Tamil as a Na­tional Lan­guage

Southasia - - The last stop - By Anees Jil­lani

Tamils com­prise 12 per­cent of Sri Lanka’s 20 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, Mus­lims make up 8 per­cent, and 74 per­cent are Sin­halese. Most of the Mus­lims are also Tamils and speak the Tamil lan­guage.

The his­tor­i­cal ten­sion be­tween the Tamils and the Sin­halese has been brew­ing since Sri Lanka gained in­de­pen­dence from the British in 1948. The Tamils have a his­tor­i­cal claim to parts of the Is­land and are said to be liv­ing there since around 2nd cen­tury BC. They con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity in the North and live in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers in the East.

The strained re­la­tions have re­peat­edly re­sulted in ri­ots since 1956. A strong sense of dis­crim­i­na­tion even­tu­ally led to the civil war from 1983 to 2009 be­tween the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment forces and the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE).

The first ma­jor riot started af­ter the en­act­ment of a Sin­hala-only lan­guage law, which was per­ceived by the Tamils as dis­crim­i­na­tory, fuelling long­stand­ing eth­nic ten­sions be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties. For many Tamils, lan­guage was the tip­ping point in their feel­ing of dis­en­fran­chise­ment, and the spark to eth­nic ri­ots in 1958, which left hun­dreds dead. The Sin­halese jus­ti­fied the law as an at­tempt on their part to move away from English as a na­tional lan­guage and not to iso­late Tamils.

In or­der to pla­cate the feel­ings of alien­ation amongst the Tamils, Ar­ti­cle 18 of the Sri Lanka Con­sti­tu­tion, as amended by the 13th Amend­ment in 1987, rec­og­nizes Sin­hala and Tamil as the of­fi­cial lan­guages, and English as the link lan­guage. De­spite this recog­ni­tion, the Tamils la­ment that Sin­hala is given much more promi­nence than Tamil, ex­cept in the north and east.

To avoid lan­guage dis­crim­i­na­tion, a law has been in­tro­duced stat­ing that cit­i­zens have the right to ser­vices and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in ei­ther Tamil or English in ar­eas where Sin­hala is the lan­guage of ad­min­is­tra­tion, with ac­cess to trans­la­tors. How­ever, the re­al­ity is dif­fer­ent and this sel­dom hap­pens.

The Tamils have to trans­act the of­fi­cial busi­ness af­fect­ing their daily lives in Sin­hala, de­spite their un­will­ing­ness to do so. Most of the 15,000-strong po­lice force cur­rently posted in the north are not Tamils and thus can­not speak the lan­guage. The lo­cals can­not speak Sin­hala. As a re­sult, there is im­mense mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion that leaves both sides with lit­tle choice but to speak to each other in English which not more than ten per­cent in the whole coun­try can speak com­pe­tently.

All of this may sound fa­mil­iar to Pak­ista­nis who came across sim­i­lar prob­lems in East Pak­istan where the civil ser­vants and the army from West Pak­istan were posted with­out know­ing Ben­gali. Their pres­ence and fail­ure to in­ter­act in the lo­cal lan­guage fur­ther in­flamed the feel­ings of alien­ation amongst the Ben­galis.

Sri Lanka is a beau­ti­ful coun­try, with the high­est rate of lit­er­acy in South Asia. One is thus dis­tressed to find the coun­try fac­ing po­lit­i­cal and so­cial prob­lems due to eth­nic and reli­gious ten­sions. Even the eth­nic­ity should hardly mat­ter as the Tamils, de­spite be­ing cul­tur­ally and lin­guis­ti­cally dis­tinct, are ge­net­i­cally closely re­lated to the other eth­nic groups in the Is­land. They are mostly Hin­dus but a size­able num­ber are also Chris­tians.

How­ever, there is no rea­son as to why Sri Lanka can­not op­er­ate in a more plu­ral­is­tic fash­ion. The Sri Lankan Con­sti­tu­tion says that a “per­son shall be en­ti­tled to be ed­u­cated through the medium of ei­ther of the na­tional lan­guages” but Tamil is not be­ing pro­moted in the schools in the same way as Sin­hala. We in Pak­istan made the same mis­take when it came to treat­ing Ben­gali at par with Urdu and paid a heavy price for it. Sri Lanka should be care­ful to not make the same mis­take. Anees Jil­lani is an ad­vo­cate of the Supreme Court and a mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton, DC Bar. He has been writ­ing for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions for more than 20 years and has au­thored sev­eral books.

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