Recently I had the privilege of spending my Sunday morning with an eminent panel of academics discussing ‘Language, as a Pathway to Peace’. The Galle Literary Festival is an excellent event and its willingness to venture into the topical and relevant, is praiseworthy. Anyone who has followed the ethnic (or is it just ‘terrorist’) conflict in Sri Lanka will understand the hugely divisive role language has played in its history. It was interesting â€“ although not entirely satisfying from a hopeful’s perspective â€“ to hear the role of language as a tool for peace, being discussed by a host of reputed Sri Lankan minds.
The panel consisted of Professor Neloufer De Mel, of the English Department of the University of Colombo, who has researched widely on the subject of language and integration, Paikyasothi Saravanamuttu and his protégé Sanjana Hattotuwa from the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), writer Jean Arasanayagam and Rajiva Wijesinha, head of the Secretariat for the Coordination of the Peace Process (SCOPP). The panel was moderated by Dr. Rama Mani, head of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies who was accurately described as ‘delicious’ by Ashok Ferrey. Despite her obvious learning in the topic for discussion, Dr. Mani was unfortunately made to play the role of boxing referee towards the end of the session as it disintegrated into a very civil exchange of barbs.
The discussion began with a spiel from Jean Arasanayagam, who was seemingly the only direct victim of the current conflict. She has written extensively of her unfortunate experiences during and post 1983 and seemed in the best position to give us an insight into the trauma of those times. The introductory messages were ones of language as a tool of communication and generally trod a fairly non-confrontational path, despite Arasanayagam’s animated conviction.
Rajiva Wijesinha though, in his attempt to outline the history of the Sri Lankan conflict harked back to 1943 as a starting point, when JR Jayawardena introduced a bill to make the medium of instruction in schools, Sinhala. He glossed over the fact that the bill was later amended to include Sinhala and Tamil at the insistence of parliament. What is startling though, is his complete, and possibly convenient, disregard of the State led discrimination which happened in 1956 with the ‘Sinhala only’ saga, thereby alienating a more than significant part of the Sri Lankan populace. Unbiased commentators would perhaps rate this incident far higher in the political faux pas stakes than 1943, especially given the riots that took place soon after. There were no ethnic riots in between 1943 â€“ 1956. Wijesinha did however, con us into believing that he had a sense of perspective on linguistic/ethnic tensions, and endorsed the very practical idea of teaching policemen Tamil. Given that understanding of each other’s language is the first step to understanding each other â€“ this effort is laudable indeed. However, he did admit that a follow up on the initiative had not yielded the proper results, as the policemen in question were still busily learning the Tamil alphabet. Tamil Sri Lankans have always complained of intimidation bordering on harassment at checkpoints, a nuisance that the rest of us have learned merely to tolerate. For Tamil Sri Lankans this is not merely a nuisance but a several times a day ordeal. It is commendable indeed that the Peace Secretary has realised that the Rajapakse regime is perpetuating the abstract violence originally meted out by SWRD Bandaranaike, and is doing something proactive to try and ‘arrest’ the situation. It is this appearance of apparent bona fides that leads me to believe Wijesinha is equipped with the levels of comprehension that the administration he remains an apologist for, does not possess. However, as the events of the morning showed, these bona fides are quickly forgotten.
The constitutional framework of Sri Lanka as it currently is allows for all communities to be eased. The stubborn refusal to implement these constitutional safeguards by successive governments has been a cause for concern. The constitution provides that Sinhala and Tamil shall be the official languages with English being the link language. Wijesinha â€“ to be fair to him â€“ seems to be taking the pains to ensure English is once again taught within the government education system. Due to lack of resources mainly in teaching expertise, it is difficult to imagine this being a countrywide project in the immediate future. We were informed though that several thousand schools had already been provided with English teaching facilities. Whether English can be taught to the levels that De Mel wants them to reach is not the priority at this time. Instead we must ensure that communities can communicate with each other and have the tools with which to do that. It was a common consensus among the group that English was the way forward as opposed to one of the more identifiable languages of Sinhala or Tamil. Rooting for one language will automatically alienate the other and it seems commonsensical that English be the chosen medium. The initiative to teach English more proactively, rather than just as another subject must be applauded and supported. Whether the state will do that is another question altogether. The current situation states that they have other priorities.
