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The Beginning of the Ethnic Problem in Sri Lanka - Violation of Language Rights

Published in the Law & Society Trust Review, August 2000





At a time, when the government and other political parties are involved in making attempts to solve the ethnic problem in this country, it would be appropriate to take a look at the beginnings of this problem in this Country.


Until 1956 English was the official language of Sri Lanka.  The medium of instruction in all secondary and tertiary level educational institutions was English while all official correspondence had been in English until then.  With the enactment of the Official Language Act No: 33 of 1956 a sudden change was brought about in the country. Sinhala was made the official language and all official correspondence had to be in Sinhala. All those employed in the State services had to learn Sinhala. The language by itself was not the only matter at issue. It is an important aspect of one’s ethnic  identity. Relegating Tamil to a lower status offended the Tamils and inflamed their feelings.  This led to the seeds of discord being sown in the country.  The events that led to the infamous race riots of 1958, 1977 and 1983 were all the consequences of this discord.  These riots proved that all efforts made to bridge the breach of the harmony that existed between the Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking people had been fruitless.  The upshot of all this was the steady growth of militancy among the Tamil youth which received an impetus with the  happenings of July 1983.  Subsequent to these events there was a mass exodus of Tamils from the South to the North of Sri Lanka  and to other parts of the world both as refugees and as persons seeking better pastures.  The net result of all these was the loss of the lives of a large number of citizens on both sides of divide, which changed Sri Lanka from a peaceful country to a land ridden with militancy.  All this was partly due to the infringement of the basic right of the Tamil speaking people to use their mother tongue in their day to day affairs with the State.


This was followed by employment under the State being denied to those who did not know Sinhala or agree to learn Sinhala after joining the Government Service.  Changes in the rules of admission to the universities and the colonisation policies of successive governments were among the other reasons, that added fuel to the ethnic problem.


The Muslims of the North and East who do not speak Sinhala also faced the same plight.  Following the enactment of the Tamil Language (Special) Provisions Act of 1958 the use of Tamil in the North and the East for administrative purposes and in the courts was made possible.  But the Sinhala people living in those parts had difficulties in using their mother tongue when dealing with the courts and the local bodies in those areas.


The large percentage of Tamils lived outside the North and East.  They continued to have problems caused by alleged discrimination in various spheres such as education and employment.  Many steps were taken towards promoting the policy of providing equal opportunities and  bilingualism in public administration, legislation, language of the courts and even in promoting one community to study the language of the other in schools.  In 1965 Tamil was made a regional language, in 1978 a national language.  By an amendment to the Constitution in 1987 Sinhala and Tamil have been granted equal status as the official languages of Sri Lanka.  That made it possible for some to say that the language problem of the Tamils had been solved once and for all. 


However, these steps failed to heal the cleavages that had occurred.  The Government could not succeed in bringing about the required change in attitudes among State officials and others concerned.  There was a problem of the dearth of persons competent in Tamil to work in Government Departments.  No meaningful steps were taken to recruit an adequate number of Tamil speaking officers.  Equipment such as Tamil typewriters and even translators were not readily available.  Once again the Government had to take recourse to the law in an effort to remove the remaining obstacles.


In 1991 the Official Languages Commission (OLC) was established to monitor and supervise compliance with the provisions in the Constitution which had been enacted and to ensure that the  language rights of the Tamil speaking people are not violated.  The right of any person to communicate with the Government in the official language of his or her choice is enshrined in the Constitution.  Yet, many State institutions such as local authorities and even some departments continued to ignore these provisions with impunity.  OLC’s principal function is to inquire into and report on any violation of these provisions which are brought to its notice and to make an effort to get the department or official concerned to fall in line with the provisions of  the Constitution.  Further, the OLC can institute legal action against those State officers who wilfully  neglected and  failed to comply with the language rights of any citizen.


