Language is a Political Tool

Language of the majority when given legal status – would increase this downward trend and deterioration of intellectual powers. In Democracy, the voting system is the only system that needs to use physical majority. Towards this, one needs to bring the matter to the level at which official voting is permitted. Using physical attributes such as language, religion etc. – separately – scatters our work below the level of votes based on subjects. It is like stating facts as per our memory and then again dividing and stating what we saw separately to what we heard.

l by Gaja Lakshmi Paramasivam

(November 15, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I respond to the article ‘The Official Languages Commission – Let it be a meaningful exercise’ by Neil Dias, published in Sri Lanka Guardian.
The article is focused on the role of the Official Languages Commission which sounds similar in style to the Australia Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It is widely accepted that in Sri Lanka, Language was used as a tool or weapon as the case may be – by the Sinhalese leaders who took over power from the British and later by Tamil leaders who took over power from the Sinhalese. Members of both groups that sought to leave Sri Lanka to live elsewhere – had little difficulty learning English and other Languages. To them, these new languages are tools of living. They went to these countries seeking more secure and/or comfortable life than they had in Sri Lanka. Hence learning another language is not the issue here. It’s about the ‘status’ that comes with knowledge and use of that language. If we speak English and ‘look’ English here in Australia, we are awarded better status than if we spoke Tamil and/or wore Sari. Similarly, if we spoke Sinhalese in Sinhalese areas, Tamils get higher status than if we spoke Tamil. The higher our custodial powers of ‘status certificates’ the easier it is to influence physical outcomes as per our liking. Hence a Tamil learning Sinhalese gets higher level status than a Sinhalese learning Tamil.
Parallel to the war in Sri Lanka, I myself was experiencing discrimination pain here in Australia. Without the weapon power to react at the level of White Australians, I am able to complete the picture at their level – by becoming their opposition. That is the value of Peaceful Assembly. You become a facility through which they ‘show’ their ‘other’ side.
I was first and last arrested at the University of New South Wales, when I sought to assemble peacefully at reception area of the office of the Vice Chancellor – after having exhausted all administrative and legal avenues available at that level. This included complaints to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Anti Discrimination Board – which are parallels of Sri Lanka’s Official Languages Commission. Until I joined the University of New South Wales and felt pain which I described as Racial Discrimination pain, I wore western dress to work, even at places where I felt Racial Discrimination pain. But working at the University of New South Wales – was very different to working at other Australian workplaces. On the one side, I associated freely with Medical Academics and enjoyed high level of independence within the Medical Faculty, where I became their ‘support service’. Most of them were comfortable in being humble that they did not know much about managing finances. But when it came to interacting with Central Administration – the parallel of Colombo Government – it was a different matter. I did not find myself interacting with any Chartered Accountants and yet, most of the Accountants there ‘told’ me what to do rather than becoming a facility from which I could draw. This was also during a time when the Experts had recommended Devolution of Financial Management Powers to the Faculties.
Like with Tamil leaders – the Medical Academics did not know how to use Central Administration as a facility. Like the Colombo Administration, Central University Administration in turn did not have the skills to change over from the vertical system of Historic Cash Accounting, to the lateral system of Democratic Self Management using Accrual Accounting. The parallel of this in Sri Lankan Governance is – from Monolingual policy to Multilingual Policy. Left to the Academics, they would have had a smaller Unit using the same policy – Medical Faculty using Medicine, Engineering Faculty using Engineering language and so on. This would have led to Medicine merging laterally with other Medical Schools – including from other countries; Engineering merging with other Engineering. Without the common dictator that Central Administration/ Parent was considered to be – they would have started competing with each other. The weaker faculties would have been ‘taken-over’ by larger cousins – hence assimilation by migrants who assess themselves to be ‘smaller’ than their richer counterparts. This is the risk with premature move towards democracy. Those who compete would resort to physical attacks as happened in Sri Lanka through rebel armies. In terms of University – it would have led to money rich partners taking over the leadership of that profession/discipline.
Sri Lankan Government’s parallel here is its assimilation with Chinese Government. In terms of civilians – Colombo Sinhalese moved more towards Southern Sinhalese and Colombo Tamils moved more towards Northern Tamils. After the LTTE took over power – Tamils especially of Northern Sri Lanka merged with Tamil Nadu – even though previously Indian Tamils were considered to be of lower status in Sri Lankan Tamil Community. Tamils however did not assimilate. There is a saying in Tamil – Puli pasithalum Pullai thinnathu – the Tiger would not eat grass even if it were hungry. I myself merged more with Australian Tamil community – after I was arrested and punished by White authorities prematurely due to my status in their eyes.
