Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Reflections on Issues of Language in Sri Lanka

Power, exclusion and inclusion

by Prof. Sasanka Perera,, Colombo, October 24, 2011

"Do we... want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue." Dr. Colvin R de Silva of LSSP, 1956 on passage of Sinhala Only Act.

Jaffna post war Sri Lanka 2011

Photo credit Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters, from Time magazine.

Keynote address delivered on 17th October 2011 at ‘Language and Social Cohesion: 9th International Language and Development Conference, Colombo co-organized by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Ministry  of Education, GIZ, AusAID and British Council.



Language is never a simple issue of communication; in contemporary social and political practice everywhere, language goes much beyond its basic utilitarian purposes. In this sense, Sri Lanka is no exception. By now, Sri Lanka has ended an immensely destructive military conflict that had much to do with a crisis of identity linked as much to language as to ethnicity and contested notions of binary-nationalisms and competitive interpretations of history. In this context, this is a crucial time to seriously consider the politico-developmental position of language in imagining the future of the country.

Today, I will briefly focus on the historical development of the politics of language in Sri Lanka and explore the dynamics of the specific political process that has emerged out of privileging and de-privileging language use in the country. This necessarily has to focus on the policy discourse that has enhanced language regulation and legislation in Sri Lanka as well as political impediments that have retarded the comprehensive implementation of the provisions of these legislative provisions and regulatory frameworks. For me, heading for the future and imagining the future after a catastrophic and very painful recent past and without the hindsight of the larger history that has molded our collective personality is a recipe for future instability.  And it endlessly disturbs me that often we as a people seem very reluctant to learn from our own history.

History of Politics of Language

Both Tamil and Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’) during the colonial period in the early 20th century aimed at promoting Sinhala and Tamil.  So contrary to popular belief today, politics of language have not always been a reflection of inter-ethnic rivalry.  In its initial stages, the demand for swabasha reflected class connotations even though blurred outlines of Sinhala aspirations could also be detected.  But such aspirations were not clearly articulated, and did not receive popular support at these stages.  Demands for swabashawas a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, privileges not open to the masses educated in the local languages.

In 1944, J.R. Jayawardena moved a resolution in Parliament to declare “Sinhalese as the Official Language of Ceylon within a reasonable number of years”.  An amendment was proposed by V. Nallaiah, a Tamil state councilor, for providing both Sinhala and Tamil the status as Official Languages, which was seconded by R.S.S. Gunawardena, a Sinhala state councilor.  The resolution in this form was approved by 27 to 2 in the Sinhala-dominated legislature, another sign of the lack of ethnic overtones in language politics at this stage.  The resolution specified that Sinhala and Tamil would become the languages of instruction in schools, examinations for public services and legislative proceedings.

In 1946, a committee under the chairmanship of J.R. Jayawardena strongly recommended the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English while recommending that the transition take place over a period of ten years.  But there was no serious movement in the language front despite these official conversations. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP in 1951 citing the government’s inaction in implementing the new Official Language Policies, and launched a concerted attack on the UNP claiming to see “no difficulty in the way of the early adoption of our languages.” Soon after his resignation, Bandaranaike organized the SLFP and began mobilizing forces supporting the swabasha movement within Sinhala society to form a broad-based coalition to wrest political power from the UNP in the upcoming general election.  However, the language issue had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage as exemplified by the SLFP manifesto which claimed that “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

By the late 1950s however, this cross-cutting interest in empowering local languages diminished in the context of emerging and divisive ethnic politics. It is in this context that  S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was elected as Prime Minister in 1956.  His main election promise to establish Sinhala as the Official Language of the country replacing English was fulfilled soon after the election, giving no status of parity to Tamil. This is the manner in which language politics as we know it today was introduced into the Sri Lankan political discourse.  All of us are quite aware where these politics have lead us since that time.

Language Policy History

Let me take a moment to briefly reflect upon the policy formworks that have impacted the language situation in the country.  In 1966, ten years after the passage of the Sinhala Only Bill, the use of Tamil as the language of administration in Northern and Eastern provinces was begun after the implementation of the provisions of Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 (1958) mostly due to pressure from Tamil political parties.  In 1987, through the 13th amendment to the Constitution Tamil was also decreed an Official Language of the state and the legal basis for parity between Sinhala and Tamil was clearly established by law.  In addition, both languages were also defined as ‘national languages’ while recognizing English as the ‘link language.’ 

