should not account for 22% of the national budget? Do you agree that the military should be radically downsized, particularly in Tamil areas, and are you in agreement with the level of devolution which such actions will invariably lead to? You see, the budget is finite, so its not possible to have everything at one shot, e.g. bilingual education, massive defense budget, jumbo cabinet, etc.

      • Vino Gamage

        http://groundviews.org/2011/10/28/turning-former-ltte-personnel-into-sri-lankan-citizens/
        Turning Former LTTE Personnel into Sri Lankan Citizens? 28 October 2011:
        ”the longer-term prospects of goodwill are being seriously undermined by the overwhelming concerns with security ,,,, the left-hand is removing what the right-hand has sought to achieve.”

      • Off the Cuff

        Nihal Perera,

        You wrote “How much would that cost? The implementation of a three-language system in the schools is not practical, given the already sorry state of affairs in the public schools. Sinhala-medium only or Tamil-medium only schools would lead to vast numbers of unemployed individuals considering that even the university graduates have difficulties finding work. Sinhala-Tamil medium schools would lead to a similar result. The best solution is to adapt the Singapore model, and make English compulsory for all public schools. This is essential if public schools are to become competitive with private schools. “

        Firstly I wrote about Bilingualism.
        The intent is to remove the Communication gap forever.
        English cannot even hope to do that.
        Monolingualism is irrelevant to the subject raised.
        The cost is insignificant, compared to the cost of the communication gap.

        You wrote “By the way, as part of your proposal for bilingual education, do you agree that defense expenditures should not account for 22% of the national budget? Do you agree that the military should be radically downsized, particularly in Tamil areas, and are you in agreement with the level of devolution which such actions will invariably lead to? You see, the budget is finite, so its not possible to have everything at one shot, e.g. bilingual education, massive defense budget, jumbo cabinet, etc. “

        The defence expenditure was a result of the communication gap.

        If you want to discuss devolution please join the discussion here
        http://groundviews.org/2011/10/12/sri-lankan-tamil-destiny-is-inextricably-grounded-within-sri-lanka-a-response-to-d-b-s-jeyaraj/#comment-38086

  • Neville Perera

    What we need urgently is linking people (and mini-projects) together to do something solid before it is too late: submissions to LLRC may not be used by LLRC (as it gets postponed ever and ever – though expected to be different from its predecessors of the last 25 years) but can be the basis of a creative initiative of learning lessons actually:

    http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Sep2010/John%20Goonaratne.pdf

    ”By habit my mind does not soar to Himalayan heights in suggesting things that need to be done. Mine is of a more pedestrian kind. I just want to speak about one of them. It pertains to the equal treatment of the Tamil language. What constitutions prescribe and how they are implemented gives the impression that they inhabit two different worlds. It is a constant endeavour to see that the two worlds fit. The greater the lack of fit the greater the sense of grievance amongst those affected.
    Our constitution goes on the basis that all citizens are equal, but in the real world we know some individuals and ethnic groups are more equal than others, and implementation of the provisions of the constitution is influenced by and reflects power realities – the top dogs and the under dogs.
    Something that caused lot of unhappiness and discontent was when in 1956 it was legislated that “the Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon”. The legislators gradually got
    the message that some sections of people thought this legislation very discriminatory and in 1958 in that felicitous phrase passed legislation for the reasonable use of Tamil. It took the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 for the fact to be accepted that Sri Lanka was “a multi ethnic and multi lingual plural society”. And under Indian tutelage in 1987 through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution Tamil was also made an official language. But its implementation appears so so.
    Many of you will have read in the newspapers frequent letters to the editor of the problems that Tamil citizens face when they go to Government offices to conduct business. Everything is in a
    language and the forms are in a language they don’t understand.
    I think that just as much as the use of Sinhala is important to a Sinhalese citizen, so is the use of Tamil to a Tamil citizen.
    To cut a long story short, it appears that the implementation of the official languages policy is very spotty and subject to political weather conditions. What is a possible remedy? There is the Official
    Languages Department to implement the use of the two official languages, and there is an Official Languages Commission established in 1991 vested with the authority to oversee the implementation
    of the official languages policy among other functions. It also has I am told the powers to take public servants to court for non implementation of the official languages.
    The proposal I wish to make is that the Official Languages Commission publish semi-annually a chart tracking the progress made by Ministries and Government Departments and Corporations in the implementation of the official languages policy. The categories that make up the chart will be those that the legislation circulars etc. require to be implemented. The Government institutions can be given 1 to 4 or 5 star rating according to the extent of implementation of the official languages policy and Government institutions can try to better their star rating, and more importantly, such a chart lets the citizens of the country know the implementation progress. All citizens are entitled to expect the State to deliver what the constitution says is their due.”

