Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lankan Sarvodaya - Santasilan Kadirgamar

Lankan Sarvodaya February 2008
Santasilan Kadirgamar

Sri Lanka has always been influenced by leaders from the Subcontinent across the waters, beginning with Siddhartha Gautam the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. However, even against this backdrop, the 20th century marked a period of intense interaction with the mainland. The influence exerted by Mohandas K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan has been affirmed by several Sri Lankan leaders, representing all of the island’s communities.

November 2007 marked the 80th anniversary of Gandhi’s three-day visit, in 1927, to Colombo and Jaffna – a visit representing then-Ceylon’s enthusiasm for Gandhi’s vision. Indeed, the influence of Gandhian philosophy on Ceylon (and Sri Lanka) persisted into the second half of the 20th century. But the application of these ideals – in social and economic reform, the eradication of poverty, the attempt to free the people from the shackles of national and communal chauvinism, and achieving unity in diversity – today remains an unfinished task. The initial aspiration for independence from British rule did, however, owe much to the influence of Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders from the Indian National Congress.

Lankan independence came without a drawn-out struggle for freedom, since after autonomy had been granted to India it was no longer viable for the British to hold on to Ceylon. But it nonetheless took some years for the country to free itself from the colonial mentality of the ruling class. When liberation from this mindset did come, however, what took its place was still worse. Long-submerged atavistic and primordial forces took over, plunging the country into the following decades of conflict and the current war. Unfortunately, however, the Gandhian message of non-violence and communal amity, and the drive to eradicate poverty and the indignities imposed by caste, did not strike roots in Ceylon, despite the frequent public affirmations of such ideals by the society’s leaders.

Across the waters
Handy Perinbanayagam, founder and leader of the Jaffna Youth Congress of the 1920s and 1930s, was inspired by the ideals from across the waters, and pioneered the movement in Ceylon for complete national independence. The elderly leader’s speech at an event in Colombo in 1973, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, remains significant today:

Gandhiji was in politics then; so were we in Ceylon. But there is a difference between the politics of those times and of today. The politics of those days were aspirational. Visions and dreams loomed large then. Today’s politics are factional and pragmatic. They are also grosser and grimmer. The post-Independence history of the two countries bears witness to this truth.

The links between the two countries were likewise highlighted by Gandhi upon his arrival on the island. In several of his speeches, for instance, Gandhi directed his attention to the lot of the Tamil labourers in the Ceylonese plantations. He was pained at the thought that he could not give more of his time to these communities – “squalid even in a Garden of Eden like Nuwara Eliya – share and ‘sup’ their sorrows and show them how to avoid diseases.” These workers came by the thousands to such places as Badulla, Nuwara Eliya and Hatton to receive Gandhi. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s personal secretary, who documented this visit, wrote, “What faith and yet what ignorance! I met groups of them as they were vainly trying to get a glimpse of Gandhiji above the vast sea of human heads surging before them. They had not come to listen to him but merely to see him.” The plight of these labourers has not changed much since that time, and remains a severe indictment on successive governments and society, both Sinhala and Tamil.

Gandhi’s emphasis on the commonalities of the social situations in the region extended to his visit to Jaffna, the cultural and political centre of Lankan Tamil society. There, he remarked, “Having come to Jaffna, I do not feel that I am in Ceylon, but I feel that I am in a bit of India. Neither your faces nor your lang¬uage is foreign to me.” On the eve of the visit, the Jaffna newspaper Hindu Organ had stressed the significance to Hindus of Gandhi’s arrival, but after he arrived it emphasised the universality of his message. Commenting on the visit, a Hindu Organ editorial noted intensely:

The 26th of this month [November 1927] would be regarded as a red-letter day in the annals of Jaffna. It was on this day that Mahatma Gandhi set his blessed foot on the soil of the land of Yalpadi. There is a long established tradition enshrined in the Buddhist historical literature, both Tamil and Sinhala that Lord Buddha during his life-time visited this land and preached the Dharma to the two Naga Kings when they fought for the possession of the gem-set throne set up here by Indra. After the lapse of twenty-five centuries this very same land has been vouchsafed the humble privilege to welcome another immortal son of Bharatha Kandam and to hear the same message of Love and Truth which in the days of yore Lord Buddha delivered to the Naga Kings.

The enthusiasm for Gandhian ideals was also apparent in the success of the khadi campaign in Ceylon. Initially hesitant to make the trip to the island, Gandhi had accepted the invitation on condition that the rather hefty amount of 100,000 rupees be donated to the khadi fund (see box). Handy Perinbanayagam agreed to Gandhi’s request, and the promise was kept. So pleased was he with the collection in Jaffna alone, which exceeded 18,000 rupees, that Gandhi bestowed on him what Perinbanayagam later called “the famous toothless smile”. Overwhelmed by autograph hunters, Gandhi insisted that the person concerned had to promise to wear khadi habitually. Desai was later to comment that “students in Jaffna, I may say to their credit, did not find it difficult to give the promise.”

Participatory democracy
Despite this early fervour, for various reasons the vision of Sarvodaya espoused by Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s fellow freedom fighters, never really took root in Lanka. There were initially small groups that attempted to initiate some action based on the Gandhian ideals of truth, non-violence, peace, universal brotherhood and humanitarian service. These ideals, however, did not really take root. Today, the Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka is well known locally and internationally for the social work it does based on foreign funding. No doubt it has done good work, but it is also perceived by some as something of a gigantic NGO empire, with exorbitantly paid executives – something that is indeed increasingly becoming a characteristic of top-heavy civil-society groups in Sri Lanka. Regardless of the present-day degeneration of the Sarvodaya movement, however, the early inspiration can undoubtedly be attributed to the vision of visiting leaders from India.
Jayaprakash Narayan, who came to the island in 1969, was among the last of the great Indian leaders to visit Jaffna before the district was engulfed in strife, conflict and today’s prolonged war. At a reception in Jaffna city, Handy Perinbanayagam expressed his gratitude to his peer from across the Straits “for granting us this darshan”, before continuing with remarks that, nearly four decades later, still strike a chord resonant to the whole of Lanka, and should be relevant to the whole of Southasia:

I have a feeling that we have had a few experiences in common. Among other things, we feel we are caught in a web of frustration, alienation and disillusion. We dreamt dreams and saw visions … focused on the freedom of our countries and the rich blessings that it would bring to their peoples. There would be peace and plenty in the land, fair play to individuals, harmony between races and creeds, poverty would vanish and every man, woman and child would not merely have enough to eat and cover his or her nakedness, but would hold his or her head high and look the world in the face, unabashed and unapologetic.

But what have we? Feud, tension, bitterness, poverty, desti¬tution, conflict of tribal and parochial loyalties, opportunism, lust for power, corruption in high places, are the tangible fruits that freedom seems to have bestowed on our lands. Have I overdrawn the picture? In such a physical and psychological environment, to think back to the fundamentals of Gandhi’s teaching seems impossible and un¬realistic. But people are thinking back.

The democracy we now have – ‘bourgeois democracy’, as the left describes it – means in practice that periodically the citizen goes through the motions of electing the boss, and that in between he becomes dumb-driven cattle, without effective means to have his needs recognised and met. It is an ‘election despotism’.

This brings me to Sarvodaya, [which] means personal fulfilment to everyone. An essential element in this fulfilment is personal involvement in decision making for one’s life, and responsibility for giving effect to these decisions. The mass society that is a legacy of the industrial revolution makes both involvement and responsibility impossible.

The winds of change seem to be blowing in the direction of Sarvodaya and participatory demo¬cracy. The preciousness of the individual, his right to a genuine share in making decisions affecting himself, and recognition of his claim for personal fulfilment seem to be gathering strength. But to the human race, so long habituated to giving and getting orders, the transformation into practice of a philosophy where decisions are made in face-to-face debate by small groups, and carried out by persons without infringing the claims of others, is, to my mind, a big snag. Allied to this is the problem of how the powerless can get the power to overpower those already in power. Violence is ruled out, for we know, among other things, that he who triumphs by violence leaves a trail of bitterness and humiliation, which soon or late sparks off another orgy of violence which will be met by more violence – and the game goes merrily on.