However, it appears that the OLC has received only a few complaints and even in respect of such complaints it has not taken appropriate action as the OLC is unable to ensure compliance due to obstacles in the law.  Section 28(1) of the Official Languages Commission Act No 18 of 1991 enables the Commission take legal action against State officers who “wilfully fail or neglect to transact business, receive or make such communication” in Tamil and  shall be guilty of an offense for which a fine or term of imprisonment could be imposed by a Magistrate, if such officer was found guilty of the charge.  Section 28(2), however, states that no such prosecution shall be initiated except with the prior sanction of the Attorney General.  The Attorney General had been understandably averse to prosecuting an officer of State whose “wilful neglect” could be difficult to prove.  He could always say that he does not have the resources to use Tamil in his official work.  Consequently, Tamils continue to receive replies to official correspondence in a language they do not understand.  Often name boards in Government or Semi-Government institutions and departmental circulars or even street names are not  in the Tamil language also.  This is in  total disregard of the specific provisions of the Constitution  which requires the use of both official languages.  The fact that only a few complaints had been received by the OLC is no indicator of the magnitude of the indignation of the non Sinhala speaking persons on this issue.  Perhaps most persons who are affected or inconvenienced  believe  there is  no use complaining to the OLC which, in their eyes, is another agent of the State rendered impotent by legal provisions knowingly or unknowingly enacted by the State.  It could also be because  they may  be unaware that there are institutions to which they could complain.  This is more so because enough had been said about this in Parliament and elsewhere.  Even the Police who are enforcers of the law are seen putting up traffic signs blatantly violating the language rights of  the Tamils.  Often notices to viewers on TV are not in Tamil.  None of these institutions can claim to be ignorant of the fact that Tamil is also an official language and that those who do not know Sinhala would not be able to understand these signs and notices.  At times such notices are only in English.  And even some Government institutions have name boards in English only.  These are violations of the Language rights not only of the Tamils but also of the Sinhala citizens.  Hardly do they realise that a little effort on their part  in these matters could go a long way to earn goodwill and spare a lot of  heart burn to those affected.


The institutions created for this purpose such as the Official Language Department, the Official  Languages Commission, the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs etc should be empowered to play a dynamic role in this regard.  It appears that the Official Languages Commission had drawn the attention of the State to Article 22 of the Constitution which requires the President to gazette the areas outside the North and East where there are a considerable number of Tamils living, to enable the Government institutions in such areas to equip themselves to deal with the Tamils in those areas in their mother tongue.  52 such divisions had been identified but only 12 such divisions in the Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts had been so declared, due to the pressure of the CWC, just prior to the last Predeshiya Sabha elections.  This helped the CWC candidates to get some additional votes but no Tamil Officers had been appointed to these Divisional Officers yet.  Consequently even in those areas one cannot have a death or birth registered in Tamil.  Such dubious actions are the cause of continued discontent and disillusionment among the Tamils.


In the absence of meaningful steps to heal the festering wounds caused by the denial of language rights, one could not expect cordiality amongst the people of Sri Lanka.  Violation of constitutional rights of citizens should be made a penal offence and those responsible should be dealt with swiftly and effectively.  The failure to enforce available provisions of the law could lead to  undesirable consequences.


While the Government is making every effort to solve the problem of militancy to prevent a division of the country, it is the  duty of all concerned to ensure that the people in a united Sri Lanka do not have cause even to think of separation.   Ensuring that the language rights enshrined in the Constitution which we all accept, are implemented diligently and honestly could certainly deprive those seeking to justify the call for a separation of one of the means they use to espouse their cause.  It is hoped the proposed peace package or rather devolution package had taken this matter into serious consideration.


While the efforts to stop the war continue, there is an urgent need to commit ourselves to devise ways and means to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the resolution of the ethnic conflict raging in our country.  Ultimately when the protagonists sit down to sign a truce let there be no room for any one to stress the need to ensure the language rights of citizens.  It should then be possible to say that, in fact, such a problem no longer exists.  The performance of the Government in this regard should be judged not just by its success in enacting legal provisions,  but by the efforts that were made, the commitment with which it was done, and the good will it earned with its ability to compromise.  These would contribute towards bringing a lasting solution to the ethnic problem in this land and banish the need for anyone to even toy with the idea of  separation.     


In the circumstances non governmental organisations which are committed to improving the awareness of the public of  their civic rights and means of access to justice, are trying to do what they could to make the State and its officials to see reason.  The support of such organisations could be sought by those whose rights are so infringed.  They could assist the Government in bringing to its notice  violations of its officials to enable it to take remedial action with a view to promoting goodwill and a sense of recognition  among the people of the country.


Organisations  such as the Law & Society Trust, the Law Society of Sri Lanka, the Forum for Human Dignity, MIRJE, Movement for the Defense of Democratic Rights, etc. study the issues and bring to light the problems and constraints existing in government institutions with the intent of helping them to solve these problems.  Some of these organisations even provide legal assistance to vindicate the rights of those affected.  It is also hoped they would bring about awareness amongst the citizens of the remedies available and the institutions to which they could complain to, in the event of any infringement.

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