The CPA representatives, in response to Dr. Mani’s opening, agreed that conventional media is still the most powerful medium. Newspapers, radio and television are still influential shapers of opinion. As Hattotuwa observed, the CPA as an advocacy organisation needs to use alternative media while at the same time not ignoring the conventional ones. It is the Sinhala papers and state run media that carry the message of war mongering to the people of the South, and it is time that those evangelists of peace stopped preaching to the converted and took their gospel to the dark regions of rural, uneducated, prejudiced Sri Lanka, which, by some cruel twist of a colonial experiment, exercises a majority of the country’s democratic franchise. Despite the fact that Galle is in the South, the Literary Festival doesn’t exactly count as a tour of duty for the peace missionary. Whether it is through partner organisations or foreign funds, the CPA must ensure that its message of awareness is spread with the same alacrity that the Goebbelsian propaganda of the government.
Neloufer De Mel, quoted once again from one Homi Bhaba, one writer whom I stubbornly refused to read before dropping out of university – â€œTo understand a language is to assume a culture”. She (and Bhaba) is right. Speaking someone’s language breaks down the barriers of the ‘the other’, and it is a step towards sharing a culture. However, her intention towards the full integration of language in a wonderful hybrid society is unrealistic. While she is able to understand the necessity for functional English, she is unable to reconcile the functional knowledge of another language as being a step towards peace. While the ability to be a ‘native speaker’ in more than one language is an admirable goal, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is a goal sorely out of reach of the vast majority. While teaching Tamil to policemen at checkpoints may not be ideal for Professor De Mel, it is practical and definitely an improvement on the status quo. It is necessary to strive towards greater levels of understanding between communities, but it would be futile to refuse to begin a long journey because the first step seems insignificant. Wijesinha and De Mel were clearly at odds on the need for functional language skills, and the difficulty these two highly acclaimed academics had in reaching compromise does not augur well with regard to the ability of the man on the street to find some commonality with a stranger whom he does not agree with. This country has hardly ever been united, with a tiny land mass being home to several communities and kingdoms simultaneously. The one ruler in the north, one in the south scenario is not a new one. So to expect each culture to wholly embrace the other is nothing more than a pipe dream. The goals have to be realistic in order to be achieved. As it stands, it would seem that coexistence, rather than complete integration is the need of the hour.
Indeed, this fact was apparent when Jean Arasanayagam reacted quite strongly to the jargon that had been used by her fellow panellists. She condemned the use of the word ‘other’ and said it made her feel marginalised. This coming from a writer of the English language was disturbing as it showed a defensive reaction to labelling, however accurate or non-discriminatory. If this is the reaction of a senior literary figure what hope does the common man have? It is time the peace propaganda spoke to the people in a language they understand. The CPA had always taken up the position that this is not their brief. However, what is the point of their advocacy if it is confined to posturing politicians and the mutually reliant NGO community. Implementation is to policy what eating is to the pudding.
Wijesinha continued his meanderings something along the lines of â€“ and this is paraphrased – ‘all these foreigners have lots of money to give Sara, (Saravanamuttu), but they won’t give poor me any money to teach policemen Tamil’. Perhaps the man â€“ to whom I previously attributed some comprehension â€“ should understand that as a government appointed official, he represents a xenophobic institution that has a horrendous human rights record, and has a history of telling NGO’s to ‘go away’ for no apparent reason. Then, he has the gall to accuse the hand that his government is busily biting, of not funding his pretty policies. Perhaps, as someone suggested, he should ask his employer, i.e. â€“ His Excellency the President, why some of the revenue generated by the plethora of new taxes introduced by the last budget are not sent SCOPP’s way to teach the poor policemen Tamil for crying out loud. But nay, said the Peace Secretary – for any of that to happen this government must first, ‘defeat terrorism’.
War is, after all, a legitimate means of achieving peace.
It is unfortunate to note that some (not all) of the panellists tended to react quite adversely to criticism, or the presentation of alternative points of view. The resemblance to the Rajapakse maxim of ‘eliminate all opposers’, was apparent. This is indeed a cause of much regret coming from those who are not politicians. Educated people, with a heightened sense of awareness must a set an example for the betterâ€¦not for the worse. The ability to display discipline and decorum and respect for another point of view and another individual is the key to peace. Little of this was displayed that Sunday morning. No wonder the peace process is being scoppered (sic).