In any case, the powerless seldom possess the wherewithal for organising violence on a large enough scale. Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, who is dedicated to the Sarvodaya way of thinking and living, I am sure, will give us some guidance on these matters.

In Sri Lanka, as relevant even today are the philosophy and action-orientation of Sarvodaya: the struggles against authoritarian tendencies, violations of
democratic rights, strong-arm tactics associated with thugs, corruption and, above all, the narrow chauvinistic nationalisms and religious bigotry that have engulfed Sri Lanka.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

Remembering Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe

(October 23rd marks the 25th anniversary of his passing away. Here is a tribute delivered at a memorial meeting on 7 March 1984 at the National Christian Council of Japan, Tokyo)

Silan Kadirgamar

It was with shock and deep grief that we received the news of the passing away of Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe, here in Tokyo. There are Christian leaders here in Japan who have been involved with him in work in the Asian field. His death is not only a loss to us in Lanka but also to the larger concerns he was involved with in Asia, in bringing together people of all faiths and ideologies in a greater commitment to Human Rights, and Peace. He was the distinguished President of the Civil Rights Movement commanding widespread respect, and a founder leader of the newly formed Christians in the Struggle for Justice. We commemorate the memory of one who was a “leading Asian Theologian, an important influence in the Christian Conference of Asia and in the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.” (London Times)

My memories go back to 25 years ago when I first met him and came under his pastoral care. It was my rare privilege in June 1958 to welcome the then Father Lakshman, on behalf of, and as president of, the Student Christian Movement in the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. He was assuming duties as full-time resident chaplain in the newly dedicated Church in the campus.

The spontaneous reaction of many to his untimely death has been the question, ‘Why, Why at this time? Why should be have been removed at this time?” Lanka is facing the greatest crisis in its modern history. Crises of civilization as some have put it.  During those Peradeniya days he would often say that we are in midst of an ongoing drama. Some are active participants. Others part of the audience. But all of us involved as in any good drama. There is no escape; we are caught up in it. There are scenes, of tension, pain, joy, fear and horror, but none of us quite know what is coming next.  We are not able to explain the way of it. But we do have insights as to the final end. This analogy is particularly appealing to those familiar with Hindu mythology.

In later years I have heard him in the midst of long and trying discussions when opinions were strongly divided, as on the national question, he would suddenly say ‘I don’t know. We have to seek God’s guidance. We have to do according to what it is given to us to know and understand. We have to leave everything else in God’s hands! He was concerned about being Biblical. His, like that of many a Christian social activist was a Biblical vision, which was both intensely personal and intensely social.

Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson has referred to him as the “People’s Bishop … he was to those who were close to him the kindly light amidst the encircling gloom … the shining light of the Civil Rights movement. Sri Lanka has lost in Bishop Wickremasinghe a spiritual leader of great magnetism. The Church will find him irreplaceable.”

When in 1980 he organized the largest ever consultation among Christians both Catholic and non-Roman Catholic at Tewatte to arrive at a consensus on the problem of Sinhalese-Tamil relations, he saw to it that the first day of the two day consultation was spent on Bible Study, reflection and discussion. He was attempting to work out a Biblical basis on which to reconcile the Sinhalese and Tamil positions. His Biblical reflections are available in outline in the CCA-URM publication “Christian Response to Race and Minority Issues in Asia (1980)”.

He did not indulge in simplistic, escapist, peace and harmony talk, and pietistic condemnation of violent forms of struggle. He had a distinctive and honoured place in Tamil society. He has been referred to as “Jaffna’s dearest and most beloved Sinhalese friend.” He identified himself with the pain, the anguish and sufferings of the Tamil people. After every major outbreak of violence, he was among the first to arrive in Jaffna. It has rightly been acknowledged that the healing presence of Bishop Lakshman in Jaffna during times of tension was more eloquent than words. Not that he agreed with everything that the Tamils wanted. He condemned violence and very much wanted us in Jaffna to condemn violence. He was totally opposed to the division of the country. But precisely because he stood by us at times of crisis, because he identified himself with the sufferings of Tamils who had been victims of attack, and because he relentlessly worked for a solution based on justice to both Sinhalese and Tamils – because of these he was always welcome in Jaffna. He was respected and his sincerity was not questioned. He was listened to. He tried hard to influence the Buddhist Clergy. He was a great force for reconciliation based on justice. If ever Lanka were to become a truly integrated and united state it could be only under leaders like Bishop Lakshman, who have the capacity to win the confidence and allegiance of minorities.

His passion for liberation was grounded on and controlled by a distinctly Christian worldview. He gave precedence in all things to God’s free and sovereign grace. He combined in a unique way the pastoral, the teaching and the prophetic ministry.  We were fortunate to have a Bishop who with all the authority and respect he commanded threw himself on the side of the marginalized, the discriminated, the oppressed, and the poor. Bishop Lakshman’s ministry both as University Chaplain and Bishop came at a momentous period in the history of the country, when the tensions and contradictions that lay dormant in a typically newly independent colony from western rule, were beginning to surface. The mid – 1950’s was a period of social upheaval. The search for national selfhood was on. The common man as he was called was beginning to assert his place in the socio-economic set up. The working class was in a militant mood. The line was beginning to be clearly drawn between oppressors and oppressed, the privileged and less privileged. Liberation Theology was yet to be born.  The conditions for change were the dynamic forces at work. The founding of the Christian Workers’ Fellowship and the radicalization of the Student Christian Movement took place. But the response was not clearly articulated in theological terms. That was to come later. Action and involvement preceded theology.

Both, in his commitment to thought and action, Bishop Lakshman was in the forefront, responding to the challenges of the times, taking his stand firmly on the side of the oppressed. That was later vividly demonstrated by an act of his that will be remembered in history, when he presided over the workers’ mass for justice to the July 1980 strikers, which the CWF has recorded as a “decisive prophetic act… that rallied the forces for justice and democracy.” As Satyodaya Bulletin has appropriately summed up, Bishop Lakshman together with the late Bishop Leo Nanayakkara of the Catholic Church “had a powerful insight into social reality and talked about it with prophetic force and fearlessness.”

In September 1982 he identified himself fully with the campaign launched by the All Lanka Peasants Congress. On that occasion he said, “If the demands of those who suffer are to be won, all sections of the oppressed must join hands – forgetting all divisions they must come forward to win their demands.”

And with reference to the Plantation workers he has said, “my deepest sympathy is for these Tamils … they have suffered and have been humiliated because they were defenseless. I feel deeply ashamed for the pain and the loss they have undergone. It is a moral injustice that cries out to heaven.” In this same pastoral letter, his last, which the CCA has poignantly titled “A Cry from the Heart”, he said with reference to the July 1983 violence, “this massive retaliation mainly by Sinhalese against defenseless Tamils in July 1983 cannot be justified on moral grounds. We must admit this and acknowledge our shame. We are ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed.”

These words came from a man who acknowledged and drew inspiration from his Sinhalese Buddhist heritage. He sought to channel the forces of Sinhalese Nationalism in a positive and constructive direction, to revive, restore and develop that which was true, good and beautiful in an ancient culture.

As President of the Civil Rights Movement he led the protest against the gradual erosion of democratic rights in Lanka culminating with the infamous referendum of Dec. 22, 1982 by which the people of Lanka were persuaded, pressurized and manipulated to divest themselves of their sovereign right to elect their own representatives to parliament.  For his role in the Civil Rights Movement he was named and attacked publicly. Nevertheless his was the ‘power of the powerless.’ We who have known him know what role he has played in that great drama, and in that dream of his - he put himself on the side of the people. Even as we grieve that he has gone, we raise our hearts in thanksgiving and honour a life so nobly lived, a life so freely given for just causes, a life lived for others.

