Posted on March 14th, 2019


Tamil reached the position of a national language through an artificial route, not a natural one. Sri Lanka has not adopted the Tamil language spontaneously. Tamil became a national language overnight through the efforts of the Tamil Separatist Movement. From the 1940s onwards, the Tamil politicians wanted to get Tamil recognized on par with Sinhala. The strategy of the Tamil Separatist Movement, whether for language or land, was to ‘get it into the statutes’. It took time, but eventually Tamil language entered the statutes as a national language.

Raja Collure, then Chairman, Official Language Commission, said that Neelan Tiruchelvam was the force behind bringing the Tamil language legislation to Parliament. B.  Shanthakumar explained In his critical role in the drafting of constitutional reform proposals particularly during the People’s Alliance government from 1994 onwards and culminating posthumously in the draft Constitution Bill of 2000, Dr. Tiruchelvam was conscious of entrenching parity of status for Tamil.  The role and functions of an Official Languages Commission, inspired by its Canadian equivalent, was first urged by Dr. Tiruchelvam in a joint seminar with the Official Languages Department in 1989.”  (Language rights in Sri Lanka LST 2008)

Once Tamil became a national language, the Tamil lobby   drew attention to Tamil .Tamil is the mother tongue of one in every four Sri Lankans. It is the first language of three ethnic minority communities: Tamils living in or originating from the Northern and Eastern provinces; Tamils who originated from India in the 19th and early 20th century now described as Up-Country Tamils; and Muslims.

While Tamil is predominantly used in the North and East, the majority of Tamil speakers (61%) live in other regions of the island; including in urban centers such as Colombo and Kandy and districts such as Nuwara Eliya and Puttalam where their proportion in the local population is considerably higher than the national average, said Shanthakumar. But the different groups, namely, Northern, Eastern, Up country, Urban Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims all speak Tamil in totally different ways, said Bishop Shantha Francis.

Analysts observed that the UN Human Rights instruments give the minorities a very limited cultural right to language. This right is limited to their right to speak and study in their mother tongue within their ‘respective territory’ which means – reservations. Therefore the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka were in no position to dictate as to what language they were to be governed in. Therefore they fell back on the moral concept of ‘parity’.

Nadesan, in 1955 described ‘parity status’ as equality of status for the two languages throughout the island, specifically in administration and law courts. He advocated a bilingual policy where all transferable public officers should know both languages.  Tamil must be the main language in areas which were geographically Tamil speaking, but that all public officers must be compulsorily bi-lingual so that they can serve in all parts of the Island and administer Tamil in the Tamil language.

The Tamil language lobby became language confident, once Tamil became a state language. ‘The Tamil community has the right to live with dignity peacefully without discrimination and pursue their interests,’ the Tamil language lobby declared. ‘Tamils are in the majority in north and east. They can decide as they wish.’  They are a regional majority too.

Tamil language rights are now firmly entrenched in the constitution and they cannot be taken away easily, said the Tamil lobby, triumphantly. Thanks to the 13th Amendment of 1987 and 16th Amendment in 1988 Sri Lanka now has all the constitutional provision needed to ensure the use of the Tamil language. The government must now enact legislation for the implementation of these provisions.

Language rights of Tamil speaking people must be recognized and respected, the   Tamil lobby declared. What was objectionable was the fact that only one of the native languages was made the official language while relegating the other to an inferior status and denying the minority linguistic community of its language rights, babbled the Tamil lobby. Sinhala speakers are now probably over 75% and Tamil speakers less than 25%, but the law in respect of Tamil has changed.

The Tamil language lobby decided that they now had coercive power, regarding their language.

They became aggressive over their ‘language rights.’ In 1999 Arumugam Thondaman MP for Nuwara Eliya had a fight with the Dickoya Hospital DMO because he, Thondaman had spoken in Tamil and the doctor had not been able to answer in Tamil. The doctor had been threatened. Central Province doctors went on strike.

  1. Vijayasingham complained that when 4 new stamps were issued in October 1998, the invitation was in Sinhala and English and the announcements were in Sinhala only. (Island 24.12.98 p 9). Balasuntheram said that in places like Salu sala, Osu Sala, operating in cosmopolitan areas like Colombo, ‘shopping must be made easier for the less educated, innocent Tamils by staff conversing with them in Tamil”. (Island 7.5.98 P 9)

‘Arul’ complained that the plaque at the statue of Christy Perera in Kotahena is in Sinhala only. it should be in Tamil, English, Malay and Malayalee as well. (Sunday Observer. 20.12.98 p 35). Viewers want films to be subtitled in Tamil as well as Sinhala.  Tamil are demanding that all bus stands, road signs, railway stations, hospitals and even cricket commentaries be in Tamil  reported the media in 2003.

