Posted on March 10th, 2019


Revised 12.34.19

This essay examines two aspects of the Tamil language issue, language rights” and the support of the Marxist/Leftist political parties for the Tamil language.

The Tamil language lobby argued that the Tamils of Sri Lanka had ‘language rights’. However, the UN  Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities,  (1992) says   that   only minorities in ‘their own territories’ are entitled to enjoy their own culture, the right to use their own language in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination. This convention seems to be referring to minorities kept in enclaves within a   sovereign state. (Articles 1, 2, 4/2)

This Declaration permits minorities to enjoy their own language only within their indigenous territory. The Ceylon Tamils are descendants of landless, probably illiterate, Tamil laborers who   migrated to Jaffna from India, leaving their ‘territory’ behind, but bringing their language with them. The ‘Ceylon Tamil’ does not qualify under this Convention and has no language rights as a ‘minority’ in Sri Lanka.

There are other restrictions also at UN level.  UN human rights instruments permit a state to curtail rights and freedoms in the interest of the ‘general welfare in a democratic society.’ Member states of the UN are expected to ‘refrain from doing anything which will strengthen racial division”.

There are two other relevant instructions. Firstly, member states are expected to provide an education which promotes friendship and understanding among racial groups.   ‘Educational provisions should ensure that the minorities are not prevented from understanding the majority culture and majority language’. There is nothing in the UN declarations about minority languages becoming state languages either. ( Bill of Rights article 4, ECOSOC article 4, Convention against Discrimination in Education, (1960) article 5, International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, (1965) article 2.)

The Tamil lobby   argues however that they have local language rights. Article 12(2) in Chapter III of the 1978 Constitution recognizes the right to language as a fundamental right.

Clause 12/2 said  No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds : Provided that it shall be lawful to require a person to acquire within a reasonable time sufficient knowledge of any language as a qualification for any employment or office in the Public, Judicial or Local Government Service or in the service of any Public Corporation, where such knowledge is reasonably necessary for the discharge of the duties of such employment or office : Provided further that it shall be lawful to require a person to have a sufficient knowledge of any language as a qualification for any such employment or office where no function of that employment or office can be discharged otherwise than with a knowledge of that language”

The Tamil language lobby argued that   Article 22 of the 1978 Constitution which  says the language of administration includes Tamil ,  also provides ‘language rights’ and any person can apply to the Supreme Court if  language rights  under this Article   are violated by administrative or executive action. In 1998 the media reported that The Law and Society Trust had in 1998 appointed Nimalka Fernando as ‘Language Monitor’. She will initiate legal action against the authorities   if language rights are violated.

The Tamil Lobby stated that language rights in Sri Lanka should be   approached from a ‘rights based’ perspective.  A rights based approach is the best course of action for language rights, said N. Selvakumaran.  The rights-based approach means The government should provide its services in the language of the citizens irrespective of the sector in which the services is demanded or the geographical area in which it is required, every citizen should be in a position to obtain services from the government in the language of his or her choice. Similarly he or she should be in a position to go about his or her business in the language of his or her choice concluded Selvakumaran.

A human rights approach concentrates on informing linguistic minorities of their rights and in educating public officers, companies, non-governmental organizations and social associations of their duties, said B. Shanthakumar  A rights approach will identify the institutions accountable, and which need reform. Further a rights based approach will ‘alert us to those who are most vulnerable, whose needs are ignored or suppressed and thereafter direct resources there.

Shanthakumar looked at the language memorandum prepared by the Official Language Commission, in 2005. In order to establish   bilingual administration, at all levels, throughout the country.  This memorandum suffers from a bureaucratic administrative perspective on language policy, he said.  The purpose of this memorandum   is to reform the administrative service so that it will implement the official languages law and provide a better service to the public. It treats Tamil speakers as beneficiaries or users of public services. A rights based approeach would have been better.

In a rights based approach the minoirites beocme rights-holders with claims on state and society. The service provider then has obligations to the rights holder and is directly accountable, culpable and responsible’.  Using a rights based approach; it will be possible to see who is responsible for delivering language rights and whether they have instead contibuted to rights violations.  If so, then, using the Rights   argument, steps can be taken to remedy the situation.

A distinctive feature of the Tamil language issue in Sri Lanka is the ardent support given to it by the Marxist/ Leftist, parties.  The Marxist parties were loyal supporters of Tamil language rights in Sri Lanka. They spoke up for them in the 1956 debates and continued to support the issue right into the 21 century.

