Posted on February 10th, 2019


Revised 12.3.19

The 1950s saw the rise of   a strong, vocal Sinhala lobby which was against the 1944   decision of the   State Council,   to make Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of Ceylon, giving Tamil equal status to Sinhala. They wanted the 1944 decision revoked. They wanted Sinhala Only.  This lobby wished to repudiate the language settlement reached in 1943-44 and to call for the replacement of English by Sinhala alone.

In 1952, this lobby started to get restless. Around 1953 there was mounting agitation for Sinhala by the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) and the YMBA.  In 1954 Prime Minister Kotelawela went to Jaffna and said he was for parity of status between Sinhala and Tamil. Meetings were immediately held in ‘Sinhala areas’ to protest this statement.

In January 1955 an important official statement on language policy was issued by the UNP government, reiterating the government policy of ten years ago. By this time there was strong opposition to the recognition of Tamil as an official language and there was a strong, aggressive demand for Sinhala Only.  In 1955, LSSP and CP said they were for parity, too. A  Communist Party meeting supporting parity was broken up by Sinhala Only supporters.

There was support from the elite too. Sir Arthur Wijewardene, one time Chief Justice, said in 1953 as Chairman, Official Language Commission, that the replacement of English by Swabhasa would have been much easier if instead of two language one alone had been accepted in terms of the motions introduced by JR in state council in June 1943. (SP XXII of 1953 p 26). Arthur Wijewardene repeated this in his rider to the 1954 Report of the Commission on the National languages in Higher Education.  (SPXXI of 1954 p 6).

The first two general elections of independent Ceylon, held in  1947 and 1952,  were won by the UNP. in 1947 the  UNP  formed  its government in coalition   with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. The UNP was an elitist party dominated by the English speaking, western- oriented propertied class. Since the English speaking group were primarily Christians and the Christians were largely Tamil, it began to be considered a pro-Christian, pro-Tamil party as well. The UNP did not bother much about Sinhala. There was therefore a slackening of momentum as regards Swabhasa,

In 1951, the Sinhala Only lobby at last managed to get a political party of its own, the SLFP. The fledgling SLFP contested its first General Election in 1952. There would have been rumblings of Sinhala Only at this election. However, SLFP   formally adopted the notion of ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1955.  Change of policy was announced at the SLFP annual conference held on December 1955 at Nittambuwa. The SLFP cry was not only ‘Sinhala Only’ but ‘Sinhala Only in 24 hours.” This was an effective and pithy propaganda slogan, said K.M. de Silva.  It was only rhetoric, but some took him literally.

The extent of the popular support for ‘Sinhala Only’ in the country overall could be gauged by the fact that before the next general election of 1956, the  major political  parties, including UNP had all announced support for Sinhala Only . UNP changed its position at its annual conference in Feb 1956.

The General election of 1956 was a watershed in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The ruling UNP lost to the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) in a resounding defeat. The MEP got 51 of the 95 seats with however only 40% of the votes. The victorious MEP consisted of the SLFP as it major component, with the original MEP, Bhasha Peramuna, VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardene.  I.D.S.Weerawardene, political scientist, remarked that the electorate displayed a surprising maturity. The voter turnout was 69%, considered good for that time and the electorate voted for the party and not for individuals.

The Sinhala only campaign brought together a formidable array of forces, Sinhala school teachers, ayurvedic physicians, Sinhalese writers and the sangha. There was the Bhasha Peramuna and Eksath Bhikku Peramuna. Eksath Bhikku Peramuna was led by the dynamic Buddhist monks, Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, Ven. Walpole Rahula, Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa, Ven. Henpitigedera Gnanasiha of Ratnapura and Buddharakkitha of Kelaniya They presented an action programme to Bandaranaike, shortly before the election.

When the MEP won the election in 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike had to take note of the wishes of the Sinhala Only group since they had helped him win. The ‘language zealots’ helped SWRD greatly in his elections campaigns, said K.M. de Silva.  Their aggressive regional support base as well as committed supporters whose contributions to his victory was perhaps greater than that made by this party’s local units,. So they expected the change to be made as speedily as possible.

Bandaranaike had promised a new language policy and he had to do it swiftly when he came to power in 1956. A draft bill was ready before the end of April 1956. This bill gave a place to both Sinhala and Tamil. It was a ‘balancing act combing a strong commitment to Sinhala as sole national language with protection for the national language of the minorities, said K.M. de Silva. This met with strong opposition from- the Sinhala only group. The purists wanted no concessions to Tamil. This draft Bill was never published. It was abruptly withdrawn from Parliament.

A sub-committee, known as the ‘Sinhala Only committee’, was appointed to draft new legislation. The committee included SWRD, Philip Gunawardene, W. Dahanayake, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle and K.M.P. Rajaratne.  The committee included one Burgher, R.S.V Poulier.   Muslims and Tamils were pointedly left out. SWRD said they were left out as they were against the Sinhala Only policy.

