‘Two languages, one country’

2007 is one of those years when a faction of Sri Lankans would believe they have been dealt a raw hand by fate to have been born ethnic Tamils. While 2007 will never be 1983, for the simple reason that the Sri Lankan people will simply not allow it to come to that, the year has been a pretty rotten one overall for Sri Lanka’s Tamil populace.

In the East, where fighting has dominated the better part of the year, the Tamil and Muslim populations have been displaced, suffered serious humanitarian disasters, and are only just now being resettled and being allowed to begin their lives again. Up north in Jaffna, the scarcity of commodities has driven prices sky high, leaving civilians to pay small fortunes to purchase bare essentials. And, if all that was not bad enough, the government in Colombo recently attempted to pack off more than 300 Tamils hailing from these conflict areas and residing in Colombo back to ‘where they came from’ since they had ‘overstayed’ their visit. Add to all this, the constant raids on lodges and apartment complexes in Wellawatte and Kotahena, the check points every 500 metres, the suspicion of Tamil residents in general because of the very real terrorist threats on the capital, and anyone would have to agree this is one of the worst times ever to be a Tamil.

The thing is, all these inconveniences and somewhat overzealous precautions can be put down to the resurgence of fighting on the Northern and Eastern fronts that has necessitated heightened security measures elsewhere in the country to guard against infiltration and possible counter-attacks. What is not so easily explained or understood is the government’s inability to implement within the administration process the Official Languages Policy which gives both Sinhalese and Tamils equal official status. It is an oversight – and a grievous one – by successive governments that they have failed to set right this fairly simple measure, which would alone speak volumes for its commitment to resolving the genuine grievances of the Tamil people.

It is a grievous violation of the citizen’s right to seek redress and justice if the Tamil man has to go to a police station and recite his statement in faltering Sinhalese to the Sinhalese speaking police officer, who will then proceed to write his statement in Sinhalese which language the complainant cannot read. It is a travesty of justice that the Tamil complainant will then have to sign to the effect that the statement recorded is true. And yet, this happens a hundred times every day in this country with allegedly two official languages.

We are confronted every day by road signs, traffic signs and boards pointing us different ways or diverting certain types of vehicles with solely Sinhalese lettering painted on them. How many state banks, we wonder, would allow its customers to conduct transactions solely in the Tamil language? How many Tamil people receive letters each day from administrative bodies in their region – all written in a language they cannot read? Why condemn our countrymen to carry their correspondence over to an acquaintance with Sinhalese literary skills when it is their constitutional right to receive such correspondence in the national language of their choice?

Articles 18 and 19 – Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (1978)—recognize Sinhala and Tamil as national languages, with English as the link language. The need to implement this act at grassroots level is as urgent today as it has been ever since the disastrous introduction of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which has been seen to be one of the greatest triggers of the ethnic conflict in the island that has continued to rage for over 20 years.

In July 2006, Minister for Constitutional Affairs, D.E.W. Gunasekara, got Cabinet’s approval to make it mandatory for new recruits to the public service to be proficient in both national languages. Needless to say, the proposal came to nought as the mechanisms were simply not in place to implement it on an immediate basis.

The Chairman of the Official Languages Commission (constituted by President Chandrika Kumaratunga) Raja Collure said in his report of 2005 that, “Neither national integration nor durable communal amity could be achieved without giving effect to the constitutional provisions on language. Any discrimination that results in the failure of the government to faithfully implement the Official Languages Policy also constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens so affected.”

Language is widely acknowledged as being both great divider and great unifier. Connections forged through language are long-lasting and have ripple effects on culture and togetherness, while ties severed because of language barriers are both damaging and tragic. It is a pity that few Southern people can speak with their brothers and sisters in the North and East without resorting to sign language. There is also something very wrong with a country in which it is almost imperative that every Tamil citizen speaks Sinhalese although Sinhala people do not need to be proficient in the ‘other’ national language.

Language policy implementation, if taken up to be a cause by any elected government, will undoubtedly take them much further than any of its predecessors in terms of bringing about a lasting solution to Sri Lanka’s fractured state. We are already far too late. A genuine commitment to give the Tamil language equal status in the administrative processes of the state is imperative if any government is serious about keeping this country united. The words of Colvin R. De Silva, founder of the LSSP, hold a special relevance, even today, since the problems affected by the poor policies of our former leaders continue to haunt us, more than half a century later – “One language, two countries; two languages, one country.”