Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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The Great Language Divide in Sri Lanka

by B. Muralidhar Reddy, The Hindu, May 15, 2007

"Neither national integration nor durable communal amity could be achieved without giving effect to the constitutional provisions on language. Any discrimination that results in the failure of the government to faithfully implement the Official Languages Policy also constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens so affected."

Every government has promised to rectify the situation created by the 1956 Sinhala Only Act. But on the ground little has moved.

LANGUAGE IS a key element of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. The infamous 1956 Sinhala Only Act is universally acknowledged to be the main trigger for the tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils who make up the single largest minority.

Every successive Government in Colombo since 1956 has accepted the enormous damage the Act has done to the country's social fabric and vowed to redress the situation. The 1957 Bhandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact was the first public demonstration of a government's intent to correct the situation. It proved to be short-lived in the face of resistance from chauvinists.

Ever since it has been a story of promises made and broken. Tamil was accorded the same status as Sinhala as a follow-up to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. However, every government after the Accord fell short in implementing the commitments made in respect of recognising Tamil as a national language.

The Official Languages Commission (OLC), constituted during the tenure of Chandrika Kumaratunga, in its November 2005 report meticulously documented the deficiencies in the system on implementation of the languages policy and made elaborate recommendations to correct them. Almost one and half years after the Commission report, progress in the translation of the key recommendations into reality has been tardy.

Supplementary report
On May 9, OLC chairman Raja Collure released a supplementary report on the 2005 document with recommendations to the Government to put in place a mechanism for a speedy and realistic approach on use of the language problem as an effective tool in the over-all endeavour towards resolution of the ethnic conflict.

In July last year, Minister for Constitutional Affairs and Law and Justice D.E.W. Gunasekara got the Cabinet's approval for making it mandatory for new recruits to the Government to be proficient in both Sinhala and Tamil. However, the objective could not be met as the system was simply not geared for implementing the new rule.

The dual language policy with English as the link language can be implemented only if the Government is ready to pay heed to the OLC's practical recommendations. Says Mr. Collure: "Neither national integration nor durable communal amity could be achieved without giving effect to the constitutional provisions on language. Any discrimination that results in the failure of the government to faithfully implement the Official Languages Policy also constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens so affected."

The facts in figures, as documented by the OLC, bring to fore the sorry state of affairs on implementation of the language policy. Sri Lankan Tamils (13 per cent), Tamils of recent Indian origin (6 per cent), and Muslims (7 per cent) form the Tamil-speaking population of the country. Mr. Collure, quoting statistics released by the Department of Census and Statistics in 2000, says that even though the Tamil-speaking people comprise 26 per cent of the island's population, they make up just 8.31 per cent of the public service.

"If you take the Wellawatte Police Station [in Colombo] as a simple example, Tamil citizens are not able to make a complaint in their language. This is despite Wellawatte being a predominantly Tamil area. To give another example, most of the traffic signposts in the city are in Sinhalese," he points out.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa Government has agreed in principle to make it obligatory for new recruits to the Government service to be proficient in Sinhala and Tamil and introduce an incentive scheme for the public servants already in service to obtain second language proficiency. Further, the OLC has recommended making Sinhala and Tamil compulsory subjects at the secondary school level and recruitment of sufficient number of Tamil speaking public servants and conversion of the Official Languages Department as an independent institute.

In its latest report, the OLC has called for the creation of a new institution for translations and interpretations. It says: "The proposed institution for translations and interpretations may be modelled on the Bureau of Translations in Canada which provides services in translations, interpretations and terminology.