Two languages, one nation,
one language two nations
Review: Professor Bertram Bastiampillai
[Editors: Wesley S. Muthiah & Sydney Wanasinghe: Two Languages,
one Nation, one Language two Nations, a young Socialist Publication,
The introduction to this publication on a problem that has ever since
1956 when Sri Lanka adopted one official language ushered in
trouble, murder and mayhem is by Batty Weerakoon.
The consequences of the decision still continues to engage the
government in trying to solve problems and introduce undisturbed
peace among the population of Sinhalese, indigenous Tamils,
plantation Tamils, Muslims and a few Burghers and others.
Batty Weerakoon in an analytical introduction examines S. W. R. D.
Bandaranaike’s response to the fifty-fifty demand of Tamil leader G.
G. Ponnambalam to pave the way to constitutional progress.
Ponnambalam’s proposal was in parliamentary representation there
should prevail equality of representation between the Sinhalese and
Tamil, Muslims, Malays and Burghers together.
The British exploited this division among communities to prevent
domination by the Sinhalese and allowed no community Sinhalese or
Tamils to gain their aspirations but gave room to exercise divide and
rule. Bandaranaike felt it is better to settle differences among Sri
Lankans without calling outsiders to settle them. Briefly political
compromise on issues that polarized majority and minority
Weerakoon moves to a hastily setup coalition as the answer to
Bandaranaike in the forming of the United National Party, a coalition of
the bourgeois and petty bourgeois. This hastily assembled unity was
to obtain Dominion Status and exclude Marxists. The aim in forging
communal unity was, according to Bandaranaike, first to unite the
Sinhalese and then win over the confidence of Ceylonese
Communities to threaten reactionaries in Sri Lanka and imperialism
and exploitation by non-Ceylonese.
J. R. Jayawardene in May 1944 in the meantime had moved in the
State Council to work towards making Sinhala gradually the official
language in the Island. Nalliah representing Trinco-Batticaloa added
that Tamil should also be adopted as an official language and the
State Council accepted it. Bandaranaike ironically observed that no
harm lay in recognizing Tamil too as an official language to bring
about amity and confidence among communities.
Weerakoon shifts to 1955 when N. M. Perera proposed amending the
constitution to enable Sinhala and Tamil as state languages with parity
in the Island. This accorded with the State Council resolution of 1944.
But the political environment had changed.
Bandaranaike quit the UNP in 1951 and fathered the Sri Lanka
Freedom party while Tamil leadership too was divided and a Federal
Party formed. Now the scene was set for the two sides of the ethnic
divide to follow extremist positions.
Only the political left the Lanka Sama Samajist and the Communists
now advocated Sinhala and Tamil as official lanaguages.
Bandaranaike tried to find a middle way by giving due recognition to
Tamil while Sinhala remained the official language. Accordingly
recognition of Tamil in administration and establishing regional
Councils were agreed in a Bandaranike - Chelvanayagam Pact. In July
1958 he moved the Tamil language (Special Provision Bill) in
But by September 1959 while Bandaranike was still working on a
compromise to satisfy Tamils, he was assassinated. With this tragedy
ended the creation of Provincial or Regional Councils by the SLFP.
Thereafter “the tortuous course” the language issue took confirmed
the worst fears of Tamils about majoritarianism.
Yet with the Dudley Senanayake government of 1965 the Tamils
settled for decentralization of powers through district councils, a
principal element in the Dudley - Chelvanayakam Pact. To facilitate
arrangements Thiruchelvam of the Federal Party was made Minister of
local Government. Nevertheless again the UNP too failed owing to the
impediments by Premadasa, Deputy Minister of local Government.
Since then according to Batty Weerakoon the Federal Party failed the
Tamils. It ignored the Left and cooperated with right wingers. The FP
lost a chance to present a viable proposal to the constituent Assembly
in the seventies.
The FP turned Tamil United Liberation Front supported the UNP
opposed as it was denial of equality in higher education and the attack
on the Jaffna 1975 International Tamil Conference. But unfortunately
the UNP after the 1977 election success did not provide even for
decentralization argues Weerakoon. Instead JR. Jayawardene
challenged the TULF; if you want war let there be war. If you want
peace let there be peace. Around this time N. M. Perera commented
on the 1978 UNP constitution. He admitted that the 1972 constitution
did not go far enough on language even to satisfy sober elements in
the Tamil Community.
