[lg policy] Importance Of Preserving Language Rights In Sri Lanka

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Mar 28 14:45:50 UTC 2016

Importance Of Preserving Language Rights In Sri Lanka

*by** Lionel Guruge*

Tamil version of the National Anthem of Sri Lanka was sung at the country’s
68th Independence day celebrations

Sri Lanka’s Constitution has undoubtedly undergone many revisions because
of its Amendments. Of all these Amendments, perhaps one that carries a most
significant weight is the 13th Amendment, which not only established a new
form of sub-national governance, but also introduced a crucial legislation
that respected minority rights and validated their identity. The Amendment
reads as follows:

*“(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.*

*(3) English shall be the link language.*

*(4) Parliament shall by law provide for the implementation of the
provisions of this* *Chapter.” *

This Amendment, introduced in 1987, was widely recognized as the pivotal
point for language equality in Sri Lanka and soon paved the way for the
establishment of the Official Languages Commission (OLC) in 1991, tasked
with the mandate of protecting and promoting the needs of a bilingual Sri
Lankan population. Building on this Amendment, the former regime also
established a Ministry for Official Languages and Reconciliation, which was
consolidated and re-named as the Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue
and Official Languages by the current regime.

Article 23(1) of the Constitution mentions the language of administration
with regards to legislation:

*“[23. (1) All laws and subordinate legislation shall be enacted or made
and published in Sinhala and Tamil, together with a translation thereof in

However, the Attorney General’s Department entrusted with the role of
advising if any legislation is unconstitutional, has repeatedly failed to
bring to Parliament’s notice that almost all legislation is written in
English and subsequently translated to Sinhala and Tamil. Not only is this
an obvious oversight in terms of the Department’s responsibility, but the
actual process of writing legislation in English is a direct opposition to
what is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. This author is personally
aware of 260+ laws that have not yet been translated to Sinhala or Tamil,
thus making the process of its enactment wholly unconstitutional. This has
been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and
further action is currently being discussed.

If one were to investigate the reasons behind such a blatant disregard of a
Constitutional law, they might realise that the problem stems from a range
of issues. Firstly, government officials are mostly unaware of this
information, or they chose to ignore it based on the assumption that it
warrants no harm. It is painstakingly obvious that the Official Languages
Policy (OLP) is treated as insignificant in Sri Lanka; its importance has
been suppressed beneath a number of other issues considered to hold more
prominence in contemporary domestic politics. It is also worth considering
the jurisdiction imposed on government bodies mandated to advance and
protect language equality. The most potent example of this fact could be
found in the Official Languages Commission. The OLC, though established as
the only commission for language, is essentially a toothless institution,
in that its jurisdiction is limited to requesting and communicating with
other institutions to abide by the OLP, but does not reach enforcement
levels. The authority vested in the OLC is arguably diminutive, although
very few stakeholders dare to admit it. Evidence for this fact can be found
in the form of an unfortunate circumstance, where the former Chairman
corresponded with the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation to abide by the
languages policy which resulted in his resignation due to pressure from
prominent figures who believed he had no authority to dictate changes to
other institutions. This could have been avoided if the move was
challenged, which unfortunately no one was willing to do. This incident is
testament to the fact that the OLC must be made an independent Commission,
thus granting it more validity and jurisdiction.

*The importance of language **equality in consumer **goods printing*

This author, in collaboration with many other like-minded civil society
personnel has submitted more than 300 complaints to the OLC and the Human
Rights Commission with regard to infringement of the language policy. Many
of these complaints were based on the print material of consumer goods,
which inevitably resulted in the complaint being filed against the Consumer
Affairs Authority (CAA). If you were to randomly select a few household
items or processed food products, many of them may not include its ‘Date of
Manufacture’ and ‘Date of Expiry’ (among other details) in both official
languages. It seems that the CAA does not have a mandate to regulate this
practice among its collaborators, although they certainly have the
authority to do so in this case. Sadly, this only propagates the theory
that government officials lack a full understanding of the implications of
adhering to the language policy. There has been no education within any of
these institutions with regard to the OLP or its manner of implementation.
It is a level of ignorance that seeps into society as well; a lack of
realization that there are diverse communities that call Sri Lanka their

The Sinhala population must grasp this reality as much as the Tamil
population, and identify that respecting another’s language is to
acknowledge their identity. On a separate occasion, it was found that the
officials working at the National Library themselves were unaware of the
OLP and resorted to assuming that any Tamil customer or member would have
the ability to speak Sinhala and therefore translated documents were not a
necessity, nor a priority. Clearly, a shift in attitude fuelled by
awareness-raising must be targeted with haste.

This author has already filed a Fundamental Rights case against the
infringement of the OLP with regard to medicinal drugs and cosmetic
products used in Sri Lanka. Medicine is not a necessity to only a select
population or community; indeed, it is a sought after by all members of the
public. In that aspect, not only Western medicine, but indigenous medicine
must also include its composition, side effects, and instructions of use in
both official languages.

It is a basic human right to be privy to information regarding the
medicines they consume, which if consumed in an incorrect manner would have
drastic health repercussions.

This applies in severity to medicinal equipment and its instructions for
use. To print this information in only English is to deliberately
disadvantage a large portion of the population, and not only goes against
Constitutional requirements but can also be viewed as a sinister act of
denying people their basic rights.

*The importance of monitoring *

The Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages is
currently taking a few initiatives with regard to language. The above
mentioned areas must be taken into serious consideration during these
initiatives. Reformation within government institutions dealing with
citizens and consumers must assume priority in their mandate. It is also
equally important, however, to monitor any initiatives taken, as many
former initiatives have lost its momentum and died a natural death without
any monitoring mechanism in place.

The OLC has no jurisdiction nor do they have the resources to conduct any
monitoring of their activities and initiatives. For example, a complaint
was made to the OLC and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) regarding train
announcements not being made in Tamil. The HRC took it upon themselves to
convene a meeting with all stakeholders and give orders to abide by the
Policy when making train announcements. Much to our consternation, this
only lasted a total of 2 months, and it wasn’t long before a re-evaluation
found that the Anuradhapura Train Station had snubbed the responsibility of
making announcements in Tamil.

If there was more rigorous implementation and monitoring of initiatives, as
well as significant consequences imposed for overlooking such details,
perhaps attitudinal change could also be targeted. Even the tickets issued
to drivers by police officers mention details only in Sinhala in majority
Sinhala areas, and vice versa. A very simple numerical coding system could
be set in place of the current method, where numbers are given for each
respective road-related crime in both languages on one side of the ticket
and the Police officer need only note the number on the ticket.

Even to consider upgrading to such efficient methods of conduct has not
crossed the minds of many, leaving Sri Lanka in a very unsatisfactory state
with regard to language.
Respecting another’s language need not be enforced by law; it is a sign of
basic human respect and dignity afforded to a fellow citizen. Indeed it was
heartening to hear both our official languages resonating against the
melody of the National Anthem of Sri Lanka at our last independence day;
however, much more needs to be done to ensure that both our official
languages will be considered in parity with one another; hopefully sooner
than later.

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