While this committee was drafting the second bill, L.H. Mettananda was busy drafting a bill of his own. It now appears that Mettananda, better known for his role in supporting Buddhism, was also the leading figure in the Sinhala Only movement. Mettananda had helped to form the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna   and was the General Secretary of Lanka Jatika Bala Mandalaya. He was quite ready to do the draft by himself.

Mettananda complete his draft and presented it to the Sinhala Only Committee. He also released it to the press and gave a press interview. The draft was published in Daily News of 16.May 1956 and received considerable publicity. Mettananda’s draft bill, said, in its preamble that since British occupation administration has been in English which barely 5% understand.  This has resulted in much injustice. Ceylon is now a free democracy and Sinhalese is the language of the majority.

Mettananda’s text was brief. It said that   the official language shall be Sinhala as from the date of the passing of the Act. In all legislative enactments now in force the word Sinhalese shall replace the word English. In the administration of the island, English can continue to be used for three years, where necessary, but this must cease at the end of the three years.

Mettananda also gave a statement to the Daily News .He told Daily News that conferring a legal right to Tamil speaking minority to communicate with the government in Tamil violates the pledge given by Prime Minister to Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna to immediately pass a law making Sinhala the official language of Ceylon.  There was an agreement between Bandaranaike and the  Eksath Bhikku Peramuna. which was an ‘unambiguous commitment to Sinhala Only with no reference to concession to minorities. If Tamils are given the legal right to communicate with the government in Tamil language, this will lead to Sinhala-Tamil parity.

The Tamil minority cannot claim as a fundamental right the right to communicate with the government   in their own language, continued Mettananda.   This has no place in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN. There is absolutely no instance in the world, of a language majority ever according official status in the business of government to a minority language. Where more than one language has been accorded official status as in Switzerland and Canada that was due to the coming together of independent units. It has never been done as a prelude to the encouragement of separation by the establishment of different states out of what had hitherto been a united whole,   said Mettananda.

One may however concede that in a Tamil speaking district a Ceylon Tamil may write to a local body in Tamil and receive a reply in Tamils but if the correspondence by   Ceylon Tamils with the government throughout the country turned out to be in Tamil that will certain pave the way to parity between minority and majority language. Parity simply means that 68 lakhs of Sinhalese must learn the language of six lakhs   of Ceylon Tamils if the Sinhala are to get jobs in Ceylon.  Parity means the rule of the majority by the minority for the greater glory of the minority, concluded Mettananda.

K.M. de Silva said that Mettananda’s draft had great influence on the legislation that eventually emerged. The final bill was a triumph for Mettananda, de Silva said, because the MEP Bill followed Mettananda’s draft in style, spirit and content.

Mettananda would have been in his late fifties at the time, said an analyst. He would therefore have been well aware of the attitude taken by Tamil politicians from the 1930s.  Their utterances in State Council and their clear intention of containing the Sinhala majority in as many ways as possible. Not only he, but virtually everybody interested in this issue in the 1950s were aware of this. The general view among the Sinhalese at the time was ‘The Tamils want Trincomalee, the language issue is just an excuse’ the analyst concluded.

This Sinhala Only Committee proceeded with its work expeditiously.  It needed to guarantee the position of Sinhala and yet protect the interests of the minorities regarding language. There was a meeting of the Opposition and Prime Minister on the matter. The Federal Party and Tamil Congress did not go. FP refused to join and the TC member was not in town. They found SWRD, flanked by Mettananda, Buddharakkita and Baddegama Wimalawanse, a prominent member of SLFP and ‘one of the hardest of the hard liners on Sinhala Only’. The interview was a fiasco,   said K.M. de Silva.

This second draft of the MEP government was published in Ceylon Daily News of 17.5.1956.  It said that Sinhala would be the ‘one official language’. However,   English and Tamil could be used where necessary until Jan 1 1960.  Further, Public officers who had studied in Tamil or English would only need minimal proficiency in Sinhala, since they had not studied in Sinhala.  They could sit any exam in their own medium of study. This concession should last only till July 1 1967.

There were several controversial clauses. These clauses said that persons could communicate with public officials in Tamil and English, that local government could use Tamil and English in transaction of their business if two thirds of the body agreed to this and that Tamil and English could be used in general administration of the country till 1 January 1960.

The Sinhala Only lobby vehemently objected to these clauses. They saw it as a dilution of the Sinhala Only progamme. They viewed it as a great betrayal and ‘reacted with    a    deep hostility that frightened the government’. Pressure was applied through a formidable combination of sangha activists and Sinhala Only ideologues, acting in unison, said de Silva.  Due to the heavy opposition, these clauses were eventually withdrawn.

Before that, F.R. Jayasuriya, a lecturer in Economics in the University of Ceylon, went on a death fast in Parliament against the bill. K.M.P. Rajaratne and L.H. Mettananda supported him. Their objection was to the clause which said that local government could use Tamil if two thirds of the body    supported such a request.

