Posted on February 11th, 2019


Revised 13.3.19

The LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) took a firm stand against Sinhala Only the year before the MEP victory of 1956. LSSP officially declared that the LSSP stood for the administration of the country in Sinhala and Tamil. People must be governed in a language they understand.” They made this declaration in 1955, even before the MEP government of 1956 came to power.

The Marxist Parliamentarians, N.M. Perera, Leslie Gunawardene, Colvin R de Silva and Bernard Soysa spoke at great length in Parliament against Sinhala Only. Here is a selection of their comments, taken from their 1955 and 1956 speeches in Parliament.

The Sinhala Only Bill had the danger of dividing the country, said Leslie Gunawardene.  We must remember that Sinhala and Tamil are languages of different and separate parts of our country, so separatist tendencies could arise.    The North and East are inhabited by the Tamils and they could break away, in fact that is already been advocated. Also think of the plantation workers.

If this Bill is adopted what does the government expect the minorities to do, asked Bernard Soysa .They feel that a wrong is done. They must have the right to protest against this bill. If a minority feels deeply that injustice and a great injury has been done it is likely to embark upon forms of resistance and protests and there may be communal riots. You have now created a demand among the Tamil people for recognition as a nation; you have united them together by this bill. And this demand can have the deadliest consequence in the future.

If the minorities are willing to accept Sinhala as the one official language then there is no problem, said NM  Perera. We are however imposing that language against the will of the minority that is morally incorrect. We cannot impose a language of the majority on the minority community,

Colvin R de Silva said that with one language we would end up with two countries, with two language one country. What is cheaper, he asked,    to administer the country in one language in the face of resistance of a group, 23 lakhs strong or rule in two languages? The   Tamil community, one of the two major communities will insist upon its language, the Tamil language, being also a state language like Sinhala.

We are living in period in which a Ceylonese nation is being born, said N.M. Perera. The ‘state language’ question is not simply a language question but a question which involved the building of a Ceylonese nation and specifically the fusion of the Sinhala and Tamil speaking section into the Ceylonese nation that is coming into being.   If we are to build up a united strong and integrated nation, we have to build up unity in diversity . The only way the Sinhalese can go forward is together with the other permanent inhabitants of various races, as Ceylonese.

Sinhala as state language stands, not for a Ceylonese nation but for a Sinhalese nation. The formation of a Sinhala state is a chimera. The very concept today is reactionary, said Leslie Gunawardene. There is an unwillingness to recognize the official status of both languages. They want to have only Sinhalese. They feel that they can ram Sinhala down the throats of   the minorities, said NM.

N.M Perera moved in Parliament that there must be parity of status for Tamil throughout the island. There is no solution to a multilingual country except parity to the major languages. Parity means equal status for both in administration, judicial and legislative purposes. This does not mean the Tamil language will be imposed on the Sinhala and vice versa.  Sinhala areas will work in Sinhala and Tamil areas in Tamil. But a Sinhala in Tamil speaking area and Tamil in Sinhala speaking area will however have his business in his own language.

All must get their government business done in their language. A Tamil should get reply in Tamil and Sinhala in Sinhala. When a Tamil writes a letter in Tamil to a kachcheri or government department. he must get the reply in Tamil. That is a right. What confidence can the people of Jaffna and the Tamil speaking people of the East and elsewhere have in this matter when the Sinhala ministers are not prepared to state that they are in favor of both Sinhala and Tamil as official language, continued N.M.

I do not deny that the use of two languages will create complications. Certain departments even in Sinhala areas will have to employ two clerks who know Tamil to translate. A translator will have to be employed in practically every department. Minutes may be put up in Tamil by Tamil clerks or by a Tamil officer and these will have to be translated for a Sinhala head of department, he said.

If Sinhala and Tamil become official languages, more Tamils will learn Sinhala than Sinhalese learning Tamils.  Sinhala is the language of the majority. They will find it useful for employment.  So the Sinhala language will not disappear, said   Leslie Goonewardene.