My last meeting with him was in April 1983 when we met for a full day in Colombo, as Christians in the Struggle for Justice. I had arrived from Jaffna with a report of the rapidly deteriorating situation there. We were deeply conscious that time was running out so far as the national question was concerned. We had a terrible feeling that something dreadful was going to happen and it did happen. Whatever the heightened degree of awareness there may be there is a point beyond which we as individuals and even as small groups are helpless. But we shared something in common – a hope, a longing for justice, reconciliation and peace. It was a meeting I will personally cherish very much like my first meeting with him 25 years ago. Once in a lifetime, a figure emerges who sums up the hopes, aspirations, and longings of a people who share the same faith and concerns. It was a joy and privilege to have lived in the times of Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe.

A persisting memory that lingers is that of the then Father Lakshman, young, handsome, humane and intellectually challenging in that homely and beautiful church in a picturesque setting in Peradeniya, leading us in worship. Facing the alter he would invite us with the familiar invocation that he was so fond of, “Come, let us worship God in the beauty of holiness.” People like Bishop Lakshman do not die. They live in the hearts and minds of people – ever inspiring us to continue in that for which he dedicated his life: “In the Beauty of Holiness”.


Rt. Rev. C. Lakshman Wickremasinghe
Bishop of Kurunegala, Sri Lanka.
Born: 25 March 1927. Died: 23 October 1983

After a brilliant student career at Royal College, Colombo and the University of Ceylon, obtaining a first class in political science, he proceeded to Keble College, Oxford and then Ely Theological College. After his ordination in 1952 he was on the staff of All Saints Church, Poplar, in the UK.

He was University Chaplain in Sri Lanka from 1958 to 1962, Bishop of Kurunegala from 1962-1983. He was elected Bishop at the young age of 35, youngest in the Anglican Communion.

An edited version was published in the Daily Mirror of 23 October, 2009
And the full text in GLEANINGS – Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, and may be in the Ceylon Churchman.

Sinhalese Only and its Impact on the Tamils - Santasilan Kadirgamar

Sinhalese Only and its Impact on the Tamils

Santasilan Kadirgamar


A spectrum of perspectives on

Fifty Years of Sinahala Only

in Sri Lanka 

1956 – 2006

Dialogue New Series Vol:xxxiv 2007

The Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue
Havelock Road, Colombo
6, Sri Lanka

 What was the impact of Sinhala Only on the Tamils and the country at large? The answer in five words is – “the contemporary intractable tragic situation.” The fifty years of conflict and now the nearly thirty years of armed struggle and the consequent senseless violence derive their roots from Sinhala Only in 1956. It was on this slogan that the Bandaranaikes rode to power in a most opportunistic manner and dominated politics in this country to a great extent – for five decades. With the end of dynastic politics – at least it seems so short of a major come-back - for a brief while some of us had hopes that we now have an opportunity to set in process the much-needed remedies to extricate this country from the opportunism that prevailed. But apparently the foundations are being laid for a new dynasty, and the prospects of a solution fade away.

What happened in and after 1956 has been a despicable game of hoodwinking the Sinhalese masses for five long decades by a Colombo based elite comprising the Senanayakes, the Kotelawalas, the Bandaranaikes, the Jayewardene - Wickremasinghe combine and the Premadasas. The question is will the Southern based Rajapakses go the same way. Opportunism is often perceived in a simplistic and vulgar sense as corruption – the pursuit of power and wealth for personal gain. Regi Siriwardene once defined political opportunism as policies enacted and pursued sacrificing long-term interests for short-term gains. It is in this political sense that opportunism is used here. Though quite often there have been elements of the cruder and more vulgar kind of opportunism involving naked self-interest.

Both the SLFP and the UNP for fifty years have played this game using the Tamil issue to perpetuate themselves in power, in the interests of their own party, preserving their political base and dishing out perks to their supporters and followers, at a tremendous cost to the welfare of the country and all its citizens. They did not create jobs but followed a policy of switching existing jobs as power shifted at the top after every election.

The reference to family dynasties above may be considered subjective. Individuals or family dynasties however powerful do not shape history. There are powerful political, economic and social forces at work. One of these has been the search for identity based on language, religion and culture. In both India and China in the three decades of anti-imperialist struggle these forces had been confronted in the course of the freedom struggle so that when independence came the policies in particular with regard to nation-building and the rights of ethno-linguistic groups fell in line though not without major problems. In China over fifty nationalities were constitutionally recognized. In India a state system incorporating the elements of federalism was accomplished and in the course of time the map was redrawn based on linguistic identities. The foundations for such a resolution were laid during the struggle for freedom.   

But in a small country not yet liberated from its feudalistic encumbrances and loyalties, and without a struggle for independence power was transferred to these little cliques (a few families) with ease. These have in a most opportunistic manner exploited these momentous forces that surfaced in the first decade after decolonisation in this country. They played on the gullibility of the Sinhalese masses (it must be said that dominant sections of the Tamil leadership did the same) by promising them the moon (note the Poya weekend the UNP introduced in 1965). They and the country have reaped the whirlwind as this country slides into backwardness compared to several of its Asian counterparts, though having obtained a head start in the 1930s to the mid-fifties – in the context of political, social and economic advancement. This in essence is the shared tragic fate of the people of this country  - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and all the other smaller communities.

The restoration of the national languages to a place of honour and to facilitate good governance was in itself the right decision and in no way a reactionary move. 1956 no doubt had a progressive content. But the making of one language alone the official language was a fundamental error of Himalayan proportions. This fact need not be laboured on. The point is that even today there isn’t the political will to rectify this blunder by giving the Tamil language its legitimate place. What stands in the way is not merely the Mahavamsa mindset, which certainly is there to a profound degree when confronting the issue of devolution. Where there is a political will (by a Dew Gunasekere et al) an inept bureaucracy stands in the way. And this inefficient, incompetent, narrow-minded and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy itself is a product of Sinhala Only. Other papers presented at this symposium address this issue.

Stirring up the masses

In the Final Report of the Commission on Higher Education (S.P.xii 1953) its chairman Sir Arthur Wijayawardene declared in a rider to the report that one official language Sinhala would be better than two. It is noteworthy that the majority consisting entirely of Sinhalese recommended that “in the interests of equality of opportunity” provision for Higher Education should be made for at least six Sinhalese speaking students as against one Tamil speaking student.  Meetings in the South adopting resolutions demanding Sinhala only followed this. At a reception welcoming Queen Elizabeth in 1954 the then finance minister used Sinhala only. This was a departure from hitherto accepted practices and was not the result of a clearly enacted government policy or a cabinet decision. Bandaranaike sensed the mood in the country and was quick to capitalize on it.

At a reception at Kokuvil Hindu College for Prime Minister Kotelawala, Handy Perinbanayagam, principal of the college had made a request that Sinhalese and Tamil be granted parity of status. Sir John on his first official visit to Jaffna , carried away by the magnificent receptions he received, had no inhibitions in acceding to the request. He promised to incorporate in the constitution amendments enacting Sinhala and Tamil as official languages. And one must say in fairness to him that at that point in time he did not realize the hornet’s nest he was stirring in the south. It is said of Sir John that he spoke first and thought later. On returning to Colombo he was not only forced to think, he was probably horrified by the chauvinistic forces he had unleashed. He succumbed to the opportunism that characterized political leadership in the two main parties in the country, which in turn plunged the country into the mess from which it has yet to recover. 

Some Reflections on the Language Issue

Handy Perinbanayagam writing in 1972 stated that MR. Bandaranaike had organized the SLFP as a national party with a mildly socialist programme. Its two secretaries were Tamils: Messrs.A.C.Nadarajah and S.Thangarajah.

The best of politicians needs a firm base and if you cannot secure the kind of base you aspire to, you have to do with what you can grab, and in order to grab it you have to play down your high –sounding pretensions. Mr.Bandaranaike had been side tracked in the race for succession to the premiership. It had been settled on a dynastic basis. Sinhala Only had an appeal to the Sinhalese masses and classes. The appeal was not purely chauvinistic. In addition to chauvinism there was also a ferment of populism. The country had been independent for eight years. But the fruits of independence had not seeped down to the countryside or to those who knew only Sinhala. Power and its fruits were in the hands of the English-speaking urban upper and middle classes… But why should this very legitimate reaction have taken an anti-Tamil overtone?  It is not easy to disentangle the strands of this anti-Tamil complex. The Dutugemunu-Elara syndrome probably had something to do with it.

