Sixty years ago, on 5 June 1956, Sri Lanka’s third parliament began the Second Reading and debate on enacting the Official Language Act, also known as the Sinhala Only Act. There is nothing special about this sixtieth anniversary except today is fifth of June and presents an occasion to write about it. The June 1956 legislation was the fulfillment by the then newly elected Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike, of his dramatic electoral promise to make Sinhala the country’s official language within 24 hours of his becoming PM. Mr. Bandaranaike kept his promise with a simply worded bill that declared that “the Sinhala Language shall be the one official language of Ceylon.” The passage of the bill into law was controversial even as it was celebratory. The MEP government was wildly enthusiastic about it. The two Left Parties (the LSSP and the CP) vehemently opposed it even at the peril of risking the safety of their top leaders. The mood of the Tamil political parties as well as that of the Tamil people was one of deep anxiety and uncertainty. The Tamil Federal Party organized a non-violent Satyagraha protest on the Galle Face Green before proceeding to join the debate in parliament. With the rare benefit of 60-year hindsight, it is fair to say that was one rite of passage that the country could have rather avoided. It proved to be a rite and a passage not for nation making, but for its prolonged undoing. And after 60 years, the remaking of the nation is still a troubling task.
by Rajan Philips, Sri Lanka Guardian, Colombo, June 5, 2016
Sixty years are a long time in one’s life and in the life of one’s country. As far as I know, not a single person who was in parliament in 1956 is alive today. Almost all of them lived reasonably long lives and died naturally. But the lives of two prominent personalities of that parliament were cut short by assassins’ bullets. They became victims of the dark socio-political forces they had unwittingly provoked. Prime Minister Bandaranaike (1899-1959) was killed three years after becoming Prime Minister, shot by a miss-guided junior Buddhist Monk who had been wound up by his corrupt and politically manipulating senior. The second was A. Amirthalingam, but 30 years after Bandaranaike. Amirthalingam (1927-1989) was elected to parliament for the first time in 1956 as a 29-year old, and was naturally thrilled to receive after his maiden speech a handwritten note of commendation from the Prime Minister, the Oxford orator. He went on to succeed SJV Chelvanayakam as the leader of the Sri Lankan Tamils and became Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, in 1977. Amirthalingam was killed by LTTE gunmen, in 1989, in socio-political circumstances that were vastly different from those that marked his first election to parliament in 1956. Considering the long list of the LTTE’s fatal targets, it might come as a surprise that Amirthalingam was the only one among them who had been a parliamentarian in 1956.
The demographic changes over 60 years are more sweeping. Only about one in ten Sri Lankans living now would have been born in 1956 or earlier. Those who voted for the first time in 1956, when the voting age was 21, are past eighty now. Those who were old enough in 1956 to understand the politics of the language legislation would be getting to seventy, and a good majority of them among the Tamils are now living in other countries. In other words, the so called children of 1956, the linguistically chosen in the south and the rejects in the north, are now a minority, and a good number of them, Sinhalese as well as Tamils, are not living in Sri Lanka. Yet, it is not an exaggeration to say that every Sri Lankan who was living in 1956 and everyone born after has been touched, in one way or another, by at least one or the other of the many tentacles of the 1956 legislation.
The roots and results of 1956
In the political commentaries following Mr. Bandaranaike’s death, 1956 became the commonplace watershed year – signifying the break from and future alternations with the governments of the right wing UNP. The SLFP was projected as the party of centre-left populism, an alternative not only to the UNP-right, but also to the Left. But in this narrative, the language legacy of the SLFP was glossed over by accident as well as by design. Even as the Bandaranaike legacy was beatified and the so called Bandaranaike principles were discovered and celebrated by successive SLFP-led governments between 1960 and 1964 and again in 1970-77, his legacy of accommodation with the Federal Party and the principles that he espoused in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyakam agreement (the famous B-C Pact), were carefully excluded from mention. The truth of the matter is that SWRD Bandaranaike was the “Utopian Expedient”, as James Manor called him in the title of his biography of Bandaranaike, and on the controversial language question, Prime Minister Bandaranaike first played the expedient role in rushing through the Sinhala Only legislation, and then reverted to his utopian instincts in trying find accommodation with the Federal Party and the minorities. His immediate successors celebrated and extended his expediency, but rejected and jettisoned his utopian mitigations. It was left to his daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, to put the record straight 35 years later when she acknowledged that the Sinhala Only legislation was a blunder that contributed to the state’s failure “in the essential task of nation building”. But President Kumaratunga’s retraction was repudiated by her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who went to the extent of banning the singing of the national anthem in Tamil as a violation of the constitution. Not even the Sinhala Only Act stopped anybody from singing the national anthem in Tamil, and Tamil is also an official language now, thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment (not to mention the Sixteenth Amendment) to the 1978 constitution.
