If one were to visit the office of the Official Languages Commission (OLC) in Colombo, one would see officials busily filling out correspondence to be sent to several government departments. Set up in 1991, the functions of the Commission, mandated by Section 18 of the Official Languages Commission Act, are to monitor “regulations, directives or administrative practices” which violate existing language regulations. The Commission also conducts educational programmes on language development and language use, and one of its main tasks is ensuring that Sinhala and Tamil are given equal prominence in public administration.
Sri Lanka’s current constitution lists Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, with English being given the status of a ‘link language’. The wording of the constitution, however, is problematic. Chapter 4, Sections 18 (1) and (2) of the Constitution proclaims:
The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
Tamil shall also be an official language.
This suggests that Tamil was added as an afterthought, or a later addition – which, in fact, it was. After achieving independence in 1948 both Sinhala and Tamil were official languages until a ‘Sinhala Only’ Act came about in 1956, taking away the official language status of Tamil. The Act was partly reversed in August 1958, with the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act allowing for education, admission for public service, administrative functions and state correspondence to be conducted in Tamil in the North and East provinces. The 1978 constitution made Sinhala and Tamil national languages but maintained Sinhala as an official language, with the current iteration being added in 1987 through the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment was partly fueled by international pressure, particularly from India. The signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord reinstated Tamil as the official language, among other concessions on devolution of power to the provinces. India also agreed to end its support for the Tamil separatists.
Language, as one of the flashpoints of ethnic conflicts, has long been cited by many studies as one of the main factors that led to Sri Lanka’s civil war. During colonial times, Sinhala nationalists felt Tamils received a disproportionate share of civil administration posts. When the country finally gained Independence in 1948, the Sinhalese hoped to be awarded a greater share of such opportunities, in keeping with their standing as the majority community. When this did not transpire, resentment against the Tamils grew. Although the situation had been precipitated by colonialists, the Sinhalese felt frustrated that their Tamil counterparts were able to access services that they could not (since the Sinhalese were not as conversant in English). For instance, banking transactions not conducted in English were considered illegal until 1953. Even Parliamentary debates were conducted in English; permission had to be secured to use either Sinhala or Tamil.
In many instances, language equality is still treated as an afterthought.
Politicians capitalised on this and began proposing resolutions in Parliament to declare Sinhala the official language. It was the election of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, however, that was the turning point. In 1951, he led the Sinhala Maha Sabha faction, which he had organised to promote Sinhalese culture and interests, out of the United National Party (UNP) to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Although his party originally promoted the use of both Sinhala and Tamil, Bandaranaike gravitated towards Sinhala later to mobilise Sinhalese discontentment for political mileage. He began lobbying for Sinhala to be given status as the sole official language. The strategy worked – in part. He was elected Prime Minister in a landslide victory. Once he was elected into power, he duly fulfilled his promise through the Official Language Act of 1956, popularly dubbed the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act.
The consequences were devastating. “The Tamils will never forget and never forgive the majority community for depriving them of rights which had been apparently been secured to them,” retired MP Cyril ES Perera wrote in 1956, shortly after the act had been passed.
Since the election of the new government on 8 January 2015, there have been some symbolic steps forward in terms of language rights: for instance, at the Independence Day celebrations in 2016, the national anthem was sung in both Sinhala and Tamil. In 2010, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to scrap the Tamil translation of the national anthem at official and state functions. Following this, an unofficial ban prevailed even in Tamil-speaking areas, fuelled by military intimidation and fearful public officials.
Today, as Sri Lanka recovers from the devastation of civil war, the work of bodies like the Official Languages Commission becomes even more vital in restoring the rights of the minorities. Yet, in many instances, language equality is still treated as an afterthought.
In the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation (LLRC) of 2011, it was noted many people still could not transact business in their own languages. The think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives, in their research on language rights, reported of an incident where a Tamil-speaking pregnant woman seeking treatment at a Government hospital in Puttalam, was instructed in Sinhala, and was allegedly assaulted by nursing staff because she did not understand the instructions and contravened them several times. This is in violation of the Constitution as it entitles people “to receive communications from, and to communicate and transact business with… in either Tamil or English” even in areas where Sinhala is the language of the administration.
In 2010, prior to the introduction of bilingual police officers following directives from the LLRC, a 13-year-old girl arrived at a police station in the Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka to report an incident of rape, accompanied by her mother. There was only one police officer with a basic knowledge in Tamil who was tasked with recording her statement. The mother was in tears, while the daughter was silent and fearful; misreading the situation, the policeman recorded what he thought was an instance of assault against the mother. By the time the error was discovered, it was too late. The girl was not examined by a Judicial Medical Officer in time, significantly weakening her case.
The website citizenslanka.org records numerous ways in which Sri Lankans’ language rights are violated. Many Tamil citizens have complained that their statements are taken down in Sinhalese, even in places such as Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Mannar and Ampara, where Tamil-speakers form the majority, and asked to sign statements they cannot comprehend. Court proceedings here are also usually conducted in Sinhala. Administrative tasks such as applying for pensions, obtaining licenses, or registering a birth mostly happen in Sinhala.
