Image taken from video produced by Vikalpa

I just came across an excerpt of a statement made by Mr. Nishantha Warnasinghe, the National Organiser and Media Spokesperson of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), at a recent press conference of the party. This excerpt, which was available on a Sri Lankan news website, was titled ‘JHU on the national language policy’. The excerpt began with Mr. Warnasinghe’s statement, “The non-implementation of the National Language Policy has caused difficulties for both the majority Sinhala community and the minorities of the country.” He also claimed, “Any intentional violation of the National Language Policy is a cause for serious concern, as such a violation could result in injustice to any community in the country.” He further said, “There could be some truth to the allegation that the administrative activities in the North and East are carried out in the Sinhala language.” Then he said, “The Tamil people have a right to have their activities conducted in the Tamil language.” This statement brought me hope, as I thought it indicated a slackening of the rigid stance that the JHU had consistently adopted regarding the national problem. I was happy that the JHU, which had played a significant role in defining the ideological aura of the present government, had finally begun to be sensitive to one of the major problems faced by the ethnic minorities in the country, especially in the post-war period. Mr. Warnasinghe inaccurately claimed that the National Language Policy required public institutions to function first in Sinhala, second in Tamil, and third in English. (When the Constitution has recognised both Sinhala and Tamil as the National and Official Languages of the country, I fail to see the basis on which one language could be privileged over the other.) However, irrespective of this biased interpretation of the Policy, the fact that he recognised Tamil as an Official Language of the country and acknowledged the right of the Tamil people to function and be responded to in the Tamil language, I thought, was a significant step towards national reconciliation.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for this sense of optimism to disappear. What Mr. Warnasinghe said next showed that his initial statement was an empty preamble to his main point, which was very much in line with the JHU’s usual Sinhala chauvinist ideology. He showed a document to the media, a document which he said was a letter sent to the JHU by CVK Sivagnanam, the Chairperson of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), on May 10, 2014. Interestingly, all he had to say about the letter was that it was written in Tamil. With a rather sarcastic smile, he said, “We don’t know what’s in this letter. We don’t understand it.”   Then, in a rather emphatic tone, he claimed, “They [the NPC] are fully aware of our [the JHU’s] stance regarding the National Language Policy, and they still sent us this letter [a letter in Tamil].” While claiming that the letter indicated a clear violation of the National Language Policy on the part of the NPC, Mr. Warnasinghe asked if the Policy did not apply to the NPC.

This comment made by the JHU, which is a key constituent party of the ruling coalition of the country, and the absence of a critical reception of the comment in the broader society point to yet another dimension of the pathetic situation that we find ourselves in today. The comment indicates a situation where a key political party in the country refuses to engage with a communication sent by one of the highest administrative bodies of the provincial level, not on the basis of the content of the communication, but on the basis of the language in which the content is expressed. Now, had the letter been in a language that is totally alien to the linguistic repertoire of the country, such as Ukrainian, Swahili, or Navajo, Mr. Warnasinghe’s claim that they did not understand the letter, and the sarcastic smile that accompanied that claim, would have been completely understandable.   But when the letter is in one of the two National and Official Languages of the country, the self proclaimed inability of the JHU (especially as a national political force in the country) to understand the language of the letter clearly indicates a problem.

It is totally possible, and even “normal,” that Mr. Warnasinghe and the other leaders of the JHU do not understand Tamil. However, the sense of sarcasm that accompanied Mr. Warnasinghe’s comment conveyed the clear implication that what was in question was not so much an inability as an outright refusal to understand Tamil. This refusal indicates the implied statement that unless you speak to us in our language, or, at least you stop speaking to us in your language, you are not going to be even heard (or, in this case, read). The fact that the language that is rejected is one of the two languages whose supremacy and equality have been established and guaranteed by the Constitution of the country indicates that there is a serious problem behind the sarcastic smile that accompanied Mr. Warnasinghe’s comment. If this is not a violation of the National Language Policy and even the Constitution of the country, I wonder what is.

Mr. Warnasinghe’s comment also implies the idea that the NPC should always keep the preferences and ideological stances of the JHU in mind, even in matters such as writing them a letter. He seems to be blind to the fundamental distinction between the two parties in question. The NPC is a formal administrative body composed to democratically elect public representatives. Although this administrative body represents the ideology and interests of a certain political party to a large extent, its position as a unit in the formal administrative structure, especially as one of the nine highest administrative units of the provincial level, prevents it from being reduced to a mere political party. In such a context, this implied assumption that the NPC should always be mindful of the preferences and ideological stances of the JHU indicates the JHU’s reluctance to view the NPC as a formal administrative body, or an establishment larger than a mere political party.

The NPC sending a letter in Tamil to the Sinhala nationalist JHU could be read in a number of ways. On one level, it could be argued that the NPC is only being pragmatic when it decides to function exclusively in Tamil, as over 96 per cent of its constituency is Tamil speaking. In this sense, sending a letter to the JHU, or any other party for that matter, in Tamil could be seen as part of its normal course of action. This is clearly a violation of the National Language Policy, as this approach of the NPC discriminates against the 4 per cent of its population that is non-Tamil speaking, but it is no more a violation of the Policy than that seen in the other government institutions in the country. In this sense, to single out the NPC from the rest of the Provincial Councils and also from the rest of the government institutions and accuse it of violations of the National Language Policy is nothing but a politically motivated act. Before accusing the NPC of violations of the Policy, I wonder if Mr. Warnasinghe took the trouble to see how many communications issued by the Western Provincial Council, which he is a member of, are issued in languages other than Sinhala.

Another way to read the letter in question is as an assertion of identity on the part of the NPC. Irrespective of the content of the letter, the fact that the letter is in Tamil clearly makes a political statement. It is clear that the JHU (along with other parties like the NFF) represents the Sinhala nationalist movement that has consistently been against sharing power with the minority communities of the country, especially the non-compliant segments of those communities. The fact that the JHU even proposed to abrogate the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in an attempt to prevent the NPC election from being held and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the JHU’s equivalent in the Sri Lankan Tamil community, from ascending to power in the North indicates the nature of the anti-minority outlook of the JHU. Considering the powerful position that the JHU enjoyed as a key constituent party of the ruling coalition, the eventual establishment of the NPC is undoubtedly a victory of the Tamil (speaking) community and also the TNA. Against such a backdrop, the letter in question invariably comes across as an assertion of identity regardless of whether it was intended to be that way or not.

Even in the event of the letter being understood as nothing but an assertion of identity, or, in other words, “a punch in the JHU’s face,” it should be noted that the NPC (or, rather, the TNA) has done it in a clever and constitutionally and democratically acceptable manner. In my view, the challenge of the JHU is to figure out an equally clever and constitutionally and democratically acceptable way to respond to the NPC. The JHU’s mere refusal to engage with the letter only indicates that they have not been able to even recognise this challenge.