… Its effect on the Tamil speaking people was traumatic. The tragic events that followed this racist law are a reminder that civilisation is a precarious veneer and you never can tell when the upsurge of primitive passions can play havoc with painfully cultivated values and graces. No purpose will be served by recalling the grim episode. But it should be said that the Tamils have not recovered from the trauma. It is the injury done to their self-esteem that is yet rankling (emphasis mine). It is a matter of common experience that an easy route to a person’s goodwill is to speak to him in his language. When Dr.N.M.Perera became the Mayor of Colombo, his friends and admirers in Jaffna gave him a reception in the Jaffna esplanade. When he rose to thank the people he spoke for two minutes or so in colloquial Tamil and the ovations he received from the mammoth crowd must be fresh in his memory.” 

Opportunism is of two kinds. One consists in knowing when the iron is hot and then striking. The other looks round to see how one may achieve his purpose regardless of right and wrong. Mr.Bandaranaike exploited both kinds of opportunism in 1956. He sensed the seeming discontent among the rural Sinhalese and decided it was the time to smash the UNP. He also knew that Sinhala Only was a grievous error and an injustice (emphasis mine). He had no time to waste on ethical judgements. Or even to gauge the political consequences that would flow from his policy. These things could be attended to later. Mr.Wilmot Perera has told me several times and has said in public on many occasions in my hearing that Mr.Bandaranaike had frequently given him the assurance that he would work out a solution of the language problem that would satisfy the Tamils. He obviously did not make the mistake of considering Sinhala Only final. As it is, the task of finding the solution has fallen on his successors. (emphasis mine). The present discontent of the Tamil speakers should be taken to heart seriously and steps taken to rehabilitate their self-esteem. The Sinhala Only Act did injury to the self-esteem not only of Ceylon Tamils resident in Ceylon . I know from personal knowledge that expatriate Tamils in Malaysia , Singapore , Europe and America also feel the sting and will be gladdened if a change for the better is effected. Although the word parity is a red rag to chauvinists among the Sinhalese, some kind of equality will be the only acceptable solution … Sinhalese being the language of the majority should enjoy priority – primus inter pares – and Tamil also recognized as an official language and bona fide steps be taken to give effect to this decision.

This was written over thirty years ago. Has anything changed? Yes, Tamil was declared an official language in 1987. This was imposed by India . But it has hardly been implemented. The attitudes have not changed. The political crisis on the contrary has been aggravated.

In 1957 one year after the language debate when tensions were running high which eventually led to the first anti-Tamil violence of 1958 P. Kandiah the Communist Party member for Pt. Pedro, the only left party M.P. ever elected from Jaffna said: 

There has been no progress in any significant sense in any field of political or social life, the language controversy having engaged the energies of the entirety of our people … taken as a whole the position has become worse. Thus a crisis from the injustices to the Tamil community resulted in the breaking of the bonds of the nations cohesion and unity (Emphasis mine). That has been further aggravated by the Government more or less being inactive in the economic field, which has brought about a deepening crisis in our material life.

… No negotiations were possible in this environment of callous and irresponsible partiality. Under these circumstances the Tamil people have had no choice save to protest. This is natural and inevitable and in my view justified. What else could the Tamil people do if they are not prepared to sit back in idleness and face slow death as a community? The right to fight for their life and, of course, their language, is a right that no people will give up (emphasis mine). The government has not kept its promises on the language question. They have behaved so irresponsibly that no opportunity was provided for friendly discussion between the two communities. Everything they said and did drove large sections of the Tamil-speaking people into the hands of the extremists.” (Emphasis mine)

Prophetic words uttered fifty years ago, as real today as then. When will they ever learn? 
Howard Wriggins in “ Ceylon : Dilemmas of a New Nation”, 1960, one of the early works on post-independence Lanka had this to say.

From the time he became prime minister, Mr. Bandaranaike could not contain the communal and religious extremists whose backing had contributed so much to his electoral victory (emphasis mine). Many of his erstwhile Sinhalese Buddhist supporters became exasperated by his failure to implement the promises made before the election. The communal disorders of 1956 and 1958 were the direct results of that campaign. … The assassination of the prime minister in September 1959 precipitated another crisis in the political life of the country …  Acts of violence against political leaders had been unknown in modern Ceylon . Ironically enough, the assailant was a bhikku and a teacher in an ayurvedic medical college, symbolically combining in one person two of the very forces that Mr.Bandaranaike had rallied so effectively during the 1956 election.” (P.365)

Do we hear echoes of Bandaranaike’s predicament in Mahinda Rajapakse’s presidency.

Jobs, Discrimination and Despondency

In 1955 about a year after Sir John Kotelawala made his famous statement in Jaffna , there was a debate at the Ramanathan Hall in the Peradeniya campus. Those were the years when debate was possible in spite of the passions that had been aroused. Advocating Sinhala Only were Prof. Malalasekere, F.R.Jayasuriya (later in 1956 of orange juice fame) and K.N.Jayatileke. Ranged on the opposition were Fr.Pinto, Doric de Souza and Vandandriesen. F.R.Jayasuriya went so far as to assert that what he meant by Sinhala only was that in the course of time the people of Jaffna will speak Sinhalese and be administered in that language only. A predominantly Sinhalese student audience greeted this comment with boos and hoots. Fr. Pinto summed up his arguments with the questions – what have you to gain? And what have you to lose? He answered the question in one word – “jobs”.

In retrospect he was right. The Tamils were edged out of the public service. Some of their places went to the Muslims who in ratio to their population deserved this part of the cake. But it was the Sinhalese who mainly gained by the imposition of Sinhala only. Walk into any government office, municipality or a state bank and the change is immediately noticeable. But then fifty years later who wants a job in the public service, which is composed of pancherderms and genuflecting officials and dominated by panchandrums (see Vijitha Yapa’s tribute to Ajith Samaranayake in the Daily News of 26 November 2006). No wonder then the Dept. of Immigration and Emigration offices are so crowded with Sinhalese aspirants for a job abroad. The Tamils had already fled and those remaining appear reconciled to their fate.

Why did not the Tamil professionals and government workers fight back. They did to some extent after the 1958 riots. Those were the days when the GCSU was a powerful organization with a sizeable Tamil presence and the likes of K.C.Nithiyananda around. There was however a meeting in one of the halls in Colombo after the 1977 anti-Tamil violence. The Tamil members of the clerical service, now diminished in numbers having gone to Jaffna as refugees had returned and met to plan strategy. They were concerned about those who had lost their homes or affected in some ways and had not reported for work. K.C.Nithiyananda the veteran trade unionist of GCSU fame was once again present, though in his last years. It came to light later that he was moving towards supporting Tamil militancy. His first question was have any of you have returned to work. Almost all had with just two exceptions. He then asked them how do you expect to fight back. In 1958 the vast majority did not return to work and were able to win the rights of those who were not able to report for work.
The point I am making is that Sinhala Only and hegemony had become a reality. By 1977 the hitherto traditional forces that fought back had been considerably weakened in numbers and demoralized. The vacuum that was created provided the space for the rise of Tamil militancy.

Then there was this meeting at the Saiva Mangayar Kalagam called by the cautiously named the Ceylon Institute for Tamil and National Affairs (CINTA) to take stock of the post-1977 situation. About forty persons were present composed of distinguished professionals, lawyers, doctors, retired administrative service officials, teachers and others including one of the founding members of the SLFP mentioned above. The late Justice Manikavasagar headed CINTA. I happened to be the youngest person. As the meeting began the members of the aging generation unashamedly wept. They were devastated and confessed that there was no future for the Tamils in this country. Remember this was 1977 and 1983 was yet to come. The late Prof. Arasaratnam, and another senior historian were present. Those present wanted the three of us whose academic discipline had been history to reflect on the present situation and the foreseeable future. Some among them had by now become ardent Tamil nationalists. The Pannakam resolution demanding the state of Tamil Eelam had been adopted in 1976. They wanted us to explicitly state that on the basis of history the North and East constituted the traditional homeland of the Tamils. Arasaratnam in his usual soft-spoken and polite way said that would be an extremely difficult position to take. The other academic present also agreed. My position was that the further we go back into history the more complex it becomes. That we need not take our stand on history, but should do so from the contemporary situation and at the most that which prevailed in 1948 when the British quit. At that time the distribution of population was such that the NE was without doubt a predominantly Tamil and even more a Tamil –speaking region (Muslims included). This was reversed by deliberately settling  Sinhalese in state-sponsored and foreign aid backed settlement schemes (which Tamil nationalists called state sponsored colonization).

