Tamil Language Rights in Sri Lanka – Part I


By Devanesan Nesiah

 Sinhalese Language rights have been largely secured since the Official Language Act of 1956. I will therefore focus mainly on Tamil Language rights and, to a less extent, on English Language rights. It would be useful to begin with a brief historical outline.

English was the Official Language through the British period and in to the first decade after independence. The agitation for the use of National Languages in the administration and Education was led by the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), prominent among whose leadership was the late Handy Perinbanayagam. The Gandhi-inspired JYC, comprising almost entirely of young school teachers and senior students, established cordial relationship with all the political leaders outside Jaffna (Kandyan and Low Country Sinhalese, Moor and Malay, Upcountry and Eastern Tamil) as well as with major Indian leaders including Gandhi, Nehru and Rajagopalachari. The JYC peaked in the 1920s and early 30s, but gradually faded thereafter.

In keeping with JYC policy, leading schools in Jaffna taught Sinhala, Tamil and English as compulsory languages. They wanted independence immediately and, for this reason, opposed the Donoughmore reforms as too little too late and boycotted the 1931 State Council elections under the Donoughmore reforms. In 1931, the boycott was a 100% success in the Jaffna Peninsula and even the Tamil nationalists who did not approve of the boycott contested outside the Peninsula (eg, G G Ponnanbalam who contested and lost in Mannar). The boycott obviously could not be sustained and there was no boycott when the 1936 State Council election came around. Unfortunately, the boycott call by the JYC in 1931 backfired in that the young anti-imperialist intellectuals of the JYC were dismissed as romantic idealists. This gave the Tamil Congress a head start over the Youth Congress and GG Ponnambalam maintained his dominance so gained over Tamil politics for two decades since 1936. Over this period the communal goodwill built up by the JYC gradually eroded.

In the mean time J. R. Jayewardene moved a resolution in the State Council in 1944 to make Sinhala the only official Language and the medium of instruction in schools. Before it was put to the vote an amendment was moved by V. Nalliah to substitute Sinhala and Tamil for Sinhala only. The amendment was accepted and adopted. But some communal ill will and a feeling of insecurity among Tamils and Muslims had been created. The Tamil Congress won nearly all the seats in the Northern electorates in the 1948 and again in the 1952 Parliamentary elections. Thereafter, the Tamil leadership was taken over by the Federal Party (ITAK) led by SJV Chelvanayakam and sustained for over two decades till he passed away in the late 70s. The Federal Party campaigned vigorously and successfully against secession at every election till 1977. During his time the Federal Party enjoyed the support of the Muslims of the North and East. Muslim representatives of the region voted against Sinhala Only whereas the Muslim leaders based outside the North and East voted for Sinhala Only with the sole exception of Senator A.M.A. Azeez (originally from Jaffna) who quit the UNP on this issue and voted against the Sinhala Only Bill.

The 1956 elections in which the two major Sinhalese led parties, the SLFP (part of a coalition termed MEP) and the UNP campaigned for Sinhalese as the only Official Language widened the ethnic divide. The Marxist LSSP and CP campaigned for Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and, having earlier signed a no-contest pact with the SLFP, secured a significant number of seats outside the North and East, but made little impact in the North or East. The CP won one seat in the North and, countrywide, the LSSP ended up as the second largest party in Parliament. Neither they nor the Tamil parties sought to forge an effective political alliance. Such an alliance, also incorporating the parties representing the Hill Country Tamils and the non-Left liberal Sinhalese, if entered into in the 40s, may have won the 1947 elections and changed the course of our history, avoiding the loss of citizenship and voting rights of Hill Country Tamils, the exclusion of Tamil as an official language, and the succession of riots, pogroms and the civil war that followed. In the event the communal rift widened over the years. The Federal Party swept the 1956 polls in the North and East and the MEP in the rest of the country. The ethnic polarization that began even before independence was then hardened, thawed from time to time, but is now firmly set and again hardening.

A consequence of the Muslim MPs representing electorates outside the North and East voting for Sinhala Only in line with the dictates of their political parties (UNP and SLFP) was the emergence of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress under the leadership of M.H.M. Ashroff to safeguard the interests of the Muslims of the North and East. This party has since secured some electorates outside the North and East and has emerged as the leading party of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Till his untimely death in a tragic accident Ashroff ‘s relationship with the Federal Party remained good.

The 1981 census (the last all island census) indicated that the Tamil speaking communities (Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims/Moors and Upcountry Tamils), then constituted 30% of the population, the Sinhalese (Kandyan and Low Country) 69% and the others less than one percent. Since 1981 the ethnic proportions have changed significantly on account of emigration (disproportionately high among Tamils). In terms of Language use, a small section of Tamil speakers, especially Muslims, have gained Sinhala literacy. However, Sri Lankans remain predominantly monolingual. The manner in which Sinhalese was made the official Language and the accompanying and consequent violence has impeded the spread of Sinhalese literacy among Tamils. Sri Lanka’s education system also has not been conducive to the spread of bilingualism and trilingualism. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in India where, despite much lower literacy levels, the education system is geared to promoting multilingualism, which has been a major factor in building national unity in that country.