Alarmed by the emerging cry of Sinhala Only the Tamil politicians had in 1955, drafted a Bill of Human Rights and presented it to Parliament. This was turned down by the government. There was no reference to Tamil, but citizens of Ceylon were to have the right to use their own language in transacting business, in law courts, in administration, and in any personal sphere such as speaking or writing,. The Bill of Rights also said, ~where there is sufficient number of nationals belonging to a linguistic minority, the state must provide education in their own language. Minorities were to be given state funds for education and religious purposes. (Weerawardana. p 29, 255-256)

The Tamil MPs were  vehemently against the Sinhala Only bill. The Tamil MPs first argued that  the 1944  agreement on  parity of status for Tamil language   was part of the   transfer of  power agreement between Britain and Ceylon,  By abandoning this part of the pre independence political settlement, It was  repudiating the independence  agreement, said G.G.Ponnambalam.

G.G.  Ponnambalam also stated that the Sinhala Only bill would be a denial of fundamental rights, denial of equality of status, denial of the identity, individuality and freedom of language and culture of the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon. It is legislation which will deny the right of the Tamils to achieve by constitutional means its cultural, linguistic economic and political independence. Ponnambalam also admitted that he feared the disappearance of the Tamil segment through assimilation. One decade of Sinhala will convert the Tamils into Sinhalese, he said.

  1. Suntheralingam demanded an ‘autonomous Tamil Illankai”, federal or independent, as determined by a plebiscite. He spoke of carving out an area sacrosanct to the Tamils, where there would be no Sinhalese infiltration and where Tamil would be permitted to be the language of administration. He also mooted the idea of a United Front of Tamils. Its objectives were to maintain the identity of Tamils, preserve their culture and ‘keep inviolate their traditional homelands’. Suntheralingam then called for a Tamil Resistance Movement. No Tamil at any time will agree to the Tamil language being slighted, he said, but added, ‘we are not worried about the Tamil language but about jobs for Tamils in this country. We will not have Tamils as slaves of Ceylon.’
  2. Nadesan wrote a series of articles to Ceylon Daily News in 1955. He said that Tamil, Muslims and Burghers were national minorities. National minorities needed to be treated in a special way. The usual principle of majority cannot be applied. The majority race should not act oppressively .Ceylon was not inhabited by one people speaking one language.

Nadesan advocated bilingualism, if that failed, then federalism. He also spoke of regional autonomy and constitutional safeguards for minorities. Nadesan described ‘parity status’ as  inter alia, 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.

Historian KM de Silva  commented on this ‘parity of status’. He observed, in 1996, that the call for parity of status for Tamil was not to ensure full equality before the law for Tamils, equality of opportunity for Tamils, and equality of status for the two languages throughout the land.   The Tamil politicians saw it only as a means to a federal state like Canada, also Switzerland.  he observed that  Nadesan in arguing for parity had made the link between bilingualism and federal or quasi federal structures. The model was the larger federal states of the world, also Switzerland and Belgium, but mostly Swiss, said de Silva.

The accusation bandied about today, that the Tamil cry of secession rose due to Sinhala Only,   is incorrect. At the  Independence celebrations in 1948, M Thiruchelvam, father of Neelan, was seen cruising in a car carrying the Nandi flag. Chelvanayagam’s political party, Illankai  Thamil Arasu kadchi was started  in the year after Independence, in 1949. The name means ‘Lanka Tamil State Party.’

Sinhala Only greatly helped to further these Tamil  secessionist  plans. V. Kumaraswamy, Minister for Transport and Works said that if Sinhala Only is imposed Tamils will have to secede.  In 1955, Chelvanayagam had declared that his Federal Party (ITAK) stood for an autonomous Tamil state, federated in a federal Ceylon. In August 1956, at its convention in Trincomalee  ITAK set out a list of demand on behalf of the Tamils. The first was autonomy for north and east under federal constitution, the second, parity of  status for Sinhala and Tamil.  If the demands were not met, ITAK threatened that   there would be satyagraha or organized peaceful resistance to the government.