A Monolingual Public Service

A note worthy factor among contemporary officials in the public service is that they are monolingual. At least if they had been bilingual – I mean Sinhala and English it may have softened the impact. Walk into any government department and try to transact business without knowledge of Sinhala. Even with knowledge of English it is frustrating. I begin to suspect that attempting to communicate in English itself heightens the resistance to communicate.  I have to take with me one of my Sinhalese friends or a domestic helper. Very often the assistance comes from one of the lower ranking officers who normally carries files around – and he happens to be a Muslim. This happened to me once in the Ministry of Education. I once went to Telecom and attempted to communicate in English assuming that there were no Tamil speakers there. One gets conditioned to assuming, and here I was at fault. I should have straightaway spoken in Tamil. But these were days of stringent checks points and the infamous pass system, and one consciously or otherwise suppresses ones Tamil identity. I had returned after 17 years abroad and had not got quite rehabilitated in what was now a brutal security state. After struggling for several minutes in English I finally asked whether there were no Tamil speakers to find that the person I was attempting to communicate with spoke Tamil fluently and was a Muslim. I told him that by observing my name he should have known that I was a Tamil. 

The stories relating to the hazards of not knowing the Official language are numerous. Have your purse stolen in a bus together with your ID and see how you get pushed from Grama Sevaka, to the police and back to the Grama sevaka and the ID office, including the bureaucratic delays and the often unavoidable under the table deal. When I relate such lamentations the stock answer is that Sinhalese people have the same problems with the bureaucracy. Certainly, but with a difference – the Tamil has the added disadvantage of simply not understanding a word of what is going on. It becomes a case of adding insult to injury.
When the LSSP in the 1930s demanded that statements at police stations be recorded in the language of the person concerned it was this vital right – the right to be governed and tried in ones language that they asserted.

When a member of the family passed away we had to rush to the Registrar of Deaths in Colombo 7 to get the necessary documents. This was in the 1990s and a curfew was being imposed in a few minutes. The low ranking assistant to the registrar took down the particulars in Sinhalese as we dictated in English. I asked him why I could not have the certificate in Tamil. There was no answer. Then I asked his name. He was a Tamil of Indian descent. Why is it that in these several places these lower ranking officials refuse to speak Tamil and assume that all callers are Sinhalese or proficient in Sinhala? This gets on the nerves of a person like me who by no means is a Tamil chauvinist or even a nationalist but with high degree of Tamil consciousness.

A leadership that is insensitive and lacks common sense.

The transition from English to Sinhalese took a few years. The change was glaringly visible when I returned for good after 17 years abroad. The Sinhalese language had finally achieved a dominant place. This coincides with the proliferation of TV and radio channels. Major policy statements and speeches such as Presidents speech to parliament, the Budget speech etc., that were made in English are all made in Sinhalese today. These are relayed live on TV. Now there are three state owned channels and several private channels. Both Ranil Wickremasinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge never had the courtesy to have their major speeches relayed simultaneously in Tamil.  A good example was the long speech that CBK made on the 2000 constitution. I was told soon after she delivered the speech that it was a good one, in spite of the hooting and the disturbances by the UNP members. It took several days for a Tamil translation to be relayed on TV. Parliament has a competent staff of simultaneous interpreters. Surely one of the channels could have carried the Tamil version. It must be said in fairness to Mahinda Rajapakse, that from day one he broke new ground. All his major speeches have been interpreted sentence by sentence by an extremely competent interpreter.

The TV English news broadcasts by Rupavahini and some private channels with the exception of MTV, relays chunks of its news in Sinhalese. Cricket commentaries are in English, but the pre-match and post-match comments are in Sinhala Only. Most of the TV chat programmes are in Sinhala Only. MTV has pioneered discussions in Tamil with Sinhala subtitles but not the other way round. Why not have Tamil transcripts for Sinhala movies. On the other hand third-rate Tamil serial drama programmes are relayed with Sinhala subtitles. There are many such reforms that are possible to create a sense of belonging to the Tamils. It is I believe not a question of funds and resources but simply a one-language mindset.

A quick glance through Hansard reveals the change that has taken place in the 1980s and 90s. But then who wants to read today’s parliamentary reports anyway. The days when parliamentary debates were researched as a source for history has long been over.

Learning Sinhalese

Of course the question is posed to me by my Tamil friends and even relatives who speak Sinhalese fluently why I never learnt the language. (My father spoke Sinhalese, may be colloquial, as did my father-in-law and mother-in-law and several other relatives.) I must confess that none, not one of my Sinhalese friends or acquaintances has posed this question. In fact they have been embarrassed by the whole problem. This also means that I do not count as my friends those who do not or did not stand-up for the language rights of the Tamils. The position taken by my Tamil friends who pose this question is that Sinhalese as the language of communication at all levels is a reality today. A person living in predominantly Sinhalese areas had better learn the language. Colombo for administrative purposes is a Sinhalese language district, unlike Jaffna or Batticaloa.

A highly multi-lingual district like Colombo should be bi-lingual if not tri-lingual. The other day at a District Court in Colombo , I observed two Tamil lawyers in the presence of a Muslim judge struggling to argue their case in faltering Sinhala. One of them had brought an interpreter along but it did not help much since after every two sentences a particular word or phrase had be clarified with all the lawyers present attempting to give their two thousand rupees worth of opinion. Those days it was two cents - this is the value of the rupee today. Why this predicament – the records were being kept in Sinhalese. In addition the more competent and bilingual clerk who normally does this job was on leave.

With regard to the language of the courts I relate another incident. In 1971 (shortly before the JVP insurrection and in the wake of the euphoria following the United Front victory in 1970) there was a symposium on human and workers’ rights in the Colombo University with several eminent academics and lawyers participating. In the chair was Justice T.S.Fernando. Throughout the proceedings there was not one word on language rights or that of the minorities. I naturally got up and asked why should not a person have the right to be tried in the courts in his own language. Justice Fernando replied that it was not possible and asked what do we do if have a person from Finland – do we have to try him in his language. I popped up and said it is precisely answers of that nature that do help to solve the burning problem in the country. I had to tell him in plain language that what I meant by the language of a person in this country was Sinhalese, Tamil or English. Here was a Judge of the Supreme Court so arrogant and totally insensitive to the rights of the Tamils.

The whole event had a minor sequel. This happened before the emergence of Tamil militancy. Next day an eminent Tamil professor came and congratulated me and said that in that audience of over 200 people at least one person had the courage to raise that question. But I do not think he ever raised this in his place of work with higher authorities. Another senior Tamil professional also quite pleased, however, warned me to be a bit careful. In fact that was the dominant feeling among the Tamil professionals. Suffer and keep quiet.  Or leave the country. No attempt was made to organize employees and members of the public to resist the imposition if Sinhala Only other than token demonstrations.

The Tamil youth of the 1950s made a conscious decision in 1956 not to learn Sinhalese until both languages were made official languages. This was part of the language resistance program. Many Sinhalese commentators are not aware, or if aware deliberately play down the fact that Jaffna was in the forefront as early as in the 1920s advocating the policy that all schools in Jaffna teach Sinhalese. The Jaffna Youth Congress at successive sessions passed resolutions to this effect. The stated policy was that this be done island wide and that in turn all Sinhalese students learn Tamil.  This was in the context of another important reform proposed that the medium of instruction should be the two national languages. In effect the Jaffna Youth Congress was advocating a three-language formula. This is globally nothing new. Several countries especially in Europe, and India in particular have similar policies.

