[lg policy] Sinhala ony in retrospect

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Nov 7 10:49:31 EST 2018

 ‘Sinhala Only’ in retrospect
2018-11-07 00:00:31

The ‘Sinhala Only’ legislation of 1956 was immediately turned into a bogey
by anti-majority propagandists to frighten off progressive political
reforms aimed at redressing the historical injustices perpetrated against
the nation by European occupations of the previous 450 years. But the
dethronement of English by making Sinhala the only official language ‘in 24
hours’ (as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had pledged) was not the renegade step
which it was made out to be. An obviously well-informed senior citizen
signing as ND, in an opinion piece published in The Island/November 1,
recalled that even (Prime Minister) John Kotelawala of the UNP, during
electioneering that year, promised to make Sinhala the official language,
though it was Bandaranaike who was elected to power and was able to
implement the proposal. Making the language of the majority Sinhalese the
official language was one of the well meant ‘affirmative actions’ taken to
put an end to the oppressive discrimination that, particularly, they were
made to endure under the British and even under their native successors who
got into their boots on the former’s departure. ND also recollected that it
was J.R. Jayawardene who moved in the State Council that Sinhala be made
the official language in 1944. In other words, it was a necessary
transitional first-step taken towards a fuller realisation of national
independence from foreign domination; it was not intended to further
disadvantage any section of the broad mass of the Lankan population that
had long been oppressed and dispossessed by British colonialism.

Affirmative action regimes implemented by some progressive governments
since 1956 including language policy reforms have generally failed due to
non-cooperation from certain opportunistic minority politicians who exploit
race or religion to win votes at elections, for whom politics is everything
and national interest is nothing. It has often been charged that so-called
Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism has done a lot of damage to Sri  Lanka. The
truth is that the Sinhala Buddhists have always been victims of chauvinists
of other brands.
The 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ slogan has to be understood in terms of the
political context that prevailed at that time. The existing political
reality then was characterised by the majority of the common people being
oppressed by an English-speaking Westernised native ruling elite (a
privileged minority) that followed at the heels of the recently departed
European colonizers in government. Whereas English was a key to privilege
and a badge of prestige for this elite, it was a sword of oppression
(kaduwa) for the masses. The ‘Sinhala Only’ policy knocked it off its

The Sinhala Only legislation was before long amended in Parliament allowing
‘reasonable use of Tamil.’ This reformative trend continued until Tamil was
also made an official language in the early 1980s, and today both languages
enjoy the same official language status. However, there are still lapses in
the implementation of the official languages policy, which affect both
communities. Scarcity of Sinhala and Tamil bilingual proficiency among
government servants has been a perennial problem, but this is not an
insurmountable obstacle, provided politicians in power make themselves
responsible for the implementation of official language policies made into
law. Such issues need to be addressed by those elected to power without
unnecessarily politicising them.

*The 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ slogan has to be understood in terms of the
political context that prevailed at that time *

Language policy changes introduced in 1956 and appropriately reformed since
have done a lot of good to the common masses of the country, particularly
in the education of the young. Although ‘language management’ began to
rouse wide popular awareness only after 1956, the subject had already
engaged the attention of the patriotic segment of the country’s
intelligentsia decades before that date. This was mainly due to rising
levels of education among common Sinhala and Tamil speaking masses who had
been deliberately denied it in colonial times; at that time a decent
education was available only in the English medium for the children of the
privileged class, and it prepared them to serve as cogs in the colonial
government machinery, in the businesses, and in professions such as law,
medicine and engineering. This English medium education was superior to the
rudimentary kind of Swabhasha or vernacular (Sinhala and Tamil) medium
instruction that catered to the rural poor who far outnumbered the
privileged minority.

The instruction provided in English medium schools cost the government many
times more than what it spent on vernacular education. This was deliberate
government policy. To prevent poor parents from sending their progeny to
English medium schools, the authorities introduced a fee levying system.
The fee charged was not very high, but it was high enough to be too
prohibitive for poor parents to afford. The education minister of the State
Council C.W.W. Kannangara succeeded in 1944 in seeing his free education
bill through after an intense six-year struggle against severe opposition
mounted by the privileged class. Initially, his reforms benefited the
minority of children attending English medium schools more than it did
rural children, because the former didn’t have to pay for their education
any longer. But this was insignificant compared to the immense benefit that
the free education policy brought to the rural children studying in the
Swabhasha mediums. It was not possible to provide English medium education
to all the children at that time, and it is not possible even today for a
variety of reasons.

