Linguistic discrimination against the Tamils

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Sep 2 14:09:10 UTC 2006

Linguistic discrimination against the Tamils
September 1, 2006 at 12:13 pm  Filed under Commentary

By Kumar Rupesinghe

Language is a source of identity and is a fundamental right of a person
and it is also all pervasive. It is a question of dignity and equality.
Language discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently
because of that persons native language or other characteristics of that
persons speech. Language discrimination may also occur if a person is
denied access to businesses or government services because he or she does
not speak the official language. In Sri Lanka, linguistic rights of Tamils
have been a key source of conflict, which has paved the way for the civil
war and Tamil insurgency. In this light, the need for the implementation
of the Official Languages Policy in Sri Lanka is paramount. The Foundation
for Co Existence [FCE] recently commissioned the Social Indicator of the
Centre for Policy Alternatives to conduct a study to examine the current
position of the implementation of the official languages provision in
areas outside the North and the East, where there is a substantial
presence of Tamil subjects.

The Language Audit thus undertaken indicates that 66.5% of the public
interviewed, were unaware of the Official Languages Policy in Sri Lanka.
More than 70 % were ignorant about the existence of the Official Languages
Department. 71.6% of them were unaware of the Official Languages
Commission. When asked about the publics satisfaction with the Tamil
language competence of the staff at the institutions surveyed, 77.4% of
the respondents expressed that they were either very dissatisfied or
somewhat dissatisfied. When the respondents were asked whether the
institutions they visited provided an official Tamil translator, 94.1%
replied in the negative. Such a situation after 58 years of independence,
one can only say is nothing short of dismal and paints a very bleak
picture of the interest given by the Sri Lankan State to the
implementation of the language rights of the minorities.

The Beginning of Discrimination based on Language

During the years 1830-1833 English was introduced as a medium of
instruction and the British decided to encourage the use of English
language as the language of administration, education and the judicial
system in Sri Lanka. The language question arose in the post 1947 period,
in a context of sensitivity to what the Tamil political leadership had
sought to avoid with its Fifty Fifty demand and failed. It is sensitivity
to the issue of majoritarian rule in the Sinhala leadership that resulted
in no steps being taken to implement the State Council Resolution of 1944,
which was initially to the effect that Sinhalese alone should replace
English. But this proposal by JR Jayewardene was amended the following
year and it was recommended that both Sinhala and Tamil languages be made
the official languages as regards the medium of instruction in schools,
public service exams and legislative proceedings.

In 1951, a Language Commission was appointed by the Governor-General of
Ceylon, consisting of three members. It was to ascertain the steps taken
so far for the introduction of Sinhalese and Tamil as the official
languages of the country. When the final report was submitted, the
Chairman of the Official Languages Commission, Justice Arthur Wijewardena,
who had served as the Chief Justice of Ceylon recorded that in my opinion
the replacement of English by Swabhasha would have been very much easier
if, instead of two Swabhasha languages as the official language, one alone
had been accepted in terms of the motion introduced by Mr. J. R.
Jayewardene in the State Council. Interestingly, K. M. de Silva has this
to say about the pronouncement: The terms of reference of the Commission
of which he was the Chairman clearly referred to Sinhala and Tamil as the
two official languages. He had been chosen by the Government of the day to
head this distinguished Commission established to provide guidelines on a
politically sensitive issue, in the hope that he would rise above the
partisan passions of his times; he ended by succumbing to these easily as
lesser mortals who were presumed to be less detached. (Quoted in
Samarasinghe S.G. 1996. Language Policy in Public Administration,
1956-1994: An Implementors Perspective.)

The Sinhala Only Act [1956]

In 1956, the Ceylonese government, which had hitherto followed a policy of
using Sinhala and Tamil as its official languages, decided to introduce
the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956. This Act declared Sinhala to be
the only official language. The Act dictated Sinhala language shall be the
one official language of Ceylon and that if immediate implementation was
impracticable, the language or languages currently in use may be continued
until the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the
expiry of the thirty-first of December, 1960? The Act was not followed by
subsidiary legislation in the form of regulations, as was the practice.
However, the implementation was based on the policy statements and cabinet
directives. Before the passage of the Sinhala Only Act, JR Jayewardene
prophesied: No Government should and could make Sinhalese the official
language by trampling down the language rights of over a million of the
permanent residents of the country. It cannot thrust to the wilderness,
the cherished language of these people. The doors of the public services
should not be closed to the thousands of youth who did not know Sinhalese
for no fault of their own. Surely that was the way to sow the seeds of
civil war There was genuine fear in the minds of all minorities, Tamils,
Muslims, Burghers and others with regard to the proposals of the
Government Mr. Bandaranaike had (sic) still time to shake off the shackles
with which he had been bound and to save the country from long years of
unnecessary strife and even bloodshed (Ceylon Daily News, 4 June 1956: 5,
J. R. Jayewardene on Sinhala Only Bill)

Herein, Jayewardene very correctly connects the Sinhala Only policy with
restricted access to public sector employment, which at the time was part
of the political agenda of those who advocated that policy. He was spot on
with his observation that the public sector would become an enclave for
the Sinhalese. Moreover, he identified prior to the actual enactment of
the Bill, the inherent potential for serious internal conflict as it would
create political radicalization of hundreds of educated Tamil youth. Dr.
Colvin R De Silvas comments after the Sinhala Only Act was passed in
Parliament echoed the same thoughts:

Do you want two languages and one nation or one language two nations?
Parity, Mr. Speaker, we believe is the road to the freedom of our nation
and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn little bleeding states
may arise of one little state, which has compelled a large section of
itself to treason, ready for the imperialists to mop up that which
imperialism only recently disgorged. [ Hansard, Vol 24, Col 1917, 1956] As
a result of the Tamils continuous opposition to the implementation of the
Sinhala Only policy of the government, the Ceylon Parliament passed the
Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act in 1958. The Act provided for the
use of Tamil in correspondence with the public for prescribed
administrative work in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Tamil was
accorded the status of an official language in the Northern and Eastern
provinces without prejudice to the operation of Sinhala as the official
language in those provinces.