The LSSP officially supported Tamil language rights. The LSSP issued a formal declaration in 1955, where it said that the LSSP wanted parity” for Sinhala and Tamil. The LSSP said people should be governed in a language they understand  and both Sinhala   and Tamil should be state languages.  LSSP wanted     equal use of Sinhala and Tamil in administration.

This does not mean that Tamil will be imposed on the Sinhala speaking areas or vice versa. The Sinhala speaking areas will be administered in Sinhala, but a Sinhalese in a Tamil speaking area and a Tamil in a Sinhala speaking area would however have the right to transact his business with the government in his own language. The LSSP said that its interest in the matter flowed from a very real concern for the speakers of these language and not from any academic interest in these languages.

The LSSP declaration said that the question of an official language is not simply a  language  question but  a  question which involves the building of a Ceylonese nation and the fusion of the Sinhala  and Tamil  speaking sections into the Ceylonese nation ‘that is coming into being’. This can be accomplished only through parity. The LSSP observed that Sinhala and Tamil are the languages of different and separate parts of the country. Therefore separatist tendencies could arise. And divide the country into two separate states.

In the debates about Sinhala Only in Parliament in 1955 and 1956 the Marxist speakers shone. They were the loudest and strongest supporters of Tamil language rights. They were noisier that the Tamil language lobby.

The Marxists firmly believed that a brand new nation made up of Sinhalese and Tamils   had been created in 1948. We are all members of one nation, the Ceylonese nation. We are Sinhalese only after we are Ceylonese, they said. This was a howler. The LSSP did not seem to be aware that the word ‘Ceylon’ came from the word ‘Sinhala’ and   therefore this statement was nonsense.

The Marxists took a rights approach. The LSSP proceeds from the rights of a linguistic group within the nation to determine its future said Colvin R de Silva.  The right of every Tamil in this country to be ruled by his government in his language, the Tami language. Every person in this country whether Sinhala  or Tamil  speaking should feel that he can get his business with government done through the language which he speaks. The Tamil language was   functioning as an   informal state language at the time added Colvin.

NM elaborated on this. We do not feel justified in imposing the language of the majority on the minority community, he said. No minority can be forced to study a language which it does not want to learn, said NM. There would have been no problem if the Tamils agreed to be administered in Sinhala, but they were not. The Tamils were not prepared to be governed in Sinhala and a majority could not compel a minority to accept their language. The Tamils were entitled to be governed in the language they understood, and anything less was a denial of democracy.

What does the government expect the minorities to do? Sit down and accept, asked. NM If you compel the people in the north and east to accept Sinhala Only as the state language and Tamil as a regional language it will lead to so much rioting bloodshed and   civil war. The north and east will break away if the Tamil minority is compelled to swallow Sinhalese, while enforcing Tamil as a regional language.

Having Tamil as a regional language in north and east province will mean having federalism in the country. They will have a separate government, why should they agree to be a portion of Ceylon if they are to be confined to those areas. ] There is validity] in the claim by Chelvanayagam that federalism is the only solution to the present language problem said NM.

Do our people want a single nation or do we want two nations, asked Colvin. Do you want two languages and one nation, or one language and two nations?  [Can we] administer the country in one language in the face of the resistance of a linguistic group 23 lakhs strong.   What is cheaper, to impose a single language on an unwilling section of the people    or offer parity.  Otherwise, two torn little bleeding states may arise from one little state, Colvin warned. There is no solution in a multilingual country except parity.

At one point the Marxists seem  have taken the position that that Sinhalese will be the state language throughout the country, with Tamil as the regional language of the north and east. But eventually, N.M. Perera moved the resolution that Sinhala and Tamil should be state languages with parity of status throughout the island. Parity means that both languages would be treated as official languages, for administration, judicial and legislative purposes the two languages will have equal status.

In parity all that I am concerned is to ensure that when a Tamil where he may be writes a letter in Tamil, as to a local Kachcheri or a government department he should receive a reply in Tamil as of right. A Sinhalese living in Jaffna should b able to get a reply in Sinhalese whether in Jaffna or Batticaloa. He must be able to get his birth certificate or any other official doc if he so wants in Sinhalese. A Tamil should get a reply in Tamil and a Sinhalese in Sinhalese said NM.