Section 21 of the Constitution under the 16th Amendment offers extensive provisions and rights for the language of administration to be available in both Sinhala and Tamil.  In addition, Section 23 of the same amendment provides that the language of legislation will be Sinhala and Tamil while a translation of these legislative enactments and laws must be available in English.  Further, Section 24 of the same amendment provides that the languages of the courts in the country will be Sinhala and Tamil.

Chapter IV of the Constitution and the 13th and 16th Amendments in particular, formally recognize the earlier mistakes of language politics, and provides for extensive and legally binding solutions.  In effect, Chapter IV as it appears today provides for the equitable use of Sinhala and Tamil in all areas of social and political activity.  In that sense, the Constitution is both a historical text of mistakes and also their correction, and a point of departure for the implementation of the Language Policy that has been so exhaustively articulated.  When it comes to language rights, the issue is no longer with the Constitution or with regulations, but with their practical implementation.

In 1991, the Ministry of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Home Affairs issued a circular under the title ‘Implementation of the Official Languages Law – Trilingualization of Forms,’ and made the following directive: “It was decided that forms of all government institutions should be made available in the three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English printed in the same paper.  All old forms not satisfying these criteria should be withdrawn.  Secretaries of all Ministries and Provincial Councils should be responsible for implementing this decision”.

This was a conscious attempt at implementing some of the most basic provisions in exercising language rights that affect people in routine circumstances.  In 1992, the same Ministry issued another circular under the title ‘Preparation of Infrastructure for the Implementation of the Official Languages Law.’  It stated that the government’s objective was to implement the language legislation as laid down by the Constitution, and urged heads of government agencies to recognize and address these issues.  More importantly, the circular requested Secretaries of Ministries to investigate and report the lapses in implementing the Language Policy in departments and institutions under them.  Further, the circular categorically stated that lack of language skills and lack of equipment would no longer be entertained by the government as excuses for the delays in implementing the Official Language legislation.

The repeated issuing of these circulars point to a number of realities.  The constitutional changes made were serious and these circulars indicate numerous attempts made over the years to implement the provisions in the Constitution.  They also point to the failure of the Official Languages Policy at the level of practice due to sheer lack of capacity, mechanisms, skills and the recognition of such lapses as well as a pronounced absence of political will and interest at the ground level.  The narratives emerging from these circulars suggest that the government’s interest was the speedy implementation of the Language Policy rather than first establishing a long term and robust framework for its implementation.

On 30th June 1998, President Chandrika Kumaratunge writing to her Cabinet of Ministers also made a clear statement regarding concerns over the failure of implementing the Official Languages Policy:

Several Instances of failure on the part of Government Institutions to comply with Constitutional provisions relating to Official Languages have been brought to my notice.  These are serious omissions as they cause immense inconvenience and hardship to members of the public who are not conversant with Sinhala.  Besides, it also amounts to a violation of the law.  I dread to think of the plight of citizens who receive letters in a language which they do not understand.  This is tantamount to denial of that citizen a fundamental right.

However, despite good intentions and various attempts outlined above, the overall damage caused by the initial phase of politics of language, and the suspicions these politics created in the minds Tamil-speaking people remain un-addressed at the level of both country-wide practice and felt experience.  In other words, the vast gap between the official recognition of Tamil as an Official Language and the practical implementation of the provisions and conditions it entails, is yet to be bridged.  As recently as 2005, the government’s Official Language Commission made the following crucial observations with regard to the implementation of Language Policy in a wide-ranging document titled the Memorandum of Recommendations:

The facilities for communicating with the central government in obtaining its services in Tamil are minimal.  This situation amounts to a violation of constitutional rights of the Tamil speaking citizens of the country.  Apart from the indignities they are made to suffer, they are put into innumerable inconveniences in transacting business with the government.  The provincial administration including that of the North East miserably fail in serving citizens inhabiting those areas who are not proficient in the language of the administration of the respective province in their own language which has Official Language status.

These statements summarize the social and political repercussions of the politics of language in this country as they exist today despite numerous attempts taken to address them.  On the other hand, some significant measures adopted seem to have been formulated in an ad hoc manner despite the articulation of a language sensitive ideological commitment resulting in their state of unsuccessfulness.

The Present

Through that rather turbulent road with too many blind corners we come to the present; and the question is what does the present hold? Quite literally, if we had followed the road signs that we ourselves had established in the form of rules and regulations, our politics, at least with reference to language, would have been quite different; if so, we would have been discussing very different things in this conference today.

