[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Ending language discrimination

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 13 14:21:06 UTC 2011

Ending language discrimination

Although it took some time in coming, all right thinking Sri Lankans
could take deep satisfaction in the fact that there is now parity of
status for our national languages, Sinhala and Tamil. These are also
the official languages of the land and the agencies of the state have
no choice but to transact all their chores with the public in these

Given that the government is committed to the building and sustenance
of communal harmony, it is only to be expected that parity of status
between Sinhala and Tamil would not only be fully endorsed by the
state but be made the cornerstone of its drive towards national
integration. This is as it should be because national integration
needs to be predicated on peaceful co-existence among our communities
and language parity is one effective means of achieving this.

Making the Tamil Language an official language of this country by the
state was a watershed in ending language discrimination, but it would
not serve any purpose now to rake-up any contentious issues of the
past. Suffice it to realize that an important grievance of the Tamil
community has been rectified and that the possibility exists for
Tamil-speakers to correspond and transact business with the government
in their mother tongue.

The morale of Tamil speakers is bound to grow in leaps and bounds on
the strength of assurances by the Official Languages Commission (OLC)
that the government's official language policy would not only be
implemented but that punitive action would be taken against those who
violate it.

That is, every agency of the state is obliged to conduct its business
with the public in Sinhala and Tamil. An inability to correspond with
the public in Tamil, for instance, would render the institution
concerned liable to even prosecution in a court of law.

Thus, the basics could be said to be in place for the implementation
of the official language policy of the state. What is left to be done
is to ensure that the policy would be given full practical effect.

However, it is with regard to practical implementation that some
problems are bound to crop-up. It is quite some time since the
official language policy was adopted but, apparently, not all agencies
of the state have the capacity to implement it. Until recently, Tamil
speakers, in particular, experienced the problem of going to some
state institutions and finding that the relevant officials could not
converse with them in Tamil or issue them letters in Tamil, when the
need arose.

It is particularly important that the law enforcement agencies have at
least a bilingual capability. It is crucial that this capability is
possessed in the North-East in particular, where the services of our
law enforcers are keenly felt. But on this issue there has been some
progress because more and more Tamil-speaking personnel have been
recruited for service in the North-East. Last week, some travellers
found to their pleasant surprise that very many law enforcement
personnel in the Trincomalee district, for instance, were from the
Tamil-speaking communities.

This is a highly positive turn in the affairs of these provinces
because the local people's requirement has right along been that they
interact with state personnel who can converse in their mother tongue.

Therefore, it is vitally important that we ensure that all our state
agencies are endowed with at least a capacity to conduct their
businesses in Sinhala and Tamil. Ideally, there ought to be a
trilingual capability - that is, the ability to conduct business in
Sinhala, Tamil and English. However, the short and medium term
requirement is a Sinhala and Tamil Language capability.

However, it is cause for comfort that the state is not leaving
anything to chance. It has put in place a ministry which is tasked
with overseeing its official language policy plus effecting national
integration and this institution would prove crucial to
nation-building in the days ahead.

Examined closely, one would find that the state's official language
policy is a measure which is endowed with a great healing potential.
Both Sinhala and Tamil are not only classical languages but have been
used in this part of the world from time immemorial. They are the
sources which continuously nourish this country's cultural ethos and
have to be allowed to grow and flourish together and inseparably
because they are very much part of the Sri Lankan identity and
constitute the basis of Sri Lankanness.


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