The vigour with which the Tamils fought back on the language issue and the zeal they demonstrated on it are often seen as a rearguard struggle of a privileged minority at bay, said KM de Silva.  ITAK had called on the Tamil public servants not to study or work in Sinhala. When the Official Language Act  came into effect, the Tamil clerical servants, who  constituted a substantial number in  the GCSU,  formed a Tamil trade union Arasang Eluth Vinayar Sangam”. it’s President, S Kodiswaran sued the government saying that his increment her been stopped because he did not appear for the language proficiency test.

In Aug 1958, the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No 28 of 1958, popularly known as the ‘Reasonable use of Tamil’ Act was passed.  This was drafted by M Tiruchelvam. There were massive demonstrations led by the SLFP and its left wing allies. LSSP and CP against the Bill. The Opposition unleashed a sustained barrage of propaganda against the Bill saying these regulations violated the spirit and principle of the Sinhala Only Act. Parliament approval was secured in the face of much opposition. This Act was debated in Parliament and approved in unusual circumstances, observed K.M. de Silva.  The Federal Party MPs and the leaders of the extremist Sinhala groups were placed under house arrest.

This Act provided for the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction, as a medium of examination for admission to the Public Service, for use in state correspondence and for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Official correspondence with the public such as  Birth and Death Certificates, must be issued in the language of the local people, if they were  Tamil.

The Act included the right of Tamils to use their language in corresponding with government and in local government. To educate children in Tamil,  and sit the competitive exam for entry into the government and local government service in Tamil with the proviso that they must gain competence in Sinhala to continue in service and promotion.

The regulations relating to the Act were ready but were not presented to Parliament due to the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. Sirimavo was not interested and the regulations were eventually introduced and piloted through Parliament by the UNP government in January 1966.

When Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960, she ignored the Tamil Special Provisions Act and insisted on only recognizing the Official Language Act of 1956. Sinhala was made the sole language of administration  throughout the island from 1 January 1961. As a result, there was civil disobedience In the North and East, in March- April 1961 with state of emergency declared.

Neville Jayaweera was   appointed Government Agent Jaffna, during this time. Neville Jayaweera recalled, ‘In 1963 as I traveled to take up the post of GA Jaffna, the lush thick vegetation of the south had given way to low parched and scattered scrub. Rolling sand dunes, sporting spindly topless Palmyra palms. Not a single local official was on land to greet us except the Sinhala AGA, Samarawickreme.  There was an organized boycott. The place reeked of suspicion and mistrust.  No one called on us, though it was the convention at the time for official to call on the GA when he came in.  The wall of hostility was palpable and impregnable. V.P. Vittachi, who had been GA before him had not had this problem. That is because word had got around that Jayaweera had been picked by Prime Minister  and Her Permanent Secretary, NQ Dias to do a hatchet job on the Tamils.  Which was pretty close to the truth. But it was not possible to implement the Sinhala only within the time frame set.”

Jayaweera, who was GA Jaffna from 1963-1966 ‘quietly let the Official language Act lapse throughout the Jaffna district”. Instead he proceeded to implement the reasonable use of Tamil act.  Under Official language Act all government transactions, from 31.10 1963, throughout the country had to be in Sinhala    with certified translations in Tamil. Instead, not  a single birth, death  or marriage certificate, nor an invoice or receipt, nor any letter was issue to anyone in Jaffna district expect in the language of the subject’s choice,”    said Jayaweera. ‘All succeeding GAs did the same.” Jayaweera is definite that  the Official language Act was never enforced in Jaffna. Nor were the proceedings of the higher and lower courts in Jaffna ever conducted in Sinhala. This policy was followed in the whole Northern Province, not just Jaffna district, concluded Jayaweera.

But in the Health service, doctors had to know Sinhala and Tamil. Dr. Philip Veerasingham recalls, in the 1960s the  Sinhala doctors had to face a Tamil exam before  promotion. One doctor who learned his Tamil from the Tamil service of Radio Ceylon, greeted his examiners with ‘Vanakkam aiya, ithu ilankai vannoli varthaka sevai. ‘Greetings, this is the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. He passed.