To my mind, the highest level I could go up to as a Manager/Professional – was as Management Accountant of the Medical Faculty of the University of NSW. Now I believe, that when we work genuinely, we do get our status at the highest levels available in our environment. This may be as the opposition of management but we still get the status. Tamils as a Community also received this status due to the LTTE claiming to be the Government’s Opposition. By this time, I was not worried about adding status to myself nor was I driven by money. Similarly, those Tamils who sacrificed earned status to merge laterally with other ‘freedom fighters’ integrated and did not assimilate.
When I was arrested the first, second and third times – I was wearing sari. I was making a statement through that sari. On the second occasion, the Police were ‘waiting’ for me before I arrived at the University. I recorded the following ‘facts’ through my legal actions:
1. The religious books in my lap were taken, Officer Lawson took hold of my left arm and Officer Butler of my right arm and they took me out of the UNSW Chancellery building.
2. They took me to a caged paddy wagon parked outside Chancellery Building and removed my belongings from me.
3. They asked me to remove my jewelry
4. They asked me to remove any pins that I might be wearing
5. They asked me whether I had any more pins. I said there was one holding my underskirt but that if I removed it, I risked standing naked in that public area in front of UNSW Chancellery.
6. I lifted my hands up and asked the Police Officer ‘if you want to you remove the pin and take the risk of stripping me’. Then the Officer asked me to get into the van.
7. The Officer asked me ‘Are you making a Statement like Gandhi?’
On the last occasion I was arrested, I was wearing western suit. I was treated like a lady and I was taken to Police Station in a car, instead of the caged wagon. If mere dress could make a difference, then certainly, the language also does.
The officer who arrested me on the last occasion – systematically used Due Processes. He was more committed to using Due Processes than the previous three. To me it was no coincidence. It gave the evidence needed by Police to know about their own officers’ different patterns of behavior. I have observed this difference with Sri Lankan Armed forces too – when they checked me to and from Jaffna and Batticaloa. Those who were more committed to their positions, were respectful. One senior officer actually stood up when I went to meet him at Omanthai. That officer spoke Tamil at the level I spoke Sinhalese.
Like with everything physical, when we produce more than our requirements – we hoard. Those with higher powers – tend to demote themselves by showing this and using majority power which reduces their intellectual powers. Minorities feel frustrated and depressed unless they are able to spread laterally – as I did. Tamils who moved laterally and assimilated – are the parallels of the Sinhalese leaders in Government who also promoted assimilation rather than vertical growth and integration with Equals.
Language of the majority when given legal status – would increase this downward trend and deterioration of intellectual powers. In Democracy, the voting system is the only system that needs to use physical majority. Towards this, one needs to bring the matter to the level at which official voting is permitted. Using physical attributes such as language, religion etc. – separately – scatters our work below the level of votes based on subjects. It is like stating facts as per our memory and then again dividing and stating what we saw separately to what we heard. Similarly, using Administrative processes and then one’s own personal thinking to say the same thing – as did the officers who called me Sri Lankan despite knowing that I was legally Australian. The judges did not see anything wrong with this description. It is the parallel of me being listed as Tamil instead of Sri Lankan by Sri Lankan officials. Often we feel anxious of this happening.
As in Australia, there are all categories in Sri Lanka also – the assimilators, the integrators, the idlers and the bullies. As Gandhi said – there is room for us all. Integrators are the highest group and there is net positive value from them. Those who use physical connections – including race and language – need to limit their productions/actions to complete the picture – at the level of production by largest minority in that environment. In the case of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese language needs to be used officially only to match the use of Tamil language in an environment. That would allocate equal status to them in that environment and hence keep them in balance. Anything more would continue to go towards conflict and war.
When I use Sri Lankan Airlines flights to and from Colombo – the announcement is first in Sinhalese. When we are switching from the vertical system to the lateral system, it helps to use Affirmative Action through which a slight advantage is given to the minority, in an environment where they would assess themselves to be Equals in common environments.. As per the system of Democracy, the announcements on Sri Lankan Airlines’ International flights would have been first in Tamil and then in Sinhalese. This would be a good model project for the Official Languages Commission.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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