Tamil Language Rights in Sri Lanka – Part III

| by Devanesan Nesiah

( March 09, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This part is a reproduction of the sections of the LLRC Report of December 2011 titled the Language Policy, Education and Peace Education. This is a much more recent than the Audit from which part II is extracted. Moreover, it is based on the testimony of individuals who volunteered to appear before the LLRC rather than on surveys of Government institutions and is therefore fundamentally different in several respects. Part II and Part III are both unavoidably constrained by their respective mandates but effectively supplement each other in respect of Tamil language rights.
LANGUAGE POLICY9.238 The Commission heard from many Tamil persons and noted the sense of marginalisation expressed by them due to the language policy and the deficiencies in its implementation followed by successive Governments.
9.239 The Commission during its visits to the affected areas witnessed firsthand, that even today many persons of the minority communities are made to transact business not in the language of their choice.
9.240 Whilst acknowledging the work in progress for recruiting Tamil-speaking Police officers, the Commission notes with regret that recommendations on urgent measures made by the Commission in its interim communication to the President on these matters have yet to be implemented.
9.241 The official bodies for executing the language policies and monitoring performance should have adequate representation of the Tamil speaking people and Tamil speaking regions. The full implementation of the language policy should include action plans broken down to the community level, and appropriately covering the Divisions and Local Bodies with targets that can be monitored with citizen participation.
9.242 The people of the North and East are separated from the people of the South due to communication barriers. Every attempt must be made to create a sense of belonging among all the citizens irrespective of race, religion or social status. It is language that unifies and binds a nation. Therefore, it is essential that policies relating to language are formulated towards this end. It is imperative that the official languages policy is implemented in an effective manner to promote understanding, diversity and national integration.
9.243 The learning of each others’ languages should be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum. This would be a primary tool to ensure attitudinal changes amongst the two communities. Teaching Tamil to Sinhala children and Sinhala to Tamil children will result in greater understanding of each other’s cultures.
9.244 The proper implementation of the language policy and ensuring trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil and English) fluency of future generations becomes vitally important. A tri-lingual education will allow children from very young days to get to understand each other.
9.245 The Commission welcomes the government initiative for a trilingual nation by the year 2020. To this end the necessary budgetary provisions must be made available on a priority basis for teacher training and staffing.
9.246 No district or province should be categorised in terms of language. Officers in Government service should possess language skills to serve in any part of the country.
9.247 It should be made compulsory that all Government offices have Tamil-speaking officers at all times. In the case of Police Stations they should have bi-lingual officers on a 24- hour basis. A complainant should have the right to have his/her statement taken down in the language of their choice.
9.248 The Official Languages Commission is centralised and based in Colombo and not easily accessible to rural citizenry. The Language Commission should be an authority with effective powers of implementation, and also with branches in every province.
9.249 Greater attention should be given to information technology which can be utilised as an instrument to overcome the language barrier. For this purpose, as a temporary measure, software programs can be used for translation from one language to another until long term policies and measures take effect.
9.250 In this regard, the Commission also wishes to invite attention to its Interim
Recommendation to station interpreters at Police Stations using retired police officers with bilingual fluency.
Equal Opportunities
9.251 The removal of the feeling of discrimination is a prerequisite for reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamils in a united Sri Lanka. Much water has flowed since the introduction of standardisation as a means of affirmative action by the state to mitigate the imbalance in educational opportunities afforded to different communities. Therefore, in the best interest of future generations a careful review of this quota system would be timely, with a view to introducing a merit based admission system. The commission recommends that such a review should be undertaken by a committee of experts in education.
9.252 The Government must pursue with renewed vigour a programme of equitable distribution of educational facilities so that it will contribute towards a concerted effort to minimise any feeling of discrimination felt by the minorities. At present the proposed plan to upgrade one thousand secondary schools island wide from 2011, will provide another opportunity to minimise and eventually eliminate imbalances. This policy should be implemented without creating tensions and fissures in society. It is only if these schools are identified on the basis of objective criteria and on an apolitical selection process that this endeavour will prove to be a success. The Commission recommends that the inequality in the availability of educational facilities in different areas of the country should be reduced and eventually eliminated.
9.253 The Commission also recommends that the Government should have a proactive policy to encourage mixed schools serving children from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In this regard the Government should develop a carefully conceived policy facilitating the admission of children from different ethnic and religious groups to these schools. In respect of admissions to schools, disqualifying students on ethnic or religious grounds does not augur well for reconciliation. Any such practice should be discouraged.
9.254 Mutual understanding and appreciation of the rich cultural diversity of different communities should be inculcated in the minds of school children and youth so that the process of reconciliation takes firm root in the social fabric of the country. The Commission therefore recommends that every encouragement be given to create greater interraction among students, through mechanisms such as twinning of schools from the different provinces, student exchange programmes and formation of Reconciliation Clubs in schools. In addition the National Youth Council should adopt more intensive exchange programmes at the youth level.
Peace Education
9.255 An eminent international jurist, giving evidence before the Commission underlined the vital importance of peace education in promoting unity and reconciliation. Comments of the Commission on possible curriculum changes are reflected in the body of the Report.