Another  when asked the  Tamil word for anesthesia replied that he did not know  the word even in Sinhala let alone Tamil. However a Tamil facing the Sinhala examiner has been asked the Sinhala for ‘allergic  rash’, he did not know and was failed.  The word was  ‘kaduwegan’.  Sinhala doctors said they also did not know the word, commented Veerasingham.

Sinhala Only continued to reign supreme as the 1970s decade dawned. The 1972 Constitution, which was Sri Lanka’s first home grown Constitution,  upheld the position of Sinhala. The 1972 Constitution said that the official language shall be Sinhala as provided in Official Language Act 33 of 1956 (sec 7). The  use of Tamil shall be as  provided for in  the Tamil Language ( special Provisions) Act no 28 of 1958.  But any regulations   in force before the present Constitution shall not be a part of the Constitution but shall be treated as subordinate legislation. ( sec 8)

All laws shall be enacted or made in Sinhala ( Sec 9a). there shall  be a Tamil translation of all  such laws ( sec 9b) unless  Parliament decides otherwise, the law published in Sinhala will be the law .( sec 10) .The language of the courts and tribunals, and other such  instructions shall be in Sinhala throughout Sri Lanka , and all records shall be in Sinhala.(sec 11 ) in the case of North and East, where the language used would be Tamil, a Sinhala translation shall be made. (sec 11) The litigant has the right to obtain information in Sinhala or Tamil and have translations or records made in Sinhala or Tamil.


Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958

An Act to make provision for the use of the Tamil language and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. (Date of Assent: September 4, 1958)

Whereas the Sinhala language has been declared by the Official Language Act, No 33 of 1956, to be the one official language of Ceylon: And whereas it is expedient to make provision for the use of the Tamil language without conflicting with the provisions of the aforesaid Act: Be it enacted by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and the House of Representatives of Ceylon in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

This act may be cited as the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

(1) A Tamil pupil in a Government school or an Assisted school shall be entitled to be instructed through the medium of the Tamil language in accordance with such regulations under the Education Ordinance, No. 31 of 1939, relating to the medium of instruction as are in force or may hereafter be brought into force.

(2) When the Sinhala language is made a medium of instruction in the University of Ceylon, the Tamil language shall, in accordance with the provisions of the Ceylon University Ordinance, No. 20 of 1942, and of the Statutes, Acts and Regulations made thereunder, be made a medium of instruction in such University for students who prior to their admission to such University have been educated through the medium of the Tamil Language.

(3) A person educated through the medium of the Tamil Language shall be entitled to be examined through such medium at any examination for the admission of 118 persons to the Public Service, subject to the condition that he shall, according as regulations made under this act on that behalf may require, — (a) have a sufficient knowledge of the official language of Ceylon, or (b) acquire such knowledge within a specified time after admission to the Public Service: Provided that, when the Government is satisfied that there are sufficient facilities for the teaching of the Sinhala language in schools in which the Tamil language is the medium of instruction and that the annulment of clause (b) of the preceding provisions of this section will not cause undue hardship, provision maybe made by regulation, made under this Act that such clause shall cease to be in force. Use of Tamil language for correspondence

(4) Correspondence between persons, other than officials in their official capacity, educated through the medium of the Tamil language and any official in his official capacity or between any local authority in the Northern or Eastern Province and any official in his official capacity may, as prescribed, be in the Tamil language. Use of the Tamil language for prescribed administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

(5) In the Northern and Eastern Provinces the Tamil language may be used for prescribed administrative purposes, in addition to the purposes for which that language may be used in accordance with other provisions of this Act, without prejudice to the use of the official language of Ceylon in respect of those prescribed administrative purposes.

(6) (1) The Minister may make regulations to give effect to the principles and provisions of this Act. (2) No regulation made under sub-section (1) shall have effect until it is approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and notification of such approval is published in the Gazette. This Act to be subject to measures adopted or to be adopted under the proviso to section 2 of Act No. 33 of 1956.

(7) This Act shall have effect subject to such measures as may have been or may be adopted under the proviso to section 2 of the Official Language Act, No. 33, of 1956, during the period ending on the thirty-first day of December 1960. (  continued)

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