The position that Sinhala and Tamil shall both be made official languages after independence was a settled matter among political leaders till the language controversy erupted in 1955. On five separate occasions between 1926 and 1943, first the Legislative Council and the State Council that came after 1931, had passed resolutions supporting both Sinhala and Tamil replacing English as the country’s official language. The country’s first Prime Minister, DS Senanayake, steadfastly stood by this position. His political mistake was not doing anything in the five years he was Prime Minister to bring about an orderly replacement of English by the two native languages of the island. This mistake of the elder Senanayake, his untimely death in 1952 and the succession struggles that had begun even before he died, the growing gulf between the privileged elites who were westernized and the vernacular population that was marginalized – that became the hallmark of the early UNP governments, and the political readiness to use language as an electoral instigator, were all factors that contributed to Sinhala becoming the only official language in 1956.
The assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike three years later made matters terribly worse. Whereas the slain Prime Minister had valiantly tried to contain the damage and enter into an agreement with the Federal Party, his successors repudiated this conciliatory approach and aggressively implemented the official language policy to such extents and in such ways that Mr. Bandaranaike would have never envisaged or approved. The pervasive effects were not so much in the denial of the use of the Tamil language by Tamils and Muslims – in fact there was no such denial in practice but only a curious reluctance to acknowledge it in law, as in the discriminatory practices of recruitments to and promotions within government service, the armed forces, and as the last straw in the standardized admissions to universities.
The thoughtless implementation of Swabasha as the medium of instruction caused divisions down the middle not just of the schools and universities that had mixed student populations, but the Sri Lankan society as a whole. Even the language of worship became a matter of contention in a number of instances. The breakdown in the norms of civilian conduct and in the enforcement of law and order enabled politically orchestrated riots to become more the routine than exceptions. The politics of class became subordinated to the politics of language and the Left Parties that had once stood for parity of status were forced into the pathways of coalition politics. The culmination of this process was the enactment of the 1972 Constitution, which in turn provided the pretext for the rise of Tamil separatism.
In 1956, Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then, was a nation in the making. The westernized middle classes provided what Hector Abhayavardhana called “the first anticipation of the Ceylonese nation.” But the Ceylonese middle class was not a powerful enough class to forge a nation out of Lanka’s Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim co-existences. It did not have the requisite economic clout, without which the national unity it projected was no more than an unsustainable cosmopolitan unity. The onus was on the state to step into the breach, and the responsibility was on the political leaders to use the machinery of the state to forge a nation out of Sri Lankan plurality. There were multiple failures involving many leaders, Sinhalese as well as Tamil, and the upshot of all of them was that the postcolonial state that was set up for a future nation became a modern caricature. The official language law was one of such failures that occurred both before and after 1956, and all of them contributed to the failure of the state to forge a new nation. And all of contributed to the unmaking of the nation.
Language is hardly an issue in the task of remaking the nation that the present government, the TNA and Muslim leaders claim that they are committed to. When political problems are not resolved with the promptness they deserve, new symptoms and priorities emerge and require different approaches and treatments. The intervening war had created a host of new problems involving the displacement and the loss of land and livelihood of people, as well as the expectation of official acknowledgement and reparation for whatever atrocities that were committed by whichever side during the war. While it is not my purpose to offer unsolicited prescriptions to address current problems, it will not be inappropriate to suggest that the positive legacy of 1956 is the political maturity and the conciliatory approach of SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam that led to the historic B-C Pact an year after the official language legislation.
It is remarkable that by mutual consent the Pact focused on interim measures and left out of discussion the more contentious issues such as a federal constitution, regional autonomy and the Official Language Act itself. The Federal Party leaders graciously acknowledged the Prime Minister’s constraints on these matters and were content to discussing matters that were achievable in the short-term. Let me recall here Keynes’s timeless wisdom that “in the long-term we are all dead.” It is equally remarkable that two of the four provisions of the Dudley Senanayake–Chelvanayakam agreement (the D-C Pact) of 1965 were about redressing the ill-effects of the over-zealous implementation of the official language policy in public administration and in the language of the courts by the successors of SWRD Bandaranaike.
The terms of the B-C Pact and the D-C Pact are not relevant today, but their methods and the process of reaching them should be sources of inspiration. Equally, the present leaders must learn from the mistakes of the immediate successors of Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam who made wrongful selections from the legacies of the two leaders. While the successors of Bandaranaike jettisoned the legacy of his agreement with the Federal Party, the successors of Chelvanayakam projected as his sole legacy the creation of a separate Tamil state. While acknowledging the circumstances that precipitated these selective choices, we must also accept that both sets of choices have been experientially proved to be wrong in our own life-time.