The Tamil lobby ignored these trivialities. They concentrated on the big picture. In 2007 the Foundation for Coexistence launched a movement to demand the full implementation of the official language policy. The Foundation placed large advertisements calling for the official language policy to be practiced and carried out in schools, hospitals, police state and any public institution, ‘Language equality is essential for a peaceful country and a just society’ the Foundation said.

The Tamil lobby carried out surveys and held seminars and published the findings.  The publications included A.  Theva Rajan’s ‘Tamil as official language” (ICES, Colombo 1995) Language rights in Sri Lanka: enforcing Tamil as an official language” (   Law and Society Trust, 2008) and Devanesan Nesiah’s Tamil language rights in Sri Lanka” (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2012) Law and Society Trust stated that it engaged in regular research and advocacy on language in its regular publications, LST Review and the annual State of Human Rights” report.

A.Theva Rajan’s book ‘Tamil as official language” (ICES, Colombo 1995) provides a very compact description of the position as seen by the Tamil community. Theva Rajan’s study was done in response to complaints as to the non-implementation of Tamil as an official language in various spheres. He examines the problem in great detail from 1956 to 1995. He examines the legislation of the period 1956 to 1966 and illustrates that during this time there was a ‘plurality of directives which offered a variety of shelters for those resistant to the official use of Tamil’ (p48)

He argues that the Tamil language provisions in the 1972 and 1978 constitutions were never enforced. . He has done a ten year study of the ‘Ministry of Tamil Language’ from 1978-1988, showing the inaction of the Ministry'(p124). He concludes that the main weakness has been poor implementation of policy.  He lists in the appendixes numerous concrete examples of the lack of support for the use of Tamil.

The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, in association with the Ministry of Justice held a seminar in 1998 on the implementation of the language policy. Here are some of the things they wanted. There should be a group of multilingual clerks and administrators, centrally recruited. There should be sufficient budget allocation for a multilingual public administration. The officers responsible for the non-implementation of the language policy should be identified and charged. The participants wanted greater sensitivity to language issues. They wanted a cadre of language monitors, set up by the Official Language Department, for vigilance.

The Tamil lobby took a ‘Rights approach’. Tamil speakers living anywhere in Sri Lanka have the right, of communicating with any government office or officer in their own language and of receiving communications in that language.

The Tamil speakers are becoming conscious of their rights and have started to demand that the government services are provided in their own language, said Selvakumaran in 2008. They now   complain of a lack of sensitivity towards their language needs.

The public must be made aware of the right of every person to transact business with any government office in any part of the Island in Sinhala, Tamil or English, and of the obligation on the part of the offices and officers concerned to provide such services including replying letters in the language used by the writer and issuing any extract or translation, the Tamil lobby said.

In 2008, a survey showed that 66.5 percent of respondents were unaware of the Official Languages policy and 71.6 percent were unaware of the Official Languages Commission. This is despite government claims to have conducted through the Official Languages Department island-wide public advocacy programmes between 1994 and 2000 to educate public servants and the general public on the language law, using poster campaigns, distribution of handouts and brochures, seminars, workshops, book exhibitions, public meetings and publication of newspaper articles.

Centre for Policy Alternatives, headed by Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu  had, filed over 1000 complaints on language rights with Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and the law courts by 2017. They included language equality in legislation, National Identity Cards (NICs), pharmaceuticals, currency notes, signboards on buses and railway announcements.  We had to lodge complaints even to ensure destination boards on buses are displayed in all three languages,” CPA said.

The CPA had filed a Fundamental rights petition in Supreme Court seeking an order directing health authorities to ensure that all labels on medicines are in Sinhala and Tamil. The lack of this was infringement of petitioner’s language rights as in article 18 of the Constitution.  A fundamental rights petition was also filed saying that over 100 laws and gazettes had still to be translated from English to Sinhala. More than 200 (sic) of them haven’t yet been translated into Tamil, CPA said.

The Tamil language lobby was very watchful and very critical as to the implementation of Tamil.  An enormous gap exists between the constitutional provisions and their application, complained the Tamil lobby. There is a widespread failure to implement Tamil as an official language. Parity of language is still not achieved. Language policy implementation has moved at a snail’s pace. Tamil language rights have been recognized very grudgingly and incrementally, the lobby complained.

There were some positive aspects, certainly. Government servants have to acquire language skill within five years. Tamil was a mandatory second language in schools for Sinhala speakers and public notices were now displayed in all three languages. Some government offices had a ‘Language relief counter’   and in   some departments Heads of Department were designated as Chief Language Implementation Officers and their Deputies as Language Implementation Officers. Despite all this, there is very little benefit to Tamil speakers declared the Tamil lobby.

While Tamil is predominantly used in the North and East, the majority of Tamil speakers live in other regions of the island, including urban centers such as Colombo and Kandy. However, outside of the Northern and Eastern provinces (and imperfectly even there), Tamil speakers continue to be discriminated against  when they go to government departments, police stations, courts, public transport and health service. This is due to non-compliance with the official languages law. This is denial of equality said the Tamil lobby.

Even where the administration divisions are officially bilingual, Tamil speakers are no better off than before, there is the same lack of facilities. The Tamil are in the same boat, whether they come from these bilingual areas or mono-lingual Sinhala divisions.  In both, Tamil face the problems of inability to communicate and transact official business in Tamil, the inability to obtain copies or extracts from official records in Tamil and inability to obtain official translations in Tamil of documents issued to them.

There were several reasons for this, said the lobby. Firstly, the absence of political will, hostility or disinterest on the part of the bureaucracy. This has hindered the enforcement of Tamil as an official language.  Secondly there is no compelling reason for Sinhala-speakers to become proficient in a minority language which is of no importance to political, economic and social power. Thirdly, the legal frame work is in place but the human resources are lacking. Therefore enforcing language rights in Sri Lanka is a complex task, admitted the Tamil lobby.

The Tamil lobby had a wide range of demands and remedies. Here is a selection. To start with there should be better awareness of language obligations, on the part of the government officers. All induction courses and some of the training courses should incorporate modules relating to the language policy of the state, creating awareness of relevant provisions of the Constitution.

The language arrangements in government department was not satisfactory. Even officers who had passed Tamil proficiency examinations and drawn incentive allowances appeared to be mostly unable to work in Tamil, particularly in relation to correspondence the lobby complained. Sinhala government servants tend to acquire paper qualifications in Tamil without actually using them. This must be stopped.

Interpreters and translators from Tamil into Sinhala and vice versa were in short supply. Therefore the lobby wanted more Tamils in the government service. There was a gross under- representation of Tamil speakers within government employment outside of the North, they said.

Convert all monolingual and bilingual name and direction boards into trilingual name and direction boards. The cost of doing this will be minimal and it is unlikely that any additional resources will need to be allocated for this exercise, said the Lobby. .  Withdraw all forms in the Department that are not trilingual, destroy them and have the forms printed by the Government Printer in all three languages on the same paper. The Government Printer should be asked to give top priority to this work.

The lobby also wanted greater surveillance. They wanted ‘language auditors’ . The Law and Society Trust,    had a non-governmental Language Rights Monitor to inspect public institutions for their compliance with the official languages policy, receive complaints from members of the public alleging violation of their rights, and to initiate investigations and remedial action with the relevant state authorities.

The Tamil lobby  wanted to punish, it had a punitive streak. Official Language Commission Act must be amended so that legal action could be taken against all violators of language policy, said the lobby. The Commission should report any lethargic attitude in any Ministry or Department to the President and the President must take action, they said.

The Tamil language lobby knows that the position of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka is neither rosy nor secure. Unlike the passions unleashed in the ‘Sinhala Only’ movement, the present rise of Tamil has been received with calmness by the Sinhala public, observed Shanthakumar. Thanks to Sinhala Only, the Sinhala community is now over-represented in public sector employment and the Sinhala language is the lingua franca of administration and politics. That has reduced earlier insecurities, Shanthakumar observed. However, ‘It is difficult to see how decades of Sinhala majoritarianism could be reversed through policy papers, government circulars, even legal reform and constitutional change’, admitted Shanthakumar.

The fortunes of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka are rising and falling simultaneously, with the help of the Tamils themselves. The Sinhala community has accepted the arrival of Tamil very placidly. School children, are learning Tamil readily.  Tamil is a compulsory subject in Sinhala medium schools. Tamil teaching tutories have sprung up in the South. Translators’ Courses have commenced in the private sector.   Tamil classes are conducted in the Open University. In 2008 it was reported that Kelaniya University and Peradeniya University also had Tamil classes.

Some say they do not see why they should learn Tamil when it is not of any real or substantial help to them. But the general attitude is ‘let us learn Tamil’ .The reason is ominous. ‘We must know what the Tamils are saying’.

On the other hand, there is a voluntary abandonment of Tamil by the Tamil public. Selvakumaran observed in 2008 that there is a general reluctance on the part of Tamils and Tamil speaking people to use their own language for communication and transaction of business with government institutions. It is felt that the use of Tamil in communicating with these offices will result in bias against them and would also lead to delays in getting their work done. They are willing to get someone else to write or transact business for them.

The Official Language Commission also stated that Tamil speakers when possible will write official communications in Sinhala, fearing that use of Tamil will delay or deny them a response. This has reduced the pressure on public officers to provide a bilingual service.

In November 2018, a Tamil customer at the NSB branch Kollupitiya,  in my presence, refused the Tamil  form and readily signed the Sinhala document which gave his wife access to his locker, saying ‘all three documents will be the same’

Tamil government officers are also turning away from Tamil. In the Nuwara Eliya District, there are sufficient Tamil officers, but ‘there seems to be some reluctance on the part of these officers to function in Tamil’. Many members of the public who were interviewed expressed the view that there have been many instances where police officers who are Tamil speaking did not want to speak in Tamil, reported Selvakumaran in 2008.  (Continued)

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