Posted on March 5th, 2019


The Tamil lobby has been deeply committed to seeing that the Tamil language was firmly entrenched in Sri Lanka. They have gone into every little aspect of the matter including Tamil typewriters.

The Tamil lobby watched carefully to see whether the provisions for Tamil were followed in the state and public administration. The lobby pointed out that all members of Parliament are entitled to work in his or her own language and get documents in the language of his or her preference. Instead, Tamil MPs were sent documents in Sinhala. Only the Parliament and Colombo Municipal Council has facilities for simultaneous translation of the proceedings, the lobby complained in 2006.

Tamil speaking members of Provincial Councils and Local Authorities outside of the North and East are unable to conduct official business in their own language, complained the Tamil lobby in 2008,  nor are they  offered simultaneous interpretation, with the exception of the Western Provincial Council and Colombo Municipal Council.

They are entitled to receive communications and transact business in Tamil; instead, they are sent communications in Sinhala and to a lesser extent in English. Minutes of meetings and proceedings are not given in all three languages the lobby continued. In the Central Provincial Council where 40% are Tamil MPs, proceedings are in Sinhala. Provincial councils and local authorities continue to publish orders, proclamations, rules, by-laws and regulation as well as circulars and forms solely in the language of administration and without translation into English as required.

The Tamil lobby   was greatly concerned about the provision of services in Tamil in the Police stations and the law courts. In 2003, when the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka., visited Jaffna and held meetings, they were told that the police stations in the peninsula did not record statements and complaints in Tamil. They were maintained only in Sinhala.

Matters had not improved by 2017. Police took   down complaints in Sinhala and asked the Tamil public to sign. They also prosecute in Sinhalese and issue orders in Sinhalese to those in court. They simply assume that it is our duty to know Sinhalese and get angry when we do not understand. We are reduced to behaving like cattle, complained Tamil public.

The court sergeant bellows in Sinhalese, a few understand and follow his orders and the rest of us like cattle follow those who do what the sergeant demanded. Intermediaries have developed who can come in and help, said analysts.  These intermediaries know the procedures involved, have good contacts with the police and can fill the language gap.

There were other complaints. Traffic tickets are issued by policemen speaking only Sinhalese. The ticket is written in Sinhalese. ‘Just to find out the offence and the police station to which the driver needs to go, he or she needs to ask a Sinhalese to read it for him.’ Lastly, Tamil translation of the temporary licence is wrong and misleading. Only the English version speaks of a spot fine.

After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, it is a constitutional requirement that a police officer should acquire proficiency in a language other than in one’s mother tongue to gain the first promotion and should acquire knowledge of the third language for his or her next promotion.  However, this is not followed when promotions are granted to police officers in the country, said the Tamil lobby.

The Police Department in a report to the National Police Commission (NPC) in 2016, said 7,267 officers had completed a Tamil language training course since 2010. The Police Department plans to train a further 1,200 officers in 2017, it said. But this is a very small number, considering that the force consists of some 75,000 officers of lower rank, a majority of whom speak only Sinhala.

Moreover, Tamil speaking officers cannot be continually deployed in majority Tamil-speaking areas. Depending on service requirements, police are transferred every two years. You can’t keep Tamil-speaking officers indefinitely in the North and East. That will be like a punishment transfer,” said the authorities.

Minister Mano Ganesan had asked the OIC of a police station in Colombo, how he would deal with a complainant who knew only Tamil. The OIC had introduced him to a Tamil-speaking Sinhala officer who did that job. The Minister then struck up a conversation with him in Tamil. Within a minute, I found he could speak very little Tamil,” he recounted. The officer had no academic qualifications in Tamil. He had picked up bits from tuition classes. His skills were clearly inadequate for the task. Since the complaint is taken down in Sinhala and the complainant is required to sign it, the chance for error is high. What this underlines is the need for professional interpreters and translators in the State sector, said Ganesan.

In December 2017 attorney-at-law Kugathasan had accompanied a friend to the Jaffna police station to lodge a complaint. It was around 10.40 a.m. and there was a long queue. But even after one hour, the line did not move. When we inquired, we were told there was only one policeman conversant in Tamil and that he had been summoned by a senior police officer for an urgent matter, He returned over one-and-a-half hours later. And their turn came around 1.15 p.m.

