Ethnicity and religion and their Ideological and political influences - I


By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately, we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to - and was used for the purpose of exacerbating - ethnic tensions.

There are two ironies about this which we must understand. The first was that the determination to make Sinhala the official language sprang initially from resentment of English - the language that was generally used previously for official purposes, in a context in which many people had no knowledge of it. However, when Mr Bandaranaike made this point, and it became obvious that it was politically popular, the UNP decided to jump on the bandwagon.

That in itself would not have been a problem. But in order to emphasize their own nationalist credentials, they turned the debate from whether Sinhala was to be made the official language to whether it was to be Sinhala Only.

This controversy arose in part because of deep political divisions within the UNP itself. The Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala had succeeded to the position on the recommendation of his predecessor, Dudley Senanayake. Senanayake in turn had become Prime Minister on the death of his father because the then Governor General favoured him instead of Sir John, who was the most senior Minister. When Senanayake resigned suddenly, his chief lieutenant, who had been instrumental in getting the party to support him when his father died, expected to be recommended. This was J R Jayewardene, and he was not pleased when Sir John took over.

The language issue gave him his chance to put pressure on Sir John. The latter had, during a visit to Jaffna, committed himself to making Sinhala and Tamil both official languages. Those opposed to him and to this then ensured that, at the sessions the UNP held in January 1956 in Kelaniya (Jayewardene's electorate which was later inherited by his principal ally in the party, Cyril Mathew, the root cause of much ethnic tension in this country), the party passed a resolution to make Sinhala the Only Official Language, and also decided to have an early election to seek a mandate for this from the people.

That spelled disaster for the party as well as the country. With this being the issue before them, a majority of the people naturally voted for Bandaranaike who had, as it were, got there first. But the minorities, who had tended to vote for the UNP, transferred their allegiance to the Left Parties, which is how they ended up with the second largest number of seats and took over the Leadership of the Opposition. The UNP was decimated, while this in turn created problems for Bandaranaike, who found people of little capacity, whom he had nominated to seats from which he had never expected they would be elected, getting into Parliament.

I should add that this happened in 1977 too, which is why we saw such a decline of standards in Parliament in those two periods. With Jayewardene's introduction of the preferential voting system, the seal was set on the total destruction of both the legislative and the oversight functions of Parliament, and it became a mere tool for the Executive.

Bandaranaike, on election, in a Parliament in which some of his members understood the importance of little else, felt obliged to rush through the Sinhala Only Act, in the ridiculous form of a single sentence. Though he tried later to make amends, through agreeing both to what was termed the reasonable use of Tamil, and to measures of devolution to ensure that government could respond more readily to the needs of the people, the forces he had unleashed proved too powerful, and he gave in readily, and with a theatricality that was disgraceful, given that he did not inform the Leader of the Federal Party, with whom he had signed an agreement, that he did not feel in a position to go ahead with this.

It should be noted though that the UNP in opposition was implacably opposed to compromise, and that Jayewardene organized a march to Kandy to protest about the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. Since Bandaranaike also felt beleagured by his own extremist wing - led by Jayewardene's aunt by marriage, Vimala Wijewardena, the Minister of Health - his worries are understandable, though his total submission, with no attempt at compromise, was inexcusable.

Ironically, it was Jayewardene who had proposed the initial changes in education that made Sinhala Only so impractical. The resentments felt about English by the vast majority of the rural population was because, before the thirties, they had no access to English Education. However the visionary C W W Kannangara, as Minister of Education, had set up Central Schools all over the country, which provided English medium education to bright youngsters from rural areas too. Unfortunately in the early forties, Jayewardene, having entered the State Council after a campaign in which he used religion to denigrate his opponent, proposed that Sinhala Only be the medium of education in all schools.

He changed this when the Chairman of the Board of Ministers, D S Senanayake pointed out how unfair this was, to Sinhala and Tamil. But no provision was made for learning both these languages. And though in theory English was a compulsory second language, it was not compulsory to pass in it, and no mechanisms were devised to ensure that it was taught effectively.

On the contrary, the pool of potential English teachers was reduced, because the Central Schools no longer functioned in English. Though in the forties Jayewardene's proposal was amended to make the mediums of Sinhala and Tamil compulsory only for primary education, obviously, since children growing up had little familiarity with English, in the early fifties secondary education was included. Science - which was not available in many rural schools - could be taught in English but that too was changed in the early sixties. Interestingly enough, Muslim schools were permitted to continue with English medium, for which there is no good reason, but doubtless the fact that the Minister of Education for many years from 1956 onward (and from 1970 to 1977) was a Muslim who had been an educationist had something to do with this.

I have dwelt at some length on this topic because it is necessary to understand how a measure, initially intended to provide relief to those who had felt themselves discriminated against, turned into a tool of discrimination against others. The changes were made in accordance with principles that seem perfectly acceptable, viz

a) The administration of a country should be in the language best understood by the people of that country

b) The right to education in the mother tongue must be upheld

But they ignored other vital principles, viz

c) If some people in a country do not understand the main language of administration, alternative provisions must be made

d) It is essential that common languages be developed to ensure that people in a country can communicate with each other, and also with administrators, and so that translation is facilitated where essential

e) The right to education in the mother tongue should not be made a compulsion when access to knowledge and skills essential for productive employment requires competence in other languages

Incidentally, those in the Ministry of Education who want the status quo to continue, even while ensuring that their own children are competent in English, claim that education in the mother tongue is essential to ensure learning. This theory has been contested, though obviously children faced with a teacher who cannot communicate with them will learn nothing, which is why ensuring usage of a language children understand is essential. But certainly, once basic competence is reached, the question of mother tongue becomes irrelevant, which is why a more suitable model to adopt is that of mother tongue based multilingual education.

This will not be a problem in Sri Lanka, unlike in countries where there are multiple languages used by very small communities. But the sheer incapacity of our Ministry of Education to think outside the box will ultimately destroy this country both politically and economically.

I say this also because the recent tensions that have arisen, with regard to ethnicity and religion, can be traced also to the separatist tendencies, if I might use that phrase, exaggerated but not entirely wide of the mark, entrenched by our educational system. I propose later in this talk to discuss these problems, but I think it best to stop now in case you could like any clarifications with regard to what I said, and also to encourage some discussion of these matters. (Part II will be published tomorrow)

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