When the leaders of the JYC became teachers and principals of schools the teaching of Sinhalese was introduced in several schools in Jaffna . At Jaffna College it was a compulsory language from Form one to three. The little Sinhalese I know I learnt in that period in the late 1940s. One of our teachers was Sagara Palanisuriya, the poet and writer, who later joined Philip Gunawardene’s breakaway group from the LSSP, but remained level headed in his approach to language and discrimination.

We were fortunate to have a teacher of his eminence. Kokuvil Hindu College had a learned Buddhist monk as the teacher. But most of the teachers who cared to come to Jaffna were unemployed in the South and of inferior quality. They did not last for more than three months and left as soon as they got a job nearer home. Their ability to communicate in English, to say the least, was poor and the Sinhalese class became a time for fun at the teacher’s expense as he became the butt for jokes. The state had no policy at that time for promoting tri-lingualism. It does not have one even today. This is illustrated by the absence of qualified teachers and textbooks for the teaching of Sinhalese as a second language. Even today walk into Lake House or M.D.Gunasena’s and try to purchase a good book for the study of Sinhalese as a second language. You will find an assorted number of little booklets and dictionaries, but hardly a well planned set of graded text books catering to different levels such as I know are available in Japan to learn the Japanese language. The bookshops no doubt have several books for Sinhalese learners of Tamil. This on the surface is surprising and intriguing. Who are these people learning Tamil? Obviously they are public servants in order to pass a proficiency exam so that they get the necessary added allowance to the monthly pay. One never gets to meet one who attends to a Tamil in Tamil in a government office. I am open to correction on this – it is a rare phenomenon to come across a Sinhalese official who communicates in Tamil.

Going back to the teaching of Sinhala in Jaffna schools the whole program was brought to a halt in June 1956 when the Sinhala Only Act was imposed on the Tamils. The principals of schools at a historic meeting in Jaffna made the unanimous decision to terminate the teaching of Sinhalese. It was part of the resistance program to Sinhalese Only. By this time students were being prepared for the special paper in Sinhalese at the GCE O/L exams. At Jaffna College the Sinhala language teaching program was stabilized and showed results when they finally found a competent Tamil Mr. Arumugampillai to teach this subject. If this process had continued Jaffna would have become at least among the products of the leading schools tri-lingual. Today Jaffna remains almost totally monolingual as in most parts of the rest of Lanka.

In 1965 when the Federal Party joined the UNP in a coalition government I gave notice of a resolution signed by a few members of the Round table (Teacher’s Guild) composed of the academic staff at Jaffna College that the teaching of Sinhalese be restored at Jaffna College. At that time Jaffna was still an open society where any individual had the right of dissent except performing satyagraha against the state. The 1961 satyagraha had been brutally crushed with an imposition of a 48-hour curfew, and subsequent curfew in the nights for several weeks. People had been assaulted in the streets and shops attacked and looted by the security forces. This was the first phase of ‘state terrorism’ long before Tamil militancy was born. But one could take positions contrary to the vast majority including that of the Federal Party. Some members of the staff of Jaffna College were ardent supporters of the Federal Party. Most were liberal minded and open to discussion on any issue. The supporters of the FP were embarrassed by such a resolution coming before the Round Table and subtle pressure was brought on us not to bring such a divisive issue to the forefront.

The decision to abandon the teaching of Sinhala at that point in time in 1956 was the correct decision. But its continuation was particularly unfortunate; the Federal Party itself having surrendered its principled position by entering into a coalition with the UNP. Tutories flourished teaching the language since it was necessary to obtain jobs. The Raviraj’s assassination and the large number of Sinhalese who attended the funeral brought to light an important lesson. His popularity lay in his ability to participate in discussions and communicate in Sinhalese and fight the ultra-nationalists on their own ground. If thousands of Tamils, though not all, had mastered the language it may still have had an impact in the debates that took place and continue to take place in the country.

The Indian example is instructive. TV discussions begin in Hindi and gradually pass on to English, back to Hindi and so forth. The participants from the Southern states and Bengal never speak in Hindi (they could if they wished to) being proficient in spoken Hindi. They persist in English. This often happens when commentators discuss cricket.

Coming back to my own experience, I moved from Jaffna to the University of Colombo, some fifteen years after 1956. I received my letter of appointment in Sinhalese Only. If I had been a person of affluent means I should have returned that scrap of paper and gone back home to Jaffna. But then who wanted to give up a job in the University of Colombo and the whole world of opportunity it later opened up. Only an A.J.Canakaratna or an Ajith Samaranayake would have done that. I politely wrote a letter to the President of the campus that I have received a letter the contents of which I do not understand and would like to have a translation in Tamil or English. I received no reply. My self-esteem was deeply hurt. But bread I suppose is more important than self-esteem if you had to earn your living and had a family to support.

Anyhow some Tamil lecturers made a request that Sinhalese classes be arranged. J.B.Dissanaike, and I must say he was an excellent teacher, undertook to teach these classes once a week. As happens to all good intentions this did not last long. Classes were held just once a week.  Anyone who has made a serious attempt to learn a language knows that it cannot be done in such an ad hoc way. And I am talking from experience.

There are well-established programs all over the world for the teaching of second or foreign languages. Some are intensive and some are semi-intensive. The first requires five hours of instruction a day. The latter two and a half hours a day, both five days in the week. I obtained a working knowledge of Japanese in three months – actually ten weeks of instruction under the intensive program in Japan. But never succeeded in learning Sinhalese all my life in spite of sporadic attempts. In Japan it was absolutely necessary, but also culturally fulfilling. Here it was a humiliation, which was heightened by the pinpricks and insults.

I may add that somewhere in the sub-conscious there is a mental block in learning Sinhalese as far as I am concerned and perhaps many others. The earlier generations at least picked up the spoken version without consciously learning it.. With apologies to the Biblical saying and in its reversal, it is a case of where the spirit is weak, but the flesh is willing. Those who have succeeded in learning the language did so simply to survive in their jobs, while all the while they had nothing but contempt for Sinhala Only. I doubt whether they read Sinhala novels or watched the better Sinhala movies. The cultural dimensions and its appreciation never surfaced.

The Tamil Diaspora

One of the effects of Sinhala Only was the beginning of the Tamil Diaspora. The first generation of those who left was almost all professionals and they did so in the 1950s – to the late 70s. They laid the foundations for Tamil nationalist activities especially in the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA. Those who went to Malaysia and Singapore in alliance with a much earlier second and third generation descendants of migrants strengthened and rejuvenated the Ceylonese Tamil presence in these countries. In contrast to the ‘Indian Tamils’ whose presence in these two countries was numerically large, the Ceylon Tamils were a minuscule group that was getting assimilated or frustrated with their third class status in Malaysia were migrating to the western world, Australia and New Zealand included. But Sinhala Only and the subsequent anti-Tamil pogroms and the militant fight back by the Tamils here enhanced their pride and reinforced their identity – even that of the Indian Tamils. Prof. Ramasamy, the most prominent public profiled supporter and advocate for the LTTE is of Indian origin.

Today the words of Subramaniya Bharathi have been fulfilled but possibly not exactly in the way he as an all-India nationalists and anti-imperialists would have envisaged. He wrote in one of his poems “ulahellam Tamil valara vendum” (that Tamil should flourish all over the world). In some of the cities of Canada, UK, and Australia and in several European states Tamil is spoken, Tamil newspapers and radio programs are popular and in some cases slots on TV are available. Shops with a wide selection of Tamil books and DVDs and audio and videotapes, far more than we have in this country are available globally. Several Tamil websites are based in these countries. Saivite temples and Tamil churches have been founded, and provide rallying grounds for cultural and social activities.