Thereafter, successive national governments made efforts to redress the
discrimination caused and damage done by the language policies adopted
previously, at the same time retaining the pre-eminent position accorded
to the Sinhala language by bringing in Amendments to the Constitution. The
same leaders who were responsible for the growth of the Sinhala Only
movement were forced by circumstances to find ways to remedy the situation
caused by them. As Dharmadasa writes, Needless to say language per se is
not the bone of contention. It is what language stands for and what it
represents that goad communities and individuals to take it up as a cause.
(Dharmadasa, 1996)

The 1972 Constitution provided that Sinhala be the language of legislation
with a Tamil translation. It also sanctioned that the Sinhala laws once
published and laid before the National Assembly would supersede the
corresponding law in English. While this Constitution was an accommodation
of some of the wishes of the Tamils, it was not felt to go far enough.
Meanwhile, the ethnic and religious divide between the Sinhala majority
and the Tamil minority was growing and total distrust between the
communities was by then well established. The severe contest for power
among the Sinhala political parties helped harden the attitude of the
people towards each others language.The 1978 Constitution once again
reiterated that the official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. This
position was somewhat a change from the hitherto accepted position of the
1956 Act that declared explicitly that the Sinhala language shall be the
one official language in Ceylon. The 1978 Constitution, in contrast, did
not appear to have that emphatic statement, but it amounted to saying the
same thing from the point of view of the Tamils. The Constitution also
said that Tamil shall be an official language. It also declared that
English would be the link language. In another article, the Constitution
declared that the National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and
Tamil. At that time, Dr N M Perera commenting on the new Constitution said
that undoubtedly one of the progressive sections is that devoted to
language. In one sentence it laid to rest the language spectre that had
been haunting the political life of Sri Lanka since 1955

Then in 1988, the Constitution also declared through its 16th Amendment
that Sinhala and Tamil should be the languages of administration
throughout Sri Lanka and Sinhala shall be the language of administration
of all the provinces in Sri Lanka other than the Northern and the Eastern
provinces where Tamil shall be so used. All laws and subordinate
legislation should be enacted or made and published in Sinhala and Tamil
together with a translation thereof in English. Sinhala should be used as
the language of the courts situated in all the areas of Sri Lanka except
those in any areas where Tamil is the language of administration.

Salient Points from Raja Collures Report

Mr. Raja Collure, as the Chairman of the OLC presented a set of
recommendations on the implementation of the OLP in 2005, which are stated
to be in keeping with the practice of the bilingual administration system
in Canada as well. Given below are a few points from the said memorandum.
= According to a provisional enumeration carried out in the year 2000 by
the Department of Census and Statistics there were 835, 651 public
servants that year. Of the total number of public servants, only 8.31%
percent are Tamil speaking. The Commission recommends that in order to
overcome the dearth of such public servants in different categories of the
public service, necessary personnel proficient in the Tamil Language
should be recruited without delay. In order to establish a bilingual
public service in due course, it is necessary to train a substantial
section of them within a specified period in the Second Official Language
(Tamil) relative to the requirements of their functions.

= The Commission has also proposed that the teaching of Sinhala and Tamil
be included as compulsory subjects in the curriculum of schools leading to
the completion of the 11 year secondary education.

= New recruits to the public service should have proficiency in the Second
Official Language at the point of joining the service or should obtain
competence in that language within a specified period, preferably within
five years thereafter.

Bilingualism in Canada

Canada, on the other hand, consisting of both English and French speaking
population has come up with numerous provisions to overcome discrimination
based on language. At this point, it is felt that a short discussion of
same will add more interest to this paper. Official bilingualism in
various forms dates back to the Canadian Confederation in 1867, when the
British North America Act allowed both French and English for
parliamentary debates and federal court cases.  However, for many decades,
French was given an inferior position in the Canadian confederation. In
1970, the Federal Identity Program, entailing the equal use of both
English and French in all federal applications, was established to
standardize a corporate identity for the Canadian government. The
Constitution Act of 1982 required provinces and territories, under section
23, to make education available in both official languages where numbers
warrant. It also added the Canada Clause, extending minority language
education rights across Canada. In 1988, a second version of the Official
Languages Act was introduced, taking into account the new requirements of
the Constitution Act. On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled
unanimously that the interpretation of major part requirement in Quebecs
language of instruction provisions, limiting access to English-language
public education, violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The court did not strike down the law but, presented the province with a
set of criteria for bringing the law to conform to the Charter


As can be seen, the claims for the pre-eminence of a language or
linguistic group based on population strength are often questioned by
counter-claims based on the historical evolution of the modern nation as a
single political unit. Often the conflicting concepts of nationhood come
to the fore when these issues are debated. If the national leadership is
not wise, patient and sensitive to the issues and is carried by the
aspirations of the linguistic majority alone, the nation is bound to
suffer soon. As in many other countries, the problem in Sri Lanka is that
the linguistic majority has tried to define what should be the legitimate
aspirations for the minority. Sri Lanka is at a decisive cross road in
transforming the decades old ethnic conflict into peaceful co-existence.
Ensuring equal status for Sinhala and Tamil languages in governance, the
judiciary, state administration and language learning to create a culture
of language pluralism, thus becomes a crucial factor. Therefore, the
government should not neglect its responsibilities any further in
reforming policies, administrative procedures and the implementation of
the plural language policy that will uphold equal status for the official
languages of Sri Lanka. []


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list