The Tamils were also concerned about the non-use of Tamil in the   Law Courts. The Tamils have the right to file cases in Tamil, but Courts in the North and East are in Sinhalese said D Hoole in 2017. There is a scarcity of competent Sinhala to Tamil and Tamil to Sinhala interpreters and translators as well as Sinhala/Tamil to English and English to Sinhala/ Tamil. The translation of documents including court records, where the language of the court differs is subject to enormous delay and difficulty.

The  Official Languages Commission had recommended n 2008  that a fair number” of judges at all levels of the judiciary be conversant in all three languages to reduce their reliance on interpreters and translators. Mano Ganeshan told Parliament  in 2016, A panel of judges who can understand Tamil will be introduced in the future.

The Tamil language lobby was also concerned about   road and public transport information. They looked at all aspects of public travel. Here is a bouquet of observations. Instructions and notices relating to the regulation of road traffic must be displayed in all three languages along with international sign language, said the Tamil Lobby. Some of the traffic instructions are put out in Sinhala only, when internationally recognized traffic signs could also have been used.

All announcements made over the public address system in bus stations and buses should be in all three languages. Announcements in the main Fort Railway Station take place in both Sinhala and Tamil, said the Lobby approvingly,  except in some cases where they are made in Sinhala only when the trains do travel to supposedly non Tamil areas. Conductors of buses must be in a position to converse in at least two languages (Sinhala and Tamil) said the lobby.

All destination boards, travel notices, instructions Etc Island wide should be displayed in all three language, the lobby said in 2008. While street names in Colombo are in all three languages, bus routes are not, the Tamil lobby complained in 1998. By 2008, the main bus stations were, in a majority of instances, displaying destinations in both languages.  Most of the Sri Lanka Transport Board and private buses carry the destination boards in all three languages or at least in two languages, in Colombo by 2008.

However, researchers reported in 2014 that this was not so outside Colombo. Tudor Silva reporting on the language needs and services in selected bilingual administration divisions in Sri Lanka reported in 2014, that though it is mandatory that bus boards must run names in Sinhala, Tamil and English, they did not do so in all the DS areas they surveyed.

The fourth area looked at by the Tamil lobby was the use of Tamil in public administration. There were a series of circulars issued regarding using Tamil in the government sector. Here are some of them.

  • Cabinet Paper No. 08/0681/326/005 was on the need for including Tamil language terms for all government programmes where only Sinhala language terms have been used,
  • Extraordinary Gazette Notification 1620/27 was on the delegation of responsibilities for implementing Official Languages Policy.
  • Public Administration Circular 22/91 said that all formats/templates of public institutions should include information in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. all forms/templates not complying with this provision should be withdrawn
  • Public Administration Circular 36/89 amended Chapter II of the Establishment Code to bring the EC into line with Official Languages Policy of Chapter IV of the Constitution.
  • Public administration department   issued a series of circulars. Public Administration Circular 51/90 dealt with action to be taken by all secretaries of ministries, chief secretaries of provincial councils, department’s heads and chairmen of corporations for the purpose of implementing the Official Languages Policy.   Public Administration Circular 22/91 dealt with the formats/templates of public institutions that should now carry information in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. All forms//templates not complying with parameters of this provision should be withdrawn from usage.
  • Public Administration Circular 15/2009 said that all secretaries of ministries, chief secretaries of provincial councils, departments heads and chairmen of corporations should take necessary action to adhere to provisions stipulated in Chapter IV of the Constitution with regard to the languages as per the advice provided in [earlier circulars]

Once Tamil became a state language the Tamil lobby   took it upon themselves to supervise the implementation of the law. They had a series of complaints to make regarding the use of Tamil in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil language lobby focused first of all, on notices and sign boards. They regularly complained about the lack of trilingual notices in public places. This is something the Tamil lobby was very watchful about. Provincial councils in general and some central government departments have failed to display signage in both official languages and English, complained the lobby in 2008. Local authorities have persistently failed to display street signs in all three languages despite reminders.  Similarly all announcements made to the public should be in all three languages, said the Tamil language lobby.

Name boards, designation boards, notices and instructions in government departments and police stations should be displayed in all three languages.  Notices and sign boards in government and private places should be in Tamil as well, they said. Name boards in   government offices are not in Tamil, complained Nesiah in 2012.   Even simple and low cost measures such as having all name and direction boards and notices in Sinhala and Tamil had not been taken in most offices, he said.  Hospitals did not display its notices in all three languages  observed the lobby in 2008.