    • Nihal Perera

      Off the Cuff,

      Firstly I wrote about Bilingualism.
      The intent is to remove the Communication gap forever.
      English cannot even hope to do that.
      Monolingualism is irrelevant to the subject raised.
      The cost is insignificant, compared to the cost of the communication gap.

      In other words, you are not concerned with the implementation of a bilingual system of education. The question of whether it is even possible has not crossed your mind. My point, on the other hand, is that it is NOT possible.

      Regarding devolution, I see that you are opposed to devolution for the Tamils, even though you do not explicitly state that. Instead you take a circular route and say that Tamils should have devolution only if every other community has devolution.

      In conclusion, you believe that every Tamil child should learn Sinhalese, and every Sinhalese child should learn Tamil, while 200K Sinhalese troops are forcibly occupying every acre of Tamil land in the North and East. That is a most interesting proposition. Should I laugh or cry?

      • Off the Cuff

        As you please

  • Neville Perera

    RECONCILE SOONER RATHER THAN LATER, 25 September 2011: ‘’The challenge of reconciliation in Sri Lanka must be taken on by this generation, and not left for the succeeding ones.’’

  • Dear Prof.
    Politics of Sri Lanka is based on the Aryan – Sinhala – Sinhalese – Theravada Buddhism – Lanka doctrine with one to one correspondence. Politics of language is only a part of it.
    Unless the Sinhala nation rejects its imaginary and false doctrine in words and deeds, no solution will be possible in any matters in our country.

    • Neville Perera

      What do the following pieces tell us? Getting the ”consent” of Buddhist clergy to achieve solution to the ethnic conflict??

      THE SANGHA AND ITS RELATION TO THE PEACE PROCESS IN SRI LANKA, A Report for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2005):
      Lack of political consensus in the south and opposition to the various peace processes by nationalist and Buddhist pressure groups have time and again made peacebuilding difficult in Sri Lanka. ……One possible strategy for supporting pro-peace actors might be to encourage support from countries like Thailand which is also a Theravada Buddhist country like Sri lanka.

      ?”Chandra R. de Silva implies that Buddhist monastic opposition to a non-unitary state has contributed to the conflict. He appreciate¬s the reasons for this, but pleads for a system of monastic education that would expose monks to other religions and cultures’’ – Dr Elizabeth Harris(Liverpool Hope University), Review(2007) of Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka(2006)

      ‘’President Rajapaksa came to Kandy a few days later, on May 23, to receive the blessings of the chief Buddhist monks at the Temple of the Tooth for winning the war. He expressed no apologies or remorse for the victims of the war, and he promised the monks, “Our motherland will never be divided [again].” He told them that there were only two types of Sri Lankans, those who love the motherland and those who don’t. Because he conceives of the motherland as primarily Buddhist, his words carried too little magnanimity’’ – Buddha’s Savage Peace, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/buddha-8217-s-savage-peace/7620/

      ‘’Monks have been on the streets, distributing leaflets claiming that the Thirteenth Amendment would undo the victory that so many Sri Lankans died to achieve’’ – Sri Lanka’s lucky number, 22 July 2009, http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/07/sri-lankas-lucky-number.html

      http://www.lakbimanews.lk/portal/news/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1057:llrc-on-its-final-lap&catid=40:news&Itemid=64
      LLRC on its final lap, 3 April 2011:
      ”The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) members met the Chief Incumbents of the Malwathu and Asgiri Chapters last week to seek guidance before preparing the final report scheduled to be presented by May 15.”