Last year (2010), about one and half years after the conclusion of the war, at the invitation of the Ministry of Official Languages and Social Integration, I visited Vavuniya and Jaffna between 1stand 3rd December to undertake a quick assessment of what the language situation was at ground level in two primarily Tamil speaking areas. Without going into details, I will only offer a summary of my experience which will place in context, the prevailing situation. The Divisional Secretariat for Vavuniya where the GA is based, services mostly a Tamil-speaking population. While government circulars received by this office as a rule come in all three languages and sometimes in two, a great majority of routine communication from government agencies continues to be in Sinhala. This includes communications from the Ministry of Public Administration, Ministry of Heath, Pensions Department, Samurdhui Authority, Widows and Orphans Fund and the Ministry of Economic Development. A cursory survey of the daily ‘in-try’ of mail for the GA for the 1st of December 2010 indicated that the majority of the mail was in Sinhala, a few regional letters in Tamil and almost no Sinhala language letters were accompanied by either Tamil or English translations.

The Vauniya Police has a similar situation with regard to language of service. In a force of about 300 officers and constables attached to the Vavuniya Town Police, only about seven are competent in Tamil. The police acknowledge that with the end of active war, the numbers of people coming to police stations in the region have increased considerably, and that their ability to serve the people in their own language needs to be vastly improved. At present, all complaints are only recorded in Sinhala; a Tamil-speaking person can relate his or her compliant in Tamil, and if one of the handful of policemen competent in Tamil is available, the narrative is translated into Sinhala which is recorded. None of these are trained translators and the possibility of errors and inaccuracies seeping into the recorded statements are significant.

Structurally, the situation in Jaffna is quite similar to Vavuniya suggesting the existence of a pattern in similar ethno-cultural conditions where the official languages policy is faltering seriously in the process of implementation. The Jaffna Hospital receives most of its instructions and correspondence from state agencies in Sinhala in a situation where it does not have formal mechanisms to translate these documents. It is clear that Ministry of Health is one of the most consistent violators of the official languages law. The great majority of correspondence from this Ministry comes in Sinhala which includes letters of appointment, salary increments, and above all, disciplinary inquiries.  The police in Jaffna Town has a force of about 600 officers and constables; out of this only about 7 are competent in Tamil though serving an overwhelmingly Tamil majority population. As in Vavuiya, officers have to take procedural detours to manage with what is available and depend on informal systems when the formal structures are dysfunctional.

This state of affairs poses a series of problems which seem to crop up regularly in other central and local government bodies in the north which indicates a consistent pattern and deeper malaise.  That is, despite the constitutional and legal right of the people to receive information and services from central and local government agencies in their own language, this does not happen on a routine basis. So, despite the existence of an ideal legal and constitutional framework for the implementation of the official languages policy, it is consistently violated as these examples and people’s experiences indicate. While this has lead to a situation of frustration and lack of trust towards the state, people also seem reluctant to take legal remedies to rectify the situation though such procedures exists, for fear of reprimand.

It is in this context that we finally come to the attempted ban of the Tamil version of the national anthem which is entrenched by the Constitution. The Minister of Housing quite loudly and without wisdom called the Tamil version of the national anthem a ‘joke,’ while the proposal received considerable support from some of the top leaders of our political spectrum, based on spectacularly false information and assumptions. Naturally, if the direct translation of the original is a ‘joke’, then so must be the original. But as we know quite well, our national anthem in Sinhala, Tamil or any other language is a fine and exemplary text that defies divisiveness in all its forms, and upholds the value of a collective identity.  The fact that the ban was not carried through is another matter. I find it extremely unfortunate that such an unenlightened political debate emerged in the first place, barely one and half years after the conclusion of the an immensely destructive war, and while our collective sorrow over the losses in war was still quite painful, and ‘reconciliation’ had become a free floating word in the local political discourse.  Perhaps that word has lost its meaning just the same way our post-independence language policies have lost their direction. It is in this context that I would like to reiterate a point I made at the very outset. That is, if we do not learn from our history, from our collective past, from our mistakes and from our strengths, we will be the architects of our own future destruction just the same way we have been of our recent past.

I would like to conclude my reflections with a few not so well known words from one of the greatest political leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” My wish today is that our political leaders would somehow find the wisdom to be guided by this simple logic. I also wish that wisdom would come to govern our politics in general and our politics of language in particular.

(The speaker is Professor and former Head, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo)


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