9.256 In giving effect to a trilingual policy, measures should be taken to ensure, as far as possible, that students of different communities have every opportunity to interact. Interaction in the same class room should be encouraged, as far as practicable. However, for subjects taught in different languages they could be streamed into different class rooms.
9.257 Steps must be taken to ensure public universities have ethnically mixed student populations with a choice of courses offered in all three languages. Until recently, it appears that most Tamil-speaking undergraduates were confined to the North and the East, and the Sinhala – speaking under graduates in the South.
9.258 The Commission is of the view that sports build up inter – personal contacts amongst people of different communities which is essential in the process of reconciliation. With this in view, the Commission recommends that sports tournaments should be conducted at inter-provincial levels and important national sports competitions should be conducted throughout the island, especially, in the North and East.
Tamil Language Rights in Sri Lanka – Epilogue
This concluding section brings together Parts I, II and III with the view to gaining a perspective of language rights in Sri Lanka. What is needed to supplement the LLRC Report on this subject, particularly with the view to reconstructing the Sri Lankan Nation? Are the 13th and 16th Amendments to the Constitution adequate in respect of language rights or are there fundamental legislative changes needed? Are other major policy and institutional changes required? What roles do civil society, including intellectuals and retired public servants have to play? Which of these roles are short term palliatives and how can it be ensured that such interim arrangements do not get indefinitely extended and substitute for fundamental reforms? Do we have the political will to design and implement programmes of reforms needed for nation building?
The LLRC section titled Education focuses on equal opportunity, and is excellent as far as it goes, but needs to go much further. The brief section titled Peace Education also needs to go much further. History and Literature contain much potential to be unifying or divisive. In Sri Lanka, history, including school history texts, have been divisive, especially in relation to Sinhalese – Tamil relations, but also in setting the Sinhalese (“Bhoomiputhras”) apart from the rest – invaders / visitors with foreign roots, essentially beyond the pale, not fully Sri Lankan in all respects. If the Sinhala Literature syllabus in educational institutions could include originals or translations of selected writings by Tamils or Muslims and, in turn, the Tamil Literature syllabus could include originals or translations of selected writings by Sinhalese, it could do much to enhance mutual understanding and appreciation. In fact there is much excellent Literature in Sinhalese and Tamil by Christians and Muslims (perhaps more in Tamil on account of longer contacts). These too could be included in the syllabuses. Sadly, there does not appear to have been ever any conscious attempt at using literature to promote inter-ethnic unity and Sri Lankan Nation building.
Even without any encouragement from the State, the bonds linking different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities in Sri Lanka are very strong, and the divisive factors have been much weaker than in neighbouring countries. Many cultural features are shared, festivals are celebrated, and places of pilgrimage throughout the Island visited and revered by those of all major communities in Sri Lanka. For example, Poya is celebrated, though in different ways, by Buddhist and Hindus. Sinhalese and Tamil New Year is celebrated not only in Buddhist and Hindu but also in Christian and in some Muslim homes, though again in different ways. Adams Peak, Kataragama, Madhu and many other holy places serve the religious needs of Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and Muslims who mingle freely at these shrines. Very many Buddhist places of worship, Peraharas and other celebrations are associated with Hindu deities such as Vishnu and Paththini. Several Christian churches celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New year in modified forms.
Some religious exclusivists may object, but such syncretism (cultural rather than theological) surely contributes to Sri Lankan national unity. We need to note that many Christian festivals (including Christmas, Easter and the Harvest festival) are inseparable from their pre-Christian origins, whether in the timing or in the manner of celebration. How can Christians celebrate such festivals in the traditional way with borrowings from non- Christian sources in Europe and North Africa and object to similar borrowings from Asia?
There are other fields that are even less contentious. Ven. Dharmaratne Thero has published an excellent booklet titled Buddhism in South India, sold at the Buddhist Publication centre outlets. That booklet confirms that Buddhism and Jainism were the two dominant religions of South India, especially among Tamils, around two thousand years ago. This booklet, in three languages, should be made available in all school libraries. Unfortunately such information is not widely known and Buddhism is now sometimes regarded as a religion alien to the Tamils. In fact, Buddhism spread in South India even before it spread in Sri Lanka and many of the earliest Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka and to various countries of South East and East Asia were Tamil monks. The heads of Nalanda University (much older than the major universities in Europe, and which was destroyed several centuries before Oxford and Cambridge were established) were selected from different parts of India; two of the best known heads were from Tamilnadu. Some of the very early settlements in Sri Lanka (e.g. at Pomparippu in Wilpattu) came from Buddhist communities of Tamilnadu around two thousand years ago. Will it not help if such facts are widely known?
Of the two major surviving Tamil epics of around two thousand years ago, one was Silappadikaram (authored by a scholarly Tamil Jain monk) and the other is Manimekalai (authored by a scholarly Tamil Buddhist monk). In fact, the latter epic is a continuation of the former. The heroine of the latter (Manimekalai) was a Buddhist nun and the step daughter of the heroine of the former (Kannahi). Manimekalai is deeply associated with Sri Lanka to which she fled to escape the unwanted attention of a Chola prince. It will surely further Sri Lankan nation building if Sinhala translations of Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, as well as Thirukkural are prescribed in the Sinhala literature syllabuses of education institutions and, in turn, works of distinguished and broadminded Sinhalese writers such as Martin Wickramasinha are prescribed in the Tamil literature syllabuses. Those who prescribe text books may need to reorient their priorities. State policies too need to be reoriented.



Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.