N. M. Perera conceded the section in the 1978 Constitution on
Language as progressive. But by then young Tamil extremists
demanded a separate State. Concession on language came late. Now
concessions like regional autonomy became indispensable if
harmonious administration was to succeed, feels Weerakon correctly.
J. R. Jayawardene’s UNP came to such a position ten years late only
with the 13th Amendment providing Provincial Councils. Now within a
unitary constitution questions the writer in the Introduction. A rational
response to this question is now being considered by the UNP and
SLFP driven by the imperative to exist as a single nation. The principle
of devolution was granted but alas the UNP paid heed to the Janatha
Vimukti Peramuna; upset the settlement arguing that the country
would get divided. And by then the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
was on its quest. Too little too late is what one can infer from
Weerakoon’s succinct and valuably instructive introduction.
The foreword by authors Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe
follow. It contains vital and invaluable documents sedulously and
intelligently culled from speeches of pontifical stature in the LSSP to
place in a proper perspective the stand of the LSSP on the
acrimonious official language issue which brought in train protracted
communal cleavage in the Island.
The LSSP founded on 18 December 1935 in its first manifesto itself
prominently pronounced that one should utilize the vernaculars;
Sinhala and Tamils in lower Courts of Law and statements recorded in
police stations and extended the use to government offices. Thus, so
early the LSSP took a position to accord equality of status to the two
indigenous languages. Again on July 23 1936 Sama Samajists
introduced two motions in the State Council about the use of the local
languages in Police Courts and lower Education. The LSSP was
steadfast on giving parity of status to Sinhala and Tamils officially.
Thereafter the two authors of the volume have diligently and
intelligently laboured to choose appropriate, helpful and vital
statements in Parliament and out, and writings of the LSSP followers to
prove their adherence to the two language policy. But election in the
North and South showed that Tamils voters never reciprocated
appreciatively. For instance at one stage Colvin R. de Silva pertinently
questioned, “Do our people want a single nation or do we want two
nations” when government continued to cling onto the one official
(Sinhala) language obstinately through the years.
If the Tamils with their own particular language and traditions are
denied the right to use their language with government or courts or
schools then a new nationality will emerge and government will be
forced to grant more claims. Colvin added that statesmanship
demands to give generously instead of being niggardly till too late.
In another invaluable document the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in a
declaration on the state language question affirmed that it always
espoused the administration in Sinhala and Tamil, which are
languages of the vast majority in Sri Lanka.
The debates and exchanges so carefully garnered from the
Parliamentary House of representative records furnish a fertile field for
study by researchers and concerned readers of politics in Sri Lanka
and of special interest is the record of the debates in the House of
Representatives in June on disturbances in Amparai which had to be
quelled with inducted police and military officers when the reviewer of
this book with a Senior Lecturer and some other undergraduate
colleagues witnessed with fear while on a research project in Gal Oya
It is striking that a long controversy had arisen in the course of the
parliamentary debate on the word “parity” between parties with no
avail to alleviate the hardship of the Tamils with one official language
alien to them. They were outlawed from the Ceylonese community
more or less.
Other important principal documents are Extracts from the Hansard-
Debate on the “throne” speech where Colvin R. de Silva adds “only a
Lanka Sama Samaja Party government can lead the country toward
racial harmony, to the ending of communal disorders” and to economic
development that will raise living standards of Ceylonese. V.
Karalasingham discussed in a document, “The way out for the Tamil
speaking People” stressing that fraternal unity can come in Ceylon
only with a leftist dispensation.
The language question is principally focused upon. A letter of Bernard
Soysa, Sama Samajist leader of 3rd February 1993 aptly pinpoints the
Island’s ethnic crisis and how it could be ended with equal and fair
dialogue between the Tamil minority’s belligerents too and the Sinhala
majority on vexed issues.
He afterward explains that the MEP of 1956 advocated Sinhala only
but with reasonable use of Tamil. This was forgotten and to the
forefront stood Sinhala in 24 hours. After an analytical scrutiny of
events in between, mostly follies, both parties will move hesitatingly
towards security. And it is a tragedy that it took long; a half century for
two parties to realize what is sane and prudent.
Both editors of this remarkably readable book on a tragedy that has
afflicted Sri Lanka over the years are a compendium of invaluable,
edifying information. It should be indispensable to students of politics,
history and economics specially but all interested in the Island should
profit much from reading it.
The Editors call for commendation. It is good to be wise even late as
they imply. [Courtesy: Daily Mirror]