Another significant feature in India is that it is federal with many linguistic states, each governed predominantly in the Indian National language of that state with provision for numerically locally significant linguistic minorities within each state to use their languages. For example, Tamil is the official language of the State of Tamilnadu but there is provision for pockets of those speaking Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu within the boundaries of Tamilnadu to use their respective languages. In turn significant pockets of Tamil speakers within the borders of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra are able to use Tamil in education and in dealing with the State. All these contribute to nation building. In contrast Sri Lankans remain predominantly monolingual and the administration does not cater adequately to the national minorities (mostly Tamil speakers) or to the regional minorities (whether Sinhalese or Tamil speakers). In consequence the Sri Lankan Nation is now ethnically more fractured than ever before.

It is likely that the proportion of Sinhalese speakers now is over 75% and that of Tamil speakers less than 25%. On the other hand the laws in respect of language use have changed. Sinhalese was made the only official language in 1956 and this was embedded in to the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions. The Thirteenth Amendment of 1987, in some convoluted text introduced Tamil also as an official language (without undermining the historical status of Sinhala as the official language) and English as the link language. The relevant article 18 of the Constitution now reads as follows:

18 (1) The official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.

(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.

By virtue of the 16th Amendment of 1988 Tamil was included as a language of administration throughout Sri Lanka, its new status spelt out in greater detail, though again in convoluted text. Tamil too is now an official, administrative and court language and English is the link language, but also used in administration to a less extent. The revised articles 22 (1), (2) and (3) of the Constitution now read as follows:

"Language of Administration

22(1) Sinhala and Tamil shall be the languages of administration through out Sri Lanka and Sinhala shall be the language of administration and be used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions of all the provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern provinces where Tamil shall be so used:

Provided that the President may, having regard to the proportion which the Sinhala or Tamil linguistic minority population in any unit comprising a division of an Assistant Government Agent, bears to the total of population of that area, direct that both Sinhala and Tamil or a language other than the language used as the language of administration in the province in which such area may be situate, be used as the language of administration for such area,

(2) In any area where Sinhala is used as the language of administration a person other than an official acting in his official capacity, shall be entitled-

(a) To receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with, any official in his official capacity, in either Tamil or English;

(b) If the law recognizes his right to inspect or to obtain copies of or extracts from any official register, record, publication or other document, to obtain a copy of, or an extract from such register, record, publication or other document, or a translation thereof, as the case may be, in either Tamil or English;

(c) Where a document is executed by any official for the purpose of being issued to him, to obtain such document or a translation thereof, in either Tamil or English.

(3) In any area where Tamil is used as the language of administration, a person other than an official acting in his official capacity shall be entitled to exercise the rights and obtain the services referred to in sub – paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of paragraph (2) of this Article, in Sinhala or English.

The revised article 24 (1) now reads as follows:

Article 24 "(1) Sinhala and Tamil shall be the languages of the courts throughout Sri Lanka and Sinhala shall be used as the language of the courts situated in all areas of Sri Lanka except those in any area where Tamil is the language of administration. The record and proceedings shall be in the language of the court. In the event of an appeal from any court, records shall also be prepared in the language of the court hearing the appeal, if the language of such court is other than the language used by the court from which the appeal is referred:

Provided that the Minister in charge of the subject of Justice may, with the concurrence of the Cabinet of Ministers direct that the record of any court shall also be maintained and the proceedings conducted in a language other than the language of the court" Despite these and other improvements in the Constitution and other regulations to provide for greater use of Tamil in administration, there is very little benefit to Tamil speakers on the ground. The Language Audit of 30 December 1998 submitted (by a team led by myself) to the Official Languages Commission pointed out (p6) that:

a) There have been chronic shortages of Tamil speaking cadres and no serious attempt appears to have been made to correct this deficiency in any of the offices visited, although they all served large numbers of Tamil speaking people. In consequence, Tamil speaking persons are often compelled to transact their business in Sinhala (sometimes through interpreters whom they bring along) or, in a few cases, in English.

b) Even officers who had passed Tamil proficiency examinations and drawn incentive allowances appeared to be mostly unable to work in Tamil, particularly in relation to correspondence.

c) Basic equipment such as typewriters was not available or was in short supply in many offices. In some offices there were one or two Tamil typewriters but no Tamil typists.

d) Even simple and low cost measures such as having all name and direction boards and notices in Sinhala and Tamil had not been taken in most offices.

e) None of the offices had a complete set of the legal documents and circulars issued by the Ministry of Public Administration and the Official Languages Commission.

The basic problem was identified as the crippling shortage of Tamil speaking officers despite the fact that eleven years had passed since Tamil was also made an official language. No notice appeared to have been taken of the ethnic composition of the various districts when recruitments and postings were done.

(Part II will appear tomorrow)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...