That we cannot exist meaningfully without language and communication is a simple concept. A look back at Sri Lanka’s history of language policy shows why our story is a little more complex and how deeply we are affected by the deprivation of these rights.

Sri Lanka’s post-colonial language policy was neither fair not desirable. A largely non-English speaking population was governed by a small class of English-speaking elite. Weary of being excluded from governance and public affairs, Sri Lankan’s began agitating towards promoting the local languages and all communities came together to demand for fairer policies. Many are unaware that the Swabasha (native language) movement was first proposed by the Jaffna Youth Congress in the 1920s.

In 1950 two additional stripes were added to the Kandyan flag symbolising Tamil and Muslim communities, who were all equal and united citizens of Sri Lanka and both Sinhala and Tamil were made official languages.

Where did it go wrong?

Under colonial rule, when Sri Lankans were finally included in decision making, an equal share of positions were allocated to Sinhalese and Tamils. The policy was to divide and rule and the British paid no regard for proportionate representation. This led to a build up of frustration among the Sinhalese regarding a lack of opportunities. Although the issue of representation was a result of colonial mishandling, their frustrations were targeted at Tamils.

An agitated society is vulnerable to manipulation and there emerged the perfect opportunity for political advantage. The SLFP party led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike originally promoted the use of both languages. But soon Bandaranaike saw the opportunity in promoting Sinhala only. The strategy worked and appealing to the bitterness of the Sinhala majority, he was elected as Prime Minister through a landslide victory in 1952. In 1956, The Official Language Act (known as the Sinhala Only Act) was implemented. It was a recipe for disaster.

The effects of this discriminatory policy trickled down generations for nearly 65 years. In their submissions to the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), many minorities cited the Sinhala Only Act as the root cause of the 30-year war.

Why was the policy so bad?

The Act stated that “The Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon”. It was followed by Cabinet memoranda and Treasury circulars making it compulsory for new entrants to the public service and old entrants under 50 years to pass a Sinhala language proficiency test. It was a time when nearly 30% of the population was Tamil speaking, but if you wanted to get ahead, only one language mattered. Suddenly, the Tamil language and thereby Tamil speaking communities were relegated to an inferior status.

The country experienced an exodus of English educated Tamils from the public service. Naturally, Tamil speakers were discouraged from applying when they faced a clear disadvantage.

The impact of language on a country’s social fabric and ethnic harmony could not be more obvious. Sadly this was only the beginning. Soon, other aggressive anti-minority measures followed. They added fuel to the fire caused by policies such as the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1949 under D. S. Senanayake which excluded estate Tamils from Sri Lankan citizenship, drastically altering the country’s demographic. Trouble was brewing.

A series of reforms such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact (1957), the Tamil Language Act (1958) and The Senanayake Chelvanayakan Pact (1966) failed to erase the damage that had been caused by repeated violations of language rights.

Where do we stand now?

Although the current constitution recognises both Tamil and Sinhala as official languages it first proclaims that Sinhala is the official language. Then it adds, Tamil shall also be an official language. An afterthought, reflected in the way language policy is implemented in Sri Lanka.

There is a lack of public sensitivity and respect for language rights of the minorities. Although language affects every aspect of people’s lives, there is no sense of urgency or commitment by the public and political leaders to implement language equality in a meaningful way.

Observations of the Official Language Commission in 2005 found that bilingual areas of administration do not function the way it should and that there was a lack of commitment by authorities to ensure linguistic rights. The commission found that police stations and other institutions dealing with security do not operate in Tamil when maintaining records or transactions. Tamil speakers often prefer using Sinhala for fear of bias or delays in administrative or security matters.

“We live in a predominantly Tamil area. (…) at the centre of the village is a police station, there are no Tamil officers. If we go to file an entry from questioning to recording will be done in Sinhala. Without knowing what has been written we may have to put our signature. (…) If we dare to question them, we are sure to end up with further troubles…”

(Submission made to the CTF, Eastern Province)

A lack of political initiative and support by authorities would naturally impact public motivation and urgency to learn and promote the Tamil language. A misled majority often mistake advocating for language rights as a demand for separatism. Ironically, history shows that conflict and separatism stem from the deprivation of basic language rights, not their promotion.

Language and reconciliation

The CTF was a critical mechanism which recorded public grievances and ideas on what was required for meaningful reconciliation. Many submissions made to the task force by both Sinhala and Tamil communities stressed on the need for Transitional Justice and Reconciliation processes to be accessible in the local languages.

The complexity of language and representation is evident in the following statement by a participant of a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) for disabled persons.

“I shouldn’t have to keep explaining everything including locations and histories of those places constantly. If there is a local person, he or she will know certain things and the chances of misrepresentation will also reduce.”

According to the CTF, the inability to communicate in the language of their understanding created a sense of alienation and frustration for minorities. Language is vital for justice and reconciliation, especially on sensitive issues such as when listing the names of those who have been disappeared. On matters such as this, mistakes are inexcusable.

Participants were concerned about the risk of erroneous translations which was recognised as a point of failing in previous commissions. For example, many spoke about the terminology in the Certificate of Absence (COA) for missing or disappeared persons. It is an interim document providing relief to families, not a death certificate. Inaccuracies and errors in documentation or the lack of proficient authorities could affect the specifics about what benefits families receive, approval on who can receive benefits or even risk misinterpretation of vital details when investigations and cases are still active. The consequences are severe.

“In 1996 they shot 26 people at one go. There is a case that is still ongoing (…) in Anuradhapura. We have gone for this 8 times already, but no proceedings. Only last month was the first proceeding. But none of us know Sinhala and they take what we say in Sinhala, we don’t know whether they are writing positively or negative about what we say”

(Submissions made at the Trincomalee FGD)

This reflects how language impacts justice and that the language of the Court, which is most often Sinhala, can alienate minorities from engaging in the process. Malaiyaha Tamils living in Galle spoke about how language affects education. They said that the lack of teachers fluent in Tamil resulted in Tamil-speaking children dropping out. Doubtless the effects of language on public life are widespread and unavoidable.

A quote from a submission by an individual living in Mannar sums up the plea of those whose language rights have been repeatedly and systematically violated.

“Speak our language. Listen to what we’re saying.

The following video was produced with the goal of eliminating language inequality by creating a better understanding of our history and existing disparities. We hope by highlighting the need to promote language rights, more Sri Lankans are inspired to take positive action.