Sri Lanka’s political situation being fraught with turmoil for two decades, the Official Languages Commission had been somewhat inactive initially. Former Chairman of the Commission, Raja Collure, admitted in 2006: “Successive governments have failed to implement the constitutional provision in regard to the use of Tamil as the second official language”. Despite the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1987, it was only in 2005 that Collure compiled a comprehensive report, which showed a lamentable lack of Tamil speakers in public administration – just 8.3 percent. In May 2016, a circular from the Ministry of Public Administration notified that written and oral tests will be conducted for public officials twice a year in the ‘other’ official language (the one they are not proficient in) twice a year. This is one of the steps being taken to ensure public officials are conversant in both languages – including through courses provided by the Official Languages Department.
In his office, present Chairman Dayananth Edirisinghe holds up a file with several letters, many on government bodies which have failed to abide by the terms of the Act by not using Tamil in their official work. “The Commission does not have punitive powers – we only record violations [of language rights],” Edirisinghe clarified. A few of the complaints are from individuals, but there are also letters from civil society organisations. One of them has pictures of police signboards in Colombo – when a one-way system in was introduced in March 2016, the police put up signboards only in Sinhala and English.
Given that language has been an intrinsic sticking point for the Sinhala-Tamil identity politics, it needs more than goodwill to secure rights of both sides.
However, civil-society organisations say that at times, the Commission can be toothless. As Professor Lionel Guruge wrote in the Sunday Leader, “[the Commission’s] jurisdiction is limited to requesting and communicating with other institutions to abide by the OLP [official language policy], but does not reach enforcement levels. The authority vested in the OLC [official language commission] is arguably diminutive, although very few stakeholders dare to admit it.”
One of the major setbacks was when in 2011, the Chairman of Official Languages Commission asked the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation to abide by the languages policy, he was pressured to resign by prominent figures, who believed he had no authority to dictate changes to other institutions, Guruge claimed in the article. Moreover, the routine affair of thousands of complaints going ‘unrecorded’ has meant that grievances about mislabeled pharmaceutical products, official forms, road signs go unheeded.
Edirisinghe has only been in the Chairman’s seat for five months. A graduate of Vidyodaya University, the Foreign Languages Research Center of Seoul National University and the Dongguk University in Seoul, Edirisinghe is also the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Korean Association. His appointment comes at a crucial moment, as the government is working on the submissions made to the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on constitutional reform. Here, at last, is a chance to undo the damage caused by the Sinhala Only Act. (Following the Presidential election on 8 January 2015, which saw Opposition candidate Sirisena elected into office, one of the many promises made was to form a constitutional assembly, with the objective of re-shaping Sri Lanka’s constitution.)
In Edirisinghe’s view, there is no need for any major changes in order to facilitate a balance – there is already an adequate legislative framework in place, giving Sinhala and Tamil equal prominence. The main change to the Constitution that the Commission has called for is that Section 18 (1) and (2) be amalgamated, so that Tamil is given an equal footing to Sinhala as an official language and not treated as an afterthought.
Given that language has been an intrinsic sticking point for the Sinhala-Tamil identity politics, it needs more than goodwill to secure rights of both sides. The way successive political dispensations have used it to trigger violence amongst the population also calls for a strong official stance to prevent voter mobilisation on ethnic and linguistic lines. Following Bandaranaike’s example, the SLFP continued to play on nationalist sentiments in order to win votes. Former President Rajapaksa was no exception. During his regime, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation, began to agitate for the protection of Sinhala Buddhist rights. At a 2013 rally in Maharagama, which drew 16,000 people, BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara stated, “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.”
Following this statement, a series of attacks began on mosques, Muslim-run abattoirs, churches – led mostly by other Sinhala Buddhist groups like the Ravana Balaya and the Sinhala Ravaya. While former President Rajapaksa officially denounced the groups’ actions, the attacks continued unabated. Rajapaksa’s brother, then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was even Chief Guest at a BBS event – providing a seal of implicit approval. The BBS also publicly said they would back Rajapaksa at the Presidential election – which disenchanted minority voters.
Since then, the BBS and organisations like them have backed out. Yet a small anonymous group has begun pasting “Sinha Le” (Sinhala blood) stickers on three-wheelers and buses. Just as in 1956, a spirit of insecurity and frustration still persists among some Sinhalese – who feel that the new Government is “pro-minority” and isn’t doing enough to help maintain or pacify the majority, as a trishaw driver whose vehicle bore one of these stickers explained. The rhetoric and feelings of frustration stirred up by groups like the BBS are yet to be addressed.
It’s clear that there’s still a long way to go before Sri Lanka gets to a place of tolerance and understanding. Yet, there was also a sense of hope as citizens gathered to make submissions to the PRC – at least their grievances are being heard. Will the new Constitution mend the deep scars left behind after the conflict? Only time will tell.