Is Sinhala the Official Language of Sri Lanka? – I
By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development
When I raise this question, one may wonder why I raise this question 64 years after Sinhala was made the Official Language of Sri Lanka by the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956. The people in the country, including the people in the North and the East, the politicians and the political parties in the South may believe that Sinhala is the Official Language of Sri Lanka applicable throughout the country. But the Tamil political parties in the North and the East and the Muslim political parties know that it is not the case. It is they who got this done extending support to Ranasinghe Premadasa to win the 1988 Presidential Election against Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
I was prompted to do this study on the operation of the Official Language Policy in Sri Lanka on my own experience that I gathered from my communications with some public officials in the Eastern Province. In December 2019, I sent a lengthy letter in Sinhala to the Commissioner General of Lands with copies to the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa complaining about a grave injustice done to a Tamil national in the East by the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa by depriving him of his right to his land contrary to law. On receipt of my complaint the Commissioner General of Lands convened a meeting of all concerned parties including the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretary of Batticaloa in January 2020 and directed them to grant relief to the affected person. Ignoring the direction of the Commissioner General of Lands, the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa sent me their responses in Tamil. Prior to that also they had responded in Tamil some letters that I sent to them in English on the same issue. On the other hand, I found that they had responded in Sinhala to all the letters that they had received from the Commissioner General of Lands.
In 2017, I visited the Uhana Divisional Secretariat in the Ampara District to conduct an educational programme on law and human rights for the staff of the Divisional Secretariat and the general public in the area. There a participant, an soldier, raised a grievance that he had faced. On an inquiry about a state land that belongs to him from the land office at Central Camp he had got a letter in Tamil. As he did not know Tamil he had to go in search of a translator and pay him Rs. 100 and get the letter translated into Sinhala. That is the plight most of the Sinhala people in the North and thee East are facing today.
According to the Constitution, today, Sinhala is not the Official Language of Sri Lanka, it is only an Official Language, one of the two National Languages of Sri Lanka, the language of administration, used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the seven Provinces where the majority of population speak and use Sinhala for transacting business in and with public institutions. Sinhala is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.
As all the public institutions in the seven Provinces – Parliament, Provincial Councils, Local Authorities, Government Departments and Courts use Sinhala to conduct business and to maintain records, and the people can receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with public officials in these areas in the country they assume that Sinhala is the official language of the whole country.
Sinhala remained the Official Language of Sri Lanka continuously for 32 years from 1956 to December 17, 1988. Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who is said to have opposed the Official Languages Act in 1956, saying that one language would result in two countries and two languages in one country, did not think it necessary to change the official language policy of the country when he introduced the 1972 Constitution.
The provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution are as follows:
S. 7. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official
Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956.
S. 8 (1). The use of the Tamil language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language
(Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
The language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided by the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
When President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the 1978 Constitution creating Executive Presidency, he did not change the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution. At the time he introduced the 1978 Constitution, he adopted the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution.
The following are the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.
Art. 18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
Art. 19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.
Art. 22 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka provided that the Tamil Language shall also be used as the language of administration for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
This is nothing but giving effect to the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
By Article 22 (1) JR ensured that Sinhala shall remain the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka including the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Art. 24 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka and accordingly their records and proceedings shall be in the Official Language; Provided that the language of the courts exercising original jurisdiction in the Northern and Eastern Provinces shall also be Tamil and their records and proceedings shall be in Tamil.
Through 1978 Constitution, JR constitutionally guaranteed that: (a) Sinhala shall be the Official Language of Sri Lanka; (b) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka; (c) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka.
At the time JR adopted the 1978 Constitution Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or the Federal Party was the biggest Opposition political party in Parliament with 17 MPs and A. Amirthalingam was the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
Although Leftist political parties and the SLFP were critical of the Executive Presidency and opposed it, there was not much opposition or public protests on the part of the Tamil political parties against the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution. When the Official Languages Act was introduced in Parliament in 1956, there were huge protests and civil disobedience campaigns organized by Tamil political parties against it. Probably they may have realized by then that the language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided for by the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.
Even at the time J. R. Jayewardene was compelled to bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution setting up Provincial Councils in 1987, he did not amend the provisions relating to the Official Language in Articles 18, 22 (1) and 24 (1) in the 1978 Constitution, although he added two new sub-Articles to facilitate the functioning of the newly set up Provincial Councils in the North and the East.
