Tamil as a National Language
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.