The Official Languages Commission – Let it be a meaningful exercise.

| by Neil Dias

(November 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Language functions as a primary and powerful means of creating and establishing personal and group identities. Individuals and groups are identified by the language they are born into and the language they thus speak. This identity is attached to individuals and begins to function from the time of birth and till death. No one can adopt a language though few can master it. Hence a strong attachment and identification with language begins at birth and is carried through one’s lifetime. People who speak one language are grouped and identified together. They come to be identified as one social and political unit. People who differ on other issues find attachment on the issue of language. Language in our country has been at the centre of political conflict between opposing groups since self rule was introduced. Hence the political importance of language rights. Language right is a basic and a Human Right. It affects people’s lives and emotions as much as religion does. Its political significance and unlimited potential for exploitation are familiar to every politician. Religion and language constitute the main and ready issues which politicians exploit.
Limitations of the judicial process are well known. Relief from the judicial arm of government especially in regard to violations of fundamental rights and language rights has still to be sought in Colombo. This has proved to be an expensive, slow and an exacting process for victims spread out into the far corners of the country.
There are some countries that do not recognize the language rights of lesser numbered groups. There are others who recognize such rights due to the political advantages of doing so. This is open discrimination. This was the situation in Sri Lanka under colonial rule under the Portuguese, Dutch and the English where neither Sinhalese nor Tamil gained recognition. Language rights came to the fore after representative government was introduced in our country and has been exploited vigorously by both the Sinhalese and Tamil politicians as a ready made political weapon since then. The practice continues. The time has come to put an end to it. This should be one of the primary tasks of the Languages Commission.
Mr. G.K.Perera Member for Matara in the State Council had given notice of a motion in July 1932 moving that Sinhala and Tamil be made official languages. In June 1943 Mr. J. R. Jayawardene proposed that the country should adopt a single language policy. Mr. S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike who later vigorously and robustly championed the cause of the Sinhala language abstained from voting on this motion. Both Dr. N.M.Perera and Dr. Colvin R de Silva right through their political careers fought for the establishment of both languages as official languages. They actively refrained from using language as a weapon in politics and paid the price for it with their political careers. They predicted that failure to adopt a single and fair language policy will some day result in the establishment of “two torn and bleeding states.” This prediction still remains true in spite of the end of terrorism and constitutional and legal provisions that have been enacted in this regard. Legal provisions are different from the realities of everyday life. Hence the failure to solve many issues confronting the people through legal and constitutional provisions. What are required are attitudinal changes which the people have demonstrated that they are ready now.
It is perhaps in recognition of these realities and the complexities with regard to the languages question that the Official Languages Commission was set up in 1991. The Act (No. 18 of 1991) setting up the Commission may be examined under the heads of (a) its functions (b) its effectiveness as a complaint handler or Ombudsman and dispute resolution mechanism. (c) a prevention mechanism and (d) an agent of change.
The functions of the Commission as laid down in its legislative objectives are wide enough and include the recommendation of principles of policy relating to the use of the two official languages which under the Thirteenth Amendment are Sinhala and Tamil. The time has come for the Commission to boldly examine and recommend measures that will effectively put an end to language being used as a ready plaything by politicians and religious leaders on both sides of the divide. This will if successful, indeed be a historic achievement for the Commission. The Commission is mandated to monitor and supervise the compliance with the provisions contained in Chapter 1V of the constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. The Commission is not empowered to deal with the link language. It is also empowered to ensure the use and promote the appreciation of the two languages, acceptance, maintenance and continuance of their status, equality and right of use in accordance with Chapter 1V of the constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. The Commission has to conduct investigations both on its own initiative and in response to any complaints received and to recommend remedial action. Complaints regarding language use or non use arise from maladministration, abuse of authority and official and judicial insensitivity. The inadequacy of effective judicial and administrative responses to complaints arising from day to day operations of government and private sector activity cannot be seriously disputed.
Limitations of the judicial process are well known. Relief from the judicial arm of government especially in regard to violations of fundamental rights and language rights has still to be sought in Colombo. This has proved to be an expensive, slow and an exacting process for victims spread out into the far corners of the country. In addition to costs legal procedures are full of rules and door closing devises. This has tended to block access to justice and create a caste system within the legal profession itself. This has had an adverse effect on the rights of people.
The Commission on the other hand stands as an effective mechanism which can deal with these problems of maladministration, abuse of authority and official and judicial insensitivity. The powers given to the Commission allow it to address these problems that the executive, legislature and the judicial arm of government cannot effectively resolve. The Commission cannot act as an agency to any force or body. It must be prepared to face any force that may oppose its work. It has to be a channel of communication, a sympathetic complaint handler and dispute- resolver which will work for change and prevention of future violations or unfairness. It has to work towards humanizing the administration, to support fairness, accountability and spread equity. It should take, as the Indian Supreme Court did under the influence of Upendra Baxi and Justice Bhagawathie, the suffering of people very seriously. Towards this end people should be able to approach the Commission in confidence. It should be within their reach. More than the empowerment under the law the effectiveness of the Commission will depend on its powers of persuasion and its credibility which will have to be built up which in turn will lead to individuals and groups to trust it and have confidence in its effectiveness. It should provide a chance for ordinary people, those without power and influence to be heard and to get fair treatment. The Languages Commission offers easy access as it avoids the formalities and procedures followed in administrative and judicial proceedings. Complaints can be made verbally and without any requirements for written submissions or attendance at formal meetings. Its services are not charged for. The informal and non bureaucratic non legal nature of the proceedings before the Commission makes it more personalized and humane compared to the other procedures. These facilities should be provided in places close to peoples’ residence. Hence the urgent need to spread out and decentralize the activities and the influence of the Commission. When the Commission receives complaints and information which may be considered outside its jurisdiction it could refer the grievances and complaints to the appropriate authorities without washing its hands of the problem.
The educative functions of the Commission are laid down under the Act. These should be utilized to educate government and other officials to adopt fair procedures and devices to prevent future violations and correct past ones. The Commission should initiate a campaign to educate the public about the dangers and the futility of using issues connected to the languages as political weapons. The Commission will have to recommend the enactment of legislation and other measures in this regard. This way the Commission can act as an agent of change.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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