Friday, October 29, 2010

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

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