The Roja Muttiah Library in Chennai is retrieving rare books, newspapers, and manuscripts and preserving them on microfilm and CDs. I was told on a visit to this impressive library that Lankan Tamils ran more than 80 per cent of the Tamil Websites on the Internet. These websites had made a major contribution to collecting and disseminating literary, social and cultural material. Contrary to popular perceptions they are not obsessed exclusively with politics. Thanks to Sinhala only something is happening globally to promote and advance Tamil studies. A department of Tamil Studies will soon be opened in the university of Toronto. A private University has been established in Northern Malaysia by the Indian community, which are predominantly Tamil, and obviously Tamil studies finds a prominent place there. Most of these initiatives are by private individuals without state support. Here in this country we depend too much on state patronage. While the Tamils remain a marginalized, deprived and discriminated against nationality in this country, there is a great revival and advancement of the Tamil language taking place abroad led by the Ceylon Tamil Diaspora – ironically thanks to Sinhala Only in 1956.


Delivered at the Seminar at the EISD on 3 December 2006

A casualty of nationalism - Himal - January 2010

A casualty of nationalism By: Marshal Fernando and Santasilan Kadirgamar

 January 2010

A casualty of nationalism  
By: Marshal Fernando and Santasilan Kadirgamar
Sri-Lanka’s formerly effective school system has been damaged by over-politicisation.
Bilash Rai

Among the colonies of the British Empire, Ceylon, as it was then known, was far ahead of its neighbours with regard to its primary and secondary school systems. Small both in size and population, there had been no freedom struggle involving the masses. Thus, by 1931, the British government felt confident enough to grant universal adult franchise and a substantial degree of responsibility for governance, under what were known as the Donoughmore Commission Reforms. Indeed, seven of the ten ministers in the executive were Ceylonese, with portfolios including education and health care. By 1945, the administration had adopted additional reforms providing free education from kindergarten to the university level. In his concluding remarks marking that occasion, C W W Kannangara, then the minister of education, said: “It is my belief that this is a pearl of great price. Sell all that you possess and purchase it for the well-being of the nation.” Today, there is a general consensus among professionals and academics that they would not be where they are if not for the lasting reforms set in motion by the leaders of that era.

Policy changes included, among other things, the provision of more schools. Noteworthy in particular was the establishment of a system of 54 Central Schools in the provinces, and a stage-by-stage transition replacing English with Sinhala and Tamil (also known as Swabasha) as the medium of instruction. The switch to Swabasha took place from grades one to five during the 1940s; by the mid-1950s, it had become the medium of instruction from grades 6 to 12, finally reaching the universities during the early 1960s. It must be emphasised that Tamil-speaking students (Tamil and Muslim) had the same rights as the Sinhalese students, both with regard to free education and the right to education in their own language. This right has been firmly adhered to in spite of subsequent changes making Sinhala the only language of the administration. Education has, however, lagged behind in plantation areas where the hill-country Tamils (those of Indian descent) laboured.

Meanwhile, the older colonial-era secondary schools were called colleges – a misnomer that has survived – as Lanka did not have an affiliated college system of the kind that prevails in India. There were wide disparities among the secondary schools, with the denominational schools in the urban areas, especially Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy and Galle, better equipped and staffed. The quality of education provided by the state improved with the establishment of the 54 Central Colleges following the reforms of the 1940s. These denominational schools were mostly run by Christian missions, though the Buddhist and Hindu boards later became involved as well. The American missionaries landed in the Tamil north early in the 19th century, founding the Batticotta Seminary in 1823 and later the Jaffna College. The following year, they also founded the first boarding school for girls in Uduvil, Jaffna. This marked the beginning of the development of schools among the Tamils, eventually making Jaffna second only to Colombo in education, including proficiency in the English language. Indeed, the advances made by the Jaffna Tamils created tensions that ultimately led to the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. The challenge facing schools in Jaffna today is to restore the standards that prevailed until the 1970s, deeply affected if not decimated by 30 years of war.

State monopoly
In addition to the Central Schools, the island also had denominational schools receiving state grants, which eventually came to be known as assisted schools. When free and compulsory education came into force in 1947, these schools were given the option of joining the free education system, meaning that they would receive assistance but come under some degree of state control, or remaining completely private and charging fees. Most of the religious denominational schools entered the government scheme, and were entitled to state assistance, while providing free education. A handful of Christian schools did, however, choose to stay out of this system.

In 1961, the state nationalised all denominational schools under private boards. The private institutions that opted out of the assisted-schools system in 1947 continued to remain private and fee-levying. Fifty other schools also opted to remain private during this new round, all of which were, once again, Christian schools, mostly Roman Catholic. The difference was that these schools were obliged to not charge fees to remain private, something that was practically impossible in economic terms. This takeover of schools by the state in 1961 constituted one of the major radical reforms in the post-Independence years. It certainly set the balance right, taking decisions about the appointment of teachers and the admission criteria for students out of the sectarian hands of the religion-based school boards. Caste and creed no longer counted. All the same, in the process, education became a monopoly of the state.

The system again changed in 1977, when the right-wing United National Party government, led by J R Jayewardene, came to power, bringing with it a commitment to a market economy and private enterprise. Jayewardene, although the father of all of the country’s subsequent constitutional woes, did have one noteworthy benign act to his credit: he restored government grants to those schools that had chosen to remain private in 1961, thereby winning the allegiance of leaders of the Christian minority. Beyond that, in spite of his two-thirds majority in Parliament and the excessive powers he bestowed on himself as executive president, he was not able to privatise education as much as he would have liked. The state’s monopoly of education had become an entrenched and sacred system that no government dared to touch.

All the same, the Jayewardene government provided a way out by permitting the establishment of so-called ‘international’ schools. As a result, and as is evident today, a variety of schools, numbering about 87, with the tag ‘international’ mushroomed, with about 54 of them in and around Colombo. With a few exceptions, none of these schools had anything international about them, with most basically being business enterprises catering to the rich. The notable differences between these institutions and the prevailing school system was that the former did not come under the purview of the Ministry of Education, charged exorbitant fees and provided instruction in English. In some, French was the second language, while Sinhala and Tamil were optional. The point to note is that the students coming out of these schools are comparable to pre-1956 English educated elites, whose proficiency in the national languages was weak in what had now become a country in which 99 percent of the people were monolingual. With a curriculum geared to preparing for foreign exams, a new class of citizens, linguistically and culturally divorced from the masses, was being created in the country.

Part of the education system are the infamous ‘tutories’ or coaching classes, doing a substantial part of the job that should be done in schools. After school hours, and especially during the weekend, students flock to these tutories, to be taught by individuals outside the formal education structures. This parallel system of instruction, as distinct from education in its fullest sense, has had adverse consequences, with cramming geared towards passing examinations taking precedence over a general and a value-based education. 

Even as the nature of secondary education has a direct impact on performance in higher education, the state of the universities had a direct bearing on the school system. University graduates without teacher training were deemed fit to be teachers. With unemployed graduates an embarrassment to every government in power, such individuals were periodically dumped into schools as teachers, and continue to be thus employed even today. In truth, university education came late to the country. A University College had been founded in 1921, paving the way for the University of Ceylon in 1942, which took a place among the best in Asia for its first 25 years. At this level, too, the results of the radical reforms of the 1940s were evident by the mid-1950s, when rural youths entered the faculties of humanities and the social sciences in sizeable numbers. Overnight, the universities had to adapt to changes in the medium of instruction, without any planning or training of lecturers. Senior academics in the universities had to attend classes in Sinhala and Tamil, in order to be able to teach in those languages, resulting in many eventually leaving the country.