    • Vino Gamage

      ”Politics of language is only a part of it”:

      Detaining Tamil ”suspects” for years and decades without charges is another:

      ”A group of Tamil Tiger suspects arrested more than a decade ago has written to a pro-government Tamil parliamentarian asking his help to get them released. One suspect who has been held for over a decade without being charged told BBC Sandeshaya that nearly 30 suspects are being held for years in remand prison” – Tamils in custody for over 15 years, 13 November 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2010/11

      ”Most representations by ordinary people showed that they were unaware of what had happened to their loved ones, and many of the complaints date back to the 20th century. So there was a complete lack of responsibility” – Testimonies before LLRC show people want clarity not retribution – Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, 28 October 2011, http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/5472#comment-26481

  • ‘One of the principles we stress when ever we talk about racial reconciliation is the importance of one – to – one relationships. One – to one – relationships are crucial because of the way human beings are put together. When our family members, friends and loved ones are hurting, we hurt right along with them. The intensity of our pain is in direct proportion to the depth of our love.If we aren’t close to them, their pain doesn’t bother us as much. So the people who will be most committed to racial reconciliation are the people for whom it has become a personal issue.
    Deep crosscultural friendships help make reconciliation personal for us’.

    (From.’MORE THAN EQUALS’ – Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice).

  • Sasanka Perera

    Dear colleagues: I am happy to note that my lecture has generated all these comments. I thank all of you for your involvement. Unfortunately however, I am unable to respond to many of these at the moment due to time restrictions as I am in the process of making arrangements to cross international borders. But I will do my best to respond to some of your queries in about a week. But quickly, let me say a few things in response to some of the simpler questions. No, I do not read or write Tamil; in that sense I consider myself a prime example of the failure of our post-independence education system. But that itself should not be a hurdle in understanding some of the day to day issues that affect significant segments of our people. This should be the same for researchers as well as ordinary people as long as they are not blinded by restricted ideological positions. And yes, much of what I said is common knowledge; they are written about, published and talked about. Unfortunately, as you can see, not much has changed in a long time. Take just one point: To me the issue is not why Vavuniya and Jaffna police has so few Tamil-speaking officers. We know that to be a fact; and both LTTE threats as well as recruitment practices contributed to this as the evidence shows. The issue is can this kind of thing not be resolved in the short run by simple solutions such as introducing part-time ‘translators’ to serve in these kinds of places, rather than awaiting a time when a Tamil-speaking police or public service might (or might not) become a reality. The same applies to many other instances where the language policy has faltered.

  • ordinary lankan

    This seems a good discussion and it is encouraging when the poster takes the trouble to respond. Here is a quote that seems so apposite with a note from me –

    Calasso, Roberto (1998) KA: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. Vintage, New York
    358
    Tatha, “thus,” was the Buddha’s favourite word. Not just because he liked to go by the name of Tathagata, He-who-came-thus. But because the Buddha taught others to see the tathata, the “thusness” of all that is.
    When the Buddha taught the people the Middle Way, the only way that is free from error, he also said: “One should speak quite slowly, not hurriedly, one should not affect the dialect of the countryside, one should not deviate from recognized parlance.” Only what is neutral, free from glaring features, only what blends in with all that is common, only what least departs from “thusness” can save us.

    MY NOTE
    The introduction of a new language and new concepts is always a delicate matter which must be attended by a thorough knowledge of ‘what is’ in terms of existing culture, habits and modes of social intercourse. Where there is an imbalance of power and the advocate of new ideas assumes a position of superiority due to professional or organizational standing the requisite connection is not made. The monologue disables both the talker and the listener by depriving them of the power of questioning, challenging, listening, learning and changing. The seeds of new ideas lie scattered like handouts left behind after an awareness workshop – unread and undigested.

    We are left with the quality of our interpersonal communications – and I suspect that our so called “ideal legal and constitutional framework” was not the result of such a process. In fact the people were in chains when these ideas and concepts were imposed on them by the British and their local collaborators. We are left with about 500 years of blundering and a responsibility of becoming human again.

  • puniselva

    Professor
    There is a ”follow-up”:
    Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages – Annual Performance Report 2015,
    https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/paperspresented/performance-report-ministry-of-national-coexistence-dialogue-and-official-languages-2015.pdf

    It will have to be seen in conjunction with:
    Mano Ganesan Threatens To Quit Over Language Disparity, 2 July 2016,
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mano-ganesan-threatens-to-quit-over-language-disparity/