Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Daily News editorial, Colombo, October 6, 2010

A language is after all a simple means of communication and it should remain thus. It should not be a tool of oppression or in the case of English, an ornament to some to assume a superiority complex or display literary flourishes. This should be the cardinal principle governing our language policy.

There is little argument that the language issue was one of the key elements that led to the alienation of communities and the subsequent ethnic strife. The problem was exacerbated by politicians who rode to power on the language issue. Later after wisdom having dawned on them we now have Tamil too declared as an official language.

However, even decades after its enactment into law the Official Languages Act is still not being properly implemented. Nay, it is not implemented at all in most of our State institutions that transact business with the public. As a result today the Tamil community particularly those with little education are at a severe disadvantage unable to communicate with State authorities to get their matters attended to.

This was more glaringly evident during the recent past during the height of terrorist problem when Tamils had to report to the Police to obtain security clearance. It was often found that some of these Tamils who had arrived in Colombo from the North were unable to provide proper explanations due to the communication gap as a result of the absence of Police officers with a knowledge of Tamil. There were also instances where confessions by Tamil suspects were wrongly recorded by the Police due to this language barrier.

It is in this context that an order issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to State officials to ensure facilities to the public to use their own language in official transactions in Government Departments bear relevance. Addressing State officials and politicians during an Eastern Province review meeting in Trincomalee the President said language should not be a barrier to the public when seeking assistance from Government authorities. He said it was brought to his notice that the language barrier was prevalent in the East where all three communities live in equal proportion. Significantly he had recommended to the Police to make appropriate facilities at relevant stations in both Sinhala and Tamil and to deploy officers accordingly.

The President no doubt is well aware that the most serious problems due to the language barrier crops up at Police stations and the Police are the least equipped in this area due to the woeful lack of Tamil speaking officers. The tense security situation no doubt saw a decline in the recruitment of Tamil speaking officers. On the other hand the threat issued on prospective Tamil recruits against joining the Police by the LTTE also saw a gradual diminution of Tamils in the ranks of the Police Department.

Now that this threat is no more and the security risk non-existent it is hoped that the authorities will increase the intake of the Tamils to the Police Department. One should not forget that the country's Police service was well served by Tamil Police officers in the past some of them even going to adorn the office of Inspector General of Police. Hopefully there will be a revisit to the past in the not too distant future, when our Police Department will be truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in line with the President's vision of a society devoid of ethnicity.

Not just the Police Department the language barrier is also prominently evident in the estates where the plantation community already backward in education and literacy are at a great disadvantage due to lack of Tamil officers or Sinhala personnel with a knowledge of Tamil. True, the Government has launched a language proficiency scheme for public servants as a criteria for promotions and career advancement. There is no indication to what level this has progressed. But until such time this bears full results temporary measures at least should be put in place to deal with the situation.

Now that the East is fully back to normal and the administrative machinery in full swing the people should be made to transact their business without impediments such as language barriers. With distribution of lands in the North and East to be regularized there is bound to be a lot of official red tape and the people will need explaining to in their own language on the nitty gritty relating to the issues involved. Thus the need to speed up the process of recruiting and training from among the public service, persons with the necessary competence to address these issues.

A language is after all a simple means of communication and it should remain thus. It should not be a tool of oppression or in the case of English, an ornament to some to assume a superiority complex or display literary flourishes. This should be the cardinal principle governing our language policy.