Today, there are 15 universities where classes are taught mostly in Sinhala or Tamil. In the medical, science and engineering faculties, instruction begins in the national languages and eventually transitions into English. Where instruction is in English from the very first year, as former Professor of English Ashley Halpe states, “The majority do not have the ability to follow courses conducted in the English medium effectively – it is significant that 40 percent of the supposedly elite students in the faculties of medicine and engineering who enter with extremely high scores fail their first exams at their first attempt.” As such, the country has paid a heavy price in not retaining English as the language of instruction in the universities, with a drop in standards in content, curriculum and overall education. Students memorise notes taken at lectures and from handouts in Swabasha and regurgitate the information at examinations. Libraries and reference books in English are rarely used, and very few books are available in Swabasha. Indeed, English is taught but without noticeable results. Ideally, the first year in all universities should be devoted towards intensive English classes; but with a Sinhala-nationalist climate dominating the country, English has been referred to as a kaduwa, a sword that kills. As such, most of the products from the faculties of the social sciences and humanities have generally been referred to as ‘unemployed and unemployable’.
Swabasha woes
The politics of language, thus, has been played out with adverse effects in the field of education. The initiators of educational reforms in the 1940s rightly decided that a child learns best in her or his mother-tongue. Moreover, since the country did not have the requisite teachers, it would have been impossible to provide education in the English medium to the students in the whole country. Put it another way, it would have been impossible to provide mass education that raised literacy rates. But the failure lay in not effectively teaching English as a second language at the school level, or retaining English as a medium in the Universities. If English had been effectively taught as a second language in the schools, more students would have found it feasible to follow courses in English at the University level. India is a good example of school education in the mother-tongue, accompanied by English at the higher level. Indeed, the level of English is poor at the undergraduate level. But by the time students reach the Masters, Master of Philosophy (M Phil) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) levels their ability to function in English becomes adequate if not good. In Lanka today we have several University academics with local PhDs who cannot present papers in English and participate in international seminars. Nor do they have proficiency to use English as a library language and keep up with the latest international books and journals in their field.

While the advocates of Swabasha often make comparisons with Japan, where the medium of instruction at all levels is Japanese, they fail to note that Japan, from as far back as 1871, had a policy of sending students to England, the US, France, Germany and Russia in fair numbers, and had launched a policy of translating books into Japanese. By the 1980s, Japanese publishers were releasing books in Japanese translation almost at the same time that they were released in English or other European languages. Instant translation and interpretation is big business in Japan, and Japanese editions in translation of best selling books were about half the price of the English ones. Lanka does not have the resources to do things the Japanese way, so the comparison is not useful. With some recognition of the problem, attempts are now being made to rectify matters by providing courses in English in the older universities, like the ones in Colombo and Peradeniya.

A matter of paramount importance is encouraging proficiency in the English language island-wide. This would include training colleges for teachers, and special colleges in every district for intensive English courses for students who have completed GCE Ordinary and/or Advanced Level courses. A return to English as the medium of instruction in certain specified subjects in the higher classes at the secondary school level, especially in the sciences, is an option that can be examined. But then the country does not have the teachers to implement this. This can only be done by allowing a free flow of qualified and experienced teachers from other countries, for example, India, as happened from the 1920s to the early 1960s. At that time, the task was to develop teaching in the sciences. Today, the mission will be to teach English as well as certain subjects in the English medium. The much expressed view that all Sinhala students should be taught Tamil and all Tamil speaking students Sinhala, desirable as it is, will not take place. Wounds inflicted by a long war and prejudices deliberately cultivated over the decades have created a mind-set in both communities that will not make this feasible. English as a second language is an achievable target given a clear five- to ten-year plan with adequate resources allocated for this fundamental task. Successfully implemented, two vital objectives will be achieved; it would provide a mode of access to knowledge while at the same time function as a link language in the pursuit of unity in diversity.    
The children of ‘56
In all of this, the ramifications of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 cannot be overstated. The leftwing 1971 insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) against the government was, in one sense, a revolt by the children of 1956 who felt that the promises made and aspirations aroused in that year were not fulfilled. The expectations of jobs, upward mobility and a rise in the status of deprived rural youth did not happen. Soon after the uprising, the four universities of that period were closed for a year, and two campuses were converted into detention centres for insurgents. During 1988-89, the upsurge of JVP violence in the campuses was marked by assassinations and ruthless murders. The state retaliated with unprecedented violence against Sinhalese youths, and campuses were closed more often than open.

In adopting the Sinhala Only Act, Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike unleashed forces that could not be tamed by himself or his successors. These forces changed the course of Lanka’s history. There were no doubt positive dimensions in the reforms of 1956; but the year is best remembered, at least by the minorities, as the watershed that marked the end of any prospect of a united Lanka with equal rights for all its communities. Sinhalese nationalism rode triumphant and Sinhalese majoritarian rule was firmly entrenched in the country. Eventually, the Tamils responded with their own brand of destructive Tamil nationalism.

These changes had a tremendous impact on education in the country. It was the intention of those who introduced free education to provide competence in English as a second language to marginalised rural students. However, the aroused Sinhala nationalist passions led to the dethroning of English as the language of the administration in 1956, effectively bringing an end to the teaching of English in schools. Schools became monolingual, while classes became rigidly compartmentalised into linguistic streams, few accepting both Sinhalese and Tamil students. This had a disastrous effect on the country and its politics. Ideally, in a postcolonial society that is multi-religious and multi-linguistic, conscious policies directed towards social cohesion and integration should have been adopted. In Lanka, the very opposite happened.

There was a time when Sinhalese and Tamil students sitting together in the same classroom had eminent teachers from both communities. It was in spaces such as the classroom, the sports fields or, where available, the dormitory that lasting bonds overriding linguistic and religious identities had been established. By the 1960s, that era had come to an end. Even as the policies adopted in creating an egalitarian society with equal opportunities in education were to be lauded, the policymakers and educationists failed the youth by not evolving a curriculum within the framework of instruction in the mother tongue that would have promoted integration. This could have been achieved by giving English the role of a link language.

Ultimately, the state failed to evolve a clear education policy, beyond patchwork reforms. There has not been a single education minister worth remembering in the post-Independence years, a notable exception being Badiuddin Mahmud, minister of education during the 1970s, who, besides upgrading Tamil-medium schools, did a remarkable service to the Muslim community by opening up the education sector to Muslims. Although there was some heartburn among the Tamils that they were losing jobs as teachers and headmasters, the Muslims had been late-comers to education, especially the women. The balance was set right. During the 2008 ordinary-level examinations for grade-ten students, only 44 percent had passes in the English language. It is unlikely that even those with passes had the proficiency to read a short and simple paragraph from a newspaper or utter two sentences in English, leave alone writing. In fact, the quality of instruction all round has dropped considerably. The country was once known for high levels of achievement in mathematics, yet a few years ago only ten percent of students had passes in geometry at the grade-ten public examinations.

The problem is that even as nationalisation freed education from sectarian management, it allowed the politicians to take over completely. Today, state control of education has degenerated to interference by politicians with a vice-like grip on the appointment of teachers. What happened in the field of education was a telling example of the over-politicisation of every aspect of the socio-economic life of the country. By the 1970s, literacy rates were close to 80 percent, and are today just above 90 percent. Similarly, great advances were made in the female literacy rate. Having achieved these remarkable indices, the country has not been able to go to the next stage of development. This is because the increasing volume was not matched by quality education, including job-oriented education for a developing country, especially in the sciences, technology, computer literacy and information technology.

Here, again, the state controlled educational system is fundamentally flawed. Sixty years after visionary policies towards an egalitarian society by expansion in education reforms were implemented, there has been no periodic review of the system to assess the value of state control and the content of education. Tinkering with the system has become the norm as governments changed, led by ministers and bureaucrats with inflated egos. Ideally, a policy based on consensus for a National System of Education suitable for the times among all parties in Parliament is called for today. Yet, unfortunately, this is too much to expect from the deeply divided Sinhalese polity that seems unable to arrive at a consensus on the Sinhalese-Tamil relations that have been tearing the country apart.

The purpose of education, it has been said, is to make people fit to live with. Yet many have lost sight of this ultimate objective of an education, as a means to a good life. In Lanka, there has been a loss in terms of offering a values-based education, which in decades gone by promoted tolerance, free debate and rational discussion, a sine qua non for a healthy society. A first step to take the country in this direction is to depoliticise education, freeing it from those least fit to rule. One of the major issues in the current presidential election is that the 17th amendment to the constitution establishing a Constitutional Council be implemented. The task of this council is to establish an independent Election Commission, Police Commission and Public Services Commission. Hopefully, if this is implemented the depoliticisation of education will follow.

Marshal Fernando is the director of the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Colombo.

Santasilan Kadirgamar taught history at the Universities of Colombo and Jaffna.