I was a school girl at the time, and remember this incident well.  F.R. Jayasuriya’s action received much publicity. It was treated as unnecessary theatricals and laughed at by the Anti-Sinhala Only lobby. Analyzed today, FR’s action shows that there has been a grave doubt as to whether Sinhala Only would go through or not.  There has been a strong Anti-Sinhala Only” lobby operating at the time, making theatricals necessary.

FR Jayasuriya was persuaded to call off the fast, if they let him address the government parliamentary party.  This was the first and to date the last time, that a private citizen had addressed this group, observed K.M. de Silva in 1993.  There was considerable opposition to this, so FR addressed only the parliamentarians of the MEP. The text of his speech was published in newspapers. Whether it was due to him or not, the relevant clauses were withdrawn, said de Silva.

The government then presented its third and final effort. This third draft bill received considerable publicity. Arguments went to and fro with the Sinhala hardliners on one side refusing to give any place at all to Tamil, and a more conciliatory group on the other side who tried to point out that some recognition of Tamil was advisable as it was not inconsistent with the MEP programme, said K.M. de Silva. Except for two speeches, the rest were in Sinhala. Daily News commented on the high quality of the speeches, saying ‘the lucid and chaste dignity of the speeches’ showed that Sinhala was an adequate and graceful means of debate.

The Parliamentary debate commenced against a background of protests by Tamil groups led by the Federal Party (FP) and the Tamil Congress (TC).  Just after the FP had outlined its protest progamme in the press  Mettananda announced a counter protest. the Tamil parliamentarian began a fast on Galle Face Green, as part of a Satyagraha campaign. Tamil politicians engaging in a peaceful protest in Galle Face green, in Colombo were assaulted.    The government did little or nothing to protect them from mobs. It is said that Prime Minister had ordered police not to intervene. No one was killed, recorded K.M. de Silva.

FP had also organized a hartal in many parts of the North and East.   The riots that erupted on that occasion spread to many parts of the country. K.M. de Silva said ‘this brought to an end a decade of peaceful communal relations after independence and forty years of communal peace after 1915.”

After a marathon debate and heated discussion,  the ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill was passed by 66 votes to 29, with the UNP voting for it.  At the debate SWRD was on the defensive, said K.M. de Silva.   The Official Language Act No 33 of 1956 consisted of just one sentence.  It said ‘the Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon’. The text avoided any mention of Tamil. Instead it said that all official use of   ‘languages hitherto used’, must end on 31.December 1960.

The main purpose of the Act was to establish the principle of one national language not two, observed K.M. de Silva. This done, the implementation could be on a step by step basis. Its implementation was to be stretched out over five years till December 1960.  de Silva also commented on the ‘stark brevity’ of the Sinhala Only Act.  He said this showed a failure to    come to grips with the complex issues involved in introducing this change.

Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike did not convert the Act to a constitutional amendment. Unlike other legal enactments which have subsidiary legislation in the form of regulations, no regulations were framed to give effect to the provisions of the Act, said Olcott Gunasekera, a CCS officer who served as head of the apex body in charge of implementing the Act . ‘Implementation was based on policy statements and cabinet directions. This enabled greater maneuverability and flexibility in the implementation of the language policy,

‘There was nothing in the law except that Sinhala was declared the official language, said S.G Samarasinghe, another CCS officer who also had headed the project . ‘Implementation of the language policy was made solely on administrative orders emanating from Cabinet decisions.     So in terms of policy there was a great deal of ambiguity and flexibility’ . K.M. de Silva observed that Cabinet decisions and Treasury circulars had been used to implement Sinhala Only in the public life.  These modifications survived through the 1960s.

Once ‘Sinhala Only’ was achieved through the Official Language Act in 1956, the Sinhala lobby was satisfied. They lost interest thereafter. Sinhala was now well and truly entrenched in the political and cultural life of the country. There was no insistence that all citizens must know Sinhala. Tamil and English were not suppressed but were allowed to run parallel with Sinhala in most matter such as commerce, administration and education. (continued)

2 Responses to “THE TAMIL LANGUAGE IN SRI LANKA Part 4a”

  1. Christie Says:

    I don’t know what all this is.

    Tamil is the same whether it is spoken by the Tamils in India; more than 70 million or Tamils in Indian colonies like ours, Singapore, Malaya, South Africa or other Indian Colonies.

    I do not understand what the writer is trying to do.

  2. Ratanapala Says:

    Anyone devoting a few minutes can understand what the writer says. She is only narrating the history behind the Language issue in Sri Lanka.

    If Christie knows a better history than this please write it in these columns than just writing one-liners, repeating them and occupying valuable space of the forum with nothing other than simple vituperative against Indian parasites.

    Indian parasite phenomenon in Sri Lanka well understood over the millennia but have had to contend with due to the asymmetrical influence India has over Sri Lanka due to her geographical proximity and political power, now much enhanced after Indian Independence.

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