Art. 18 (2). Tamil shall also be an official language.
18 (3). English shall be the link language.
Tamil was also made an official language so that the Provincial Councils proposed to be set up in the North and the East could conduct their official functions in Tamil without any hindrance. It did not relegate the status given to Sinhala as the Official Language of the whole country.
But all these were changed by Ranasinghe Premadasa to get the support of Tamil and Muslim political parties in the North and the East to win the Presidential Election held in December 1988.
The 1988 Presidential Election was held on December 19, 1988. Two days prior to the Presidential Election, on December 17, 1988 Premadasa got two Amendments – the 15th and the 16th Amendments to the Constitution – enacted. With the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, President Premadasa brought about far-reaching changes in the hitherto existing Official Language policy in the country as shown below:
After the 16th Amendment to the Constitution:
Although nominally Sinhala is The Official Language, in effect it is no longer The Official Language of the country, it is only an Official Language in the sense that it is the language of administration in seven provinces;
It is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.
One can say that constitutionally Tamil is the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka as there is no limitation imposed on its application as in the case of Sinhala.
The Proviso to Article 22 (1) could result in the creation of minority linguistic ethnic units at the Divisional Secretariat level using languages different from the language of administration in the province as the language of administration for such area.
Even Arabic may be used as the language of administration for some of such areas like Kattankudy/Saindamaruthu. Already there have been disputes between the Tamil and Muslim communities in Kalmunai each community demanding a separate Divisional Secretariats for themselves.
The 16th Amendment:
a. disabled the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956 and made it ineffective;
b. removed Sinhala from the pedestal that it had occupied all this time as the Official Language of Sri Lanka;
c. relegated Sinhala from being the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka to the language of administration in the seven Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
d. raised Tamil from being the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka without any restrictions imposed on it as in the case of Sinhala;
e. replaced the use of national languages with English, thereby strengthening the position of communalist politicians to continue their exploitation of poverty and ignorance of their people enabling them to obtain documents from and conduct communications with all public institutions throughout the country in English;
f. instead of promoting national harmony through facilitating communications among public institutions in different areas in the country in national languages, promoted division among people by promoting English as the means of communication among provincial councils and local authorities using different languages as the language of administration.
g. relegated Sinhala from being the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka with their records and proceedings maintained in Sinhala to the language of courts in the 7 Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
h. in relation to laws and subordinate legislation enacted by Parliament, removed the requirement that Sinhala text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between Sinhala and Tamil or English texts;
i. removed the requirement of persons seeking admission to the Public Service, Judicial Service, Provincial Public Service, Local Government Service or any public institution being examined through the medium of either of the National Languages – Sinhala or Tamil;
Now an applicant has the choice of deciding the language he is to be examined. It may be English or even Arabic.
In fact, this has been brought for the purpose of opening the public service to those students of International Schools who receive their education in English medium and who do not know either Sinhala or Tamil.
j. removed the requirement of persons joining the Public Service acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the official language within a reasonable time after admission to such service;
Now, there is no requirement for any public servant in the North and the East to acquire any knowledge of the Sinhala language; he has only to acquire knowledge of the language as is reasonably necessary for the discharge of his duties – that is Tamil.
k. Removed the requirement of publishing all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by any public institution, Provincial Council or a local authority in both National Languages;
l. Required all public institutions other than Provincial Councils or local authorities to publish all such documents in Sinhala and Tamil together with a translation thereof in English;
m. Required the Provincial Councils and local authorities to publish all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by them and all other official documents including circulars and forms issued or used by such body or local authority, in the language of administration in the areas in which they function, together with a with a translation thereof in English.
This has resulted in the denial of the rights of tens of thousands of Sinhala speaking people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka from conducting communications with Provincial administrations and local authorities in their national language and placing them in great difficulty, compelling them to transact their communications with public institutions in Tamil, a language they are not conversant with.
The availability of English translation will not help the ordinary people, whether Tamil or Sinhala speaking. It has been done at the request of and for the benefit of the leaders of Tamil and Muslim political parties who continue to hoodwink the masses of the helpless Tamil speaking people with their false slogans of winning the rights of Tamil speaking people, while they themselves enjoy all the privileges conducting all their transactions in English.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!