The Tamil   language lobby regularly complains that Tamil speakers receive government letters in Sinhala. This is repeated over and over again. ‘Tamils still continue to receive letters from the government in Sinhala much to their inconvenience and humiliation, wept the Tamil lobby.  Tamils could correspond with the government in Tamil but very often the reply came in Sinhala, the Tamils resented this. Tamil undergraduates in the Open University and University of Colombo were expected to fill in forms which are only in Sinhala. Letters are sent in Sinhala to the English Department of the University of Kelaniya.  The letters should have been accompanied by translations in English, said the lobby.

The lobby found that Tamil typewriters were not available or were in short supply in many offices. In some offices there were one or two Tamil typewriters but no Tamil typists. There was also a shortage of Tamil stenographers. The lobby wanted these rectified.

In 2008, the lobby found that there were no Tamil translators at the Magistrates court, Mount Lavinia. The electoral register was not in Tamil.There were no Tamil speaking grama niladharis in Badulla district, and birth certificates were in Sinhala only.

Devanesan Nesiah, who was invited to make recommendations, wanted all public servants instructed to comply with Government policy in regard to the use of the national languages.   Most officers in the outstations do not know of the Public Administration Circulars 3 & 7 of 2007 relating to the use of Tamil language. There were other Public Administration Circulars which were also not heeded, the lobby said.

Nesiah suggested in 2012 that a circular setting out the language policy of the government in relation to the use of Tamil be jointly drafted by the Ministry of Public Administration and the Official Languages Commission, and circulated to all offices and sub-offices. The Circular should detail the obligations of the public servants in relation to dealings with Tamil speaking persons. Public Servants must be given clear directions regarding the Language Rights of the Public

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, headed by Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu was asked by the Ministry of official language to do a survey on the implementation of Official language policy in selected ministries.  49 ministries were studied and the report was issued in 2017. Here are some of the observations.

There were no language plans in place in 47 out of 49 ministries. A well-designed and approved language plan was in place only in one ministry. Some effort to implement language plans was observed in 8 ministries

Front office services in Sinhala and Tamil were available in 36 ministries.   However, only 9 of 43 websites followed Official Languages Policy the physical resources required to implement Official Languages Policy were available in 39 ministries. 38 ministries had the numbers of staff necessary for the proper implementation of Official Languages Policy. 5 ministries categorized staff according to language proficiencies. Language skill development programmes had been conducted in 21 ministries. 34 ministries had the capacity to respond in the same language as the letter as received.

Main name boards of the ministries complied with the Official Languages Policy. Some of the designation boards and other name boards did not. 70% of the 384 section name boards observed were in line with Official Languages Policy. 788 designation name boards were observed, out of which 43% complied with criteria set out by the Official Languages Policy. 223 other name boards were inspected out of which 46% were in line with Official Languages Policy.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives     made several recommendations. The CPA said The Ministry of National Co-Existence, Dialogue and Official Languages should take necessary action to review as to why Official Languages Policy is not properly implemented in ministries and institutions functioning under ministries.

The number of branch offices of the Official Language Commission should be increased. The Official Language Commission should conduct an annual language audit in order to review and assess the progress of implementation of Official Languages Policy at the national level. Language proficiency in writing, reading and speaking should be made compulsory for all new recruitments. The officers responsible for delivering the language policy should inform higher administrative authorities and policy makers about key issues and challenges encountered in implementing the Official Languages Policy. Staff who had language proficiency should be at most relevant service points.

The Official Languages Commission reported, in 2008, that it had  conducted language audits to ascertain the extent of implementation of the language policy. This exercise is not very rewarding, said the Commission. Almost every government office or public institution visited, said that the Ministry of Home Affairs and Public Administration had not provided them with the necessary personnel proficient in the Second Official Language to carry out the official languages policy. And the Ministry has not got the necessary resources either. The necessary number of personnel proficient in Tamil have not been recruited nor trained in sufficient numbers.

The Official Languages Commission   was also empowered to inquire into violations of language rights. Unfortunately the complaints are few,  the Commission said in 2008. The Commission receives only a handful of complaints each year, whether in writing or over the telephone. In 2005 a mere six written complaints were made, while an unspecified number were received by telephone as well as on the basis of media reports.

That does not mean everything is fine. A person whose language rights are violated may be more interested in getting his job done than making complaints said the Commission. Where services in Tamil are not available, Tamil speakers get their letters written in Sinhala by others who know Sinhala, (often paying a fee) and go to offices with persons who could help them with interpretation. (Continued)


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress