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The need to implement Tamil as an official language

Sep 26, 2010 6:04:18 PM- transcurrents.com

by M.S. M. Ayub

Ensuring facilities to members of the public to use their own language in official transactions with government departments, especially the ability to make statements to the police in one’s own language” was one among many other recommendation made by the members of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in an interim communication to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting they had with the President at the Temple Trees in mid September.

The need for administrative changes to enable these measures, according to a statement by the President’s Office, are based on the issues identified by the LLRC from evidence so far led before it by citizens in the former conflict-ridden areas, when the Commission held sittings in some of those areas; and also on the evidence placed before it by other individuals and organizations, keen to see an early return to normalcy in these areas, with effective action towards reconciliation.This fact has been again stressed by the respected Mahanayake of the Bellanwila RajamahaViharaya Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera before the LLRC itself, after the commissioners of the LLRC made their communication to the President

It is vivid that although the Commissioners had spoken about the “members of the public” here, they would have had in their mind only the Tamils, especially those Tamils in the North and the East, and not the Sinhalese. It is also logical that the Commission as an official body to base its recommendations on the issues identified by it from evidence led before it by citizens in the former conflict-ridden areas and others.

But the fact is that there has been a demand for “ensuring facilities to ‘members of the public’, specifically to the Tamil speaking people, to use their own language in official transactions” in its concrete form, since 1950s.

If the demand still remains after so many pacts between political parties representing various communities, accords with neighbouring countries and several Constitutional Amendments, it is up to the Commission and the relevant authorities to have a closer look into the issue and find out what the lessons to be learnt-if the country has not learnt yet- and measures to be taken for reconciliation among the communities.

According to the Banadaranaike –Chelvanayakam Pact that was signed in 1957 after the controversial Official Language Act of 1956 the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike and the leader of the Tamil Arasa Katchi, commonly known as the Federal Party then, have “agreed that the proposed legislation should contain recognition of Tamil as the language of the national minority of Ceylon ….and without infringing on the position of the Official Language as such, the language of administration of the Northern and Eastern Provinces be Tamil, and that any necessary provision be made for the non-Tamil speaking minorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.”

However, the pact was torn off publicly by Bandaranaike himself, the founder leader of the current ruling party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in view of stiff opposition by the Buddhist monks.

Barely eight years later, the Federal Party signed another pact with Dudley Senanayake, Prime Minister of the government led by the United National Party (UNP), the main rival to the Bandaranaike’s SLFP. Assurances with relation to the usage of Tamil language were given in that pact as well. The pact among other things said that “action will be taken early under the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act to make provision of the Tamil Language to be the language of Administration and of Record in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

President JR Jayewardene was coerced by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 to sign the now famous Indo-Lanka Accord under which the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was brought in. Although it encompassed a clause that made Tamil too an Official Language, the manner in which the clause has been structured gives rise to doubts whether both official languages, Sinhala and Tamil were treated equally before the law.

The relevant clauses of the Constitution say; “The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.- Tamil shall also be an official language.” It goes without saying that this is a far cry from terming as “The Official Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.” This wording structure apparently points to the fact that President Jayewardene has not wholeheartedly accepted Tamil language as an Official Language, though in effect Tamil language must have the same status as has the Sinhala language.

The recognition of Tamil language as an official language was further enhanced by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution by the JR Jayewardene Government in 1988 by way of making provisions for Sinhala and Tamil to be Languages of Administration and Legislation throughout the country. After all these, if Tamil speaking people complain before the LLRC on the lack of facilities to use their own language in official transactions, the problem has to be traced somewhere in the implementation of these laws or in the attitude of the rulers as well as the bureaucracy or in both.

The language gap among communities is so wide that Sinhalese and the Tamil speaking people, especially the Tamils excepting Tamil speaking Muslims, are apparently in two worlds in their perceptions of, and attitudes towards, what is on going in the political field.

The media in the two main vernacular languages also have contributed largely to this great psychological divide.

Perception of concepts such as the ethnic problem, unitary state, federalism and devolution of power among Sinhalese and Muslims are vastly different in view of the decade long divided politics and more importantly owing to the sharply divided media outlook. Reportage of the very LLRC proceedings have got divided in Sinhala and Tamil language media, with Tamil media highlighting the evidence given by the northern civilians on their relatives who had gone missing allegedly after surrendering to the security forces.

This is an extension of a trend that existed for the past several decades. Sinhala media blacked out some incidents in the north and the east while the Tamil media blew them up stirring emotions among Tamils. On the other hand the Tamil media have always attempted to create a mindset against the government in power. Leaders of the governments too failed to identify the psyche of the Tamil speaking people due to the language barrier and to address the issues in the language of the people. The upshot has been the great psychological divide.

The language gap not only hinders the day-to-day life of the Tamil speaking people as the LLRC has pointed out to the President, but also had pushed them to make various demands giving rise to suspicions among Sinhalese. A case in point, apart from the Tamil demands culminating in the demand for a separate state, was the genuine request for a separate kachchery in Kalmunai mainly by Muslims of the coastal areas in Ampara District.

These lessons we have learnt so far have stressed the need for reconciliatory measures by the government that have to be taken to the people in their language in a manner that would respect their language and culture and ensure a sense of security in their mind