It is sometimes argued that Bandaranaike played the official language card
to gain power in 1956. This is wrong. Bandaranaike left the UNP in 1951 on
a principled basis to form his own SLFP. He later conceived of the
country’s polity as a close-knit society consisting of a Fivefold Great
Force or Pancha Maha Balavegaya spelt out as Sangha-Veda-Guru-Govi-Kamkaru
or Buddhist Monks-Native Physicians-Teachers-Peasant Farmers and Workers.
This was seen as an authentic analysis of the prevalent socio-political
reality of the time. It seems that the small Westernised ruling elite
represented by the UNP was excluded from this formula. Thus dawned the ‘Era
of the Common Man’ -- as Bandaranaike often described it. It is nonsense to
say Bandaranaike did away with English as the medium of instruction in all
educational institutions, as someone said recently.

The minority of schools that had English medium education continued to
function as before while Swabhasha education greatly expanded. Kannangara
reforms started the ‘Central School System’ in order to extend English
medium education to the villages, where well-performing rural students were
selected at a competitive examination to study in the English medium from
Class Six onwards. However, since it was held that children learn best in
their mother tongue, the pioneers of free education decided to phase out
the English medium from government schools completely by 1960. And this is
what happened.

Although the limited English medium instruction in the government school
system thus came to an end, the importance of English for a proper
education was never lost sight of. All post-independence governments,
particularly, those after 1956, paid the highest attention to the teaching
of English as a second language. But the effort became a failure for
various reasons, which I don’t want to elaborate on here. It is not true
that nationalist politics led to an abandonment of English. The truth is
that English was made available to children from all classes irrespective
of their economic or social background only after free education was
introduced. This was done in compliance with the advice of the farseeing
political and civil nationalist leaders of the past century who unerringly
recognised English as the indispensable key to modernisation.

All nationalist intellectuals of the time emphasised the importance of
English for a decent education. Even Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), who
used to be condemned, until recently, for his alleged racism, chauvinism,
fanaticism, etc., (though he was not guilty of any of these) stressed the
need to learn English, in addition the mother tongue; he also wanted young
people to learn science and technology, for these were indispensable for
creating a modern independent progressive society. He was not averse to the
adoption of good social etiquette from the Westernised class. For instance,
he wrote articles in Sinhala explaining, for those who liked to use forks
and spoons during meals, how to do so in the proper manner. Anagarika
Dharmapala was a passionate anti-imperialist, and he made no secret of
this, either in his words or in his deeds. But he was careful to ensure
that his criticism of the government was within the law. Anagarika was
primarily a Buddhist missionary and secondarily a fervently nationalist
social reformer. In both roles, he was a prodigious writer and speaker.
According to the late Ananda Guruge, who researched into the Anagarika’s
life and work for over fifty years, the bulk of his writings and speeches
(75%) was done in English. All the pioneering nationalists who worked for
freedom from foreign rule were English educated, and acknowledged the value
of the language for the betterment of the future of the Sri Lankan people.

The language policy changes that began with Sinhala Only were meant to
eliminate English language based discrimination that prevailed even after
independence was achieved in 1948. Sinhala is our birthright. It is an
inalienable legacy of profound importance for us. Sinhala is a most ancient
language. Even Mahinda Thera who formally introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka
more than two thousand three hundred years ago preached in the language of
the islanders, Sihala/Sinhale. While preserving that invaluable linguistic
heritage, we need to learn English with the same dedication that we learn
Sinhala for our survival as a modern nation. There has never been a
question about this need over the past one hundred and fifty years, though
colonial discrimination against the dispossessed majority of the population
prevented its fulfilment over most of that period. However, English
language learning in combination with ICT and even English medium education
received a new impetus in the last fifteen years. This trend must be
fostered and properly channelled in the broad national interest, while
preserving our own proud linguistic heritage.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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