NM Perera accepted that there would be difficulties in administering such a scheme. But pointed out that there was a ‘satisfactory scheme’ in the 1946 report of the Committee on national language. A list of the departments   where correspondence should be in both language was given in this report, such as registrar general, police, excise and so on. Even the question on of interpretation is mentioned.

With regard to judicial administration the laws will certainly have to be translated into both languages. All our laws, the Law Reports etc may have to be in both Sinhala and Tamil. A certain amount of duplication will result. But in a predominantly Tamil area you need not conduct proceedings in Sinhalese merely because the litigant happens to be Sinhalese. He must be provided with an interpreter.

I do not deny that use of two language will create complications certain department in purely Sinhala areas will have to employ one or two clerks with a knowledge of Tamil able to translate Tamil docs into Sinhalese. Translators will have to be employed in practically every department. Minutes may be put up in Tamil by Tamil clerks and these minutes when they go up before Sinhala head of department will have to be translated into Sinhalese. These difficulties will be there [but this is] the price we have to pay for the conditions under which we are living, conditions brought about by history. A special committee will have to be appointed to work out the details, said NM.

In the 21 century, the government of Sri Lanka    appointed Marxists sympathetic to the ‘language issue’ to the agencies dealing with the subject. DEW Gunasekera of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka was Minister of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration in 2008. Raja Collure  of the Communist party was Chairman of the Official Language Commission in the same year.

Shanthakumar  said  in 2008  ‘The current Government has made it compulsory for new entrants to the public service to acquire an adequate level of competence in the second official language other than their own. It has increased the material rewards for serving public officers to learn a second official language other than their own. It has also created a new institution for training of language educators. These measures owe not a little to the political convictions and personal commitment of the Minister for Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, [DEW Gunasekera} and the Chairman of the Official Languages Commission.[Raja Collure]’

DEW Gunasekera speaking at a Consultation on Enforcing Tamil as an Official Language organised by the Law & Society Trust in 2008 said he wanted Tamil used in a wide range of services. The fundamental law of the land should recognise the full range of linguistic rights of all Sinhala-speaking, Tamil-speaking and English-speaking citizens of the country irrespective of the geographical area one is situated in and /or the sector from which he or she is seeking the service. Language rights should be stated from the perspective of the rights of citizens who are service receivers, said DEW.

This is what should have been done in 1957 or 1987. We were able to make a dent into the problem only in 2007 he said.   He was referring to Public Administration circular no 7/2007”. He observed that   the implementation of Sinhala as the official language, had also taken time. ‘I went through the past records and found that it took 14 years (1956 – 1970) for Sinhala to be enforced as the official language and that too in four phases’ said DEW.

At this seminar, DEW Gunasekera spelled out the needs in various service departments. Name boards, designation boards, notices and instructions should be displayed in all three languages in all police stations. Similarly all announcements made to the public should be in all three languages.

Police stations must have Tamil speaking officers to conduct investigations, to receive and record complaints, to record statements from people relating to the maintenance of law and order, said the Tamil lobby. This is urgent in areas where linguistic minorities live in a considerable number. All police stations in major cities must have sufficient number of police officers who are capable of functioning in Sinhala and Tamil. Recording of statements must be in the language of the person who is making the statement. If it is to be recorded by the police officer in another language other than the language in which it is made, the original statement must also be maintained in the language in which it was made.

Name boards, designation boards, notices and instructions should also be displayed in all three languages in all hospitals, continued DEW.  Similarly all announcements made to the public should be in the three languages. Forms issued to collect data from the public must be issued in all three languages or at least in Sinhala and Tamil. Doctors must be competent to converse in all three languages and communicate with their patients in the language of the patient. At least they should have adequate knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil to find out from their patients details relating to the illness the patients complain of. Nurses and other support staff in hospitals too should be competent to communicate with their patients in Sinhala and Tamil at least.

Steps should be taken immediately to address the similar issues in other service sector areas such as postal service, pensions, education, and registration of persons, electricity board, water supply and drainage board, state banks etc as well as at the level of district secretary, divisional secretary, grama niladhari, and local authorities.

The notices and instructions displayed in their offices or issued to the public must be in all three languages. Forms and other instruments supplied to the public for their use must also be in all three languages. In all these institutions, a Public Relations Officer who is capable of functioning in all three languages must be available at all times to assist the clients who turn up or call in for help. There should be sufficient number of Sinhala, Tamil and English speaking officers in these institutions so that they could serve all the customers in their own language. This should be so particularly in areas and cities where there is a multi lingual population concluded DEW.  (Continued)

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