The Sunday Leader

Where From Here, Wigneswaran’s ‘Language Lament’?

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

C. V. Wigneswaran

For all the criticism heaped on him thus far on the post-war ethnic concerns and attendant political calculus and calculations, Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister, Justice C. V. Wigneswaran, has to be congratulated – and thanked – for his recent utterances on the ‘language front’. Tamil-Sinhala linguistic discrimination had fuelled the post-Independence ethnic division, war and violence in the country. A product of socio-economic, political bias all this, today Wigneswaran has pleaded for inter-ethnic learning of each other’s language.

“It is the misunderstanding among the communities that has created suspicion, ill-feeling, distrust and hatred among the two communities,” Wigneswaran has been quoted as saying at a school function in the North. Recalling how he had discontinued learning the ‘official language’ in the wake of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act of 1956 – that too only a year after commencing the study – Wigneswaran has told an audience of Tamil students, “Those (of you) who do not know the Sinhala knowledge might be marginalised in future.”

There is no denying the role of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act in opening, widening and deepening the ethnic chasm in the country that was already visible for all naked eyes to see. The irony of those times was that the Tamils had occupied many, if not most, government jobs – and their knowledge of Sinhala was also as impeccable as that of their Sinhalese brethren. That was also why the Tamils had protested the ‘overnight imposition’ of Sinhala language, thus denying them the family incomes and social status which a government job alone ensured those days for a couple of generations at the very least. Climbing down the socio-economic ladder was unacceptable, more than yielding space to the Sinhalese brethren, among whom a middle class was still in the making.


‘Standardisation’ and more

The irony did not stop there. Taking off from their peaceful protests against the new law in the Gandhian ways of S. J. V. Selvanayagam, the Tamils soon found themselves being led in a bloody war for political equity, but gliding down to military supremacy – all in the name of ethnic equality. It was worse still that a community that prided itself for the higher education credentials allowed itself to be led in all its equality-driven political endeavours and diplomatic machinations, by a school drop-out, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

It’s equally sad that the Tamil socio-political leadership of the early Seventies wantonly confused the equitability of the ‘Standardisation’ scheme as a continuing part of the Sinhala ethnic bias and Tamil marginalisation. ‘Standardisation’, though wound up after a short period, opened the portals of higher learning to less fortunate ones, not only from the Sinhala community, but also fellow-Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, not only from the East but even from the Jaffna suburbs and the rest of what then was the unified North, including the Vanni.


Economic refugees

Wigneswaran has rightly – and rightfully – pointed out how the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) were willingly learning European languages (going beyond traditional English?), for earning a living, away from their ‘homeland’ (as it suits them, every which way?). Post-war, many Tamils have wantonly ended up as ‘economic refugees’, elsewhere – and often hoping for the world to believe that they were (still) ‘political refugees’ of the ethnic kind.

Without justifying anti-Tamil violence of the Fifties, it needs to be acknowledged that the Tamils did see in the ‘Sinhala Only’ first, and ‘Standardisation’, later, a Sri Lankan State-given opportunity to seek better-paying jobs and lifestyle opportunities in Europe and Canada, the US and Australia. The last one is the current favourite in the list.

If the Sinhala polity and possibly the Sri Lankan State had connived to show the future generations of SLT the door, they did not hide their haste and crudity. Having got the Upcountry Tamils out of the way from competitive and at times communist-leaning plantation sector jobs, through ‘disenfranchisement’ and ‘Statelessness’ so very effortlessly soon after Independence, they wanted to hit the SLT iron, too, when it was still hot.


‘Poetic justice’?

‘Hot’ it was, and the Sinhalese got it, too – as subsequent years and events showed. Yet, it was ‘poetic justice’ of sorts – though unjustified equally – after the SLT leadership of the time had deliberately coalesced with their Sinhalese brethren, in rendering the Upcountry Tamils, disenfranchised and Stateless, too. Neither side would want to acknowledge the fact, but then the growing apprehension of the Upcountry Tamils upping their numbers in comparison was also their concern. Post-war, Census-2011/12 has only thrown up murkier figures, much of which are still hidden from the public eye.

It’s not only the Sri Lankan Tamils who are seeking jobs and higher education elsewhere. The Sinhalese, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils may not have a political cause and justification to cite, but they too are part of the long queues standing outside various East, South-East Asian and European embassies in Colombo, seeking visas for taking up the promised jobs – and at times, the promised moon.  They are all together at it, in various language-coaching centres, dotting many a town across the country.

Back home, the ‘Wellawatta Tamils’ from Colombo’s ‘Little Jaffna’ feel indignant at the very thought of learning Sinhala. Across the board, Sinhalese — be they of the aristocratic ‘Colombo Seven’ types, or academics and administrators of high repute, or plain commoners – they take a vicarious pride in not being able to spell or pronounce a Tamil name or word, correctly.  At the same time, both sides are boastful of their respective mastery over the nuances of Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Italian, French and Spanish – all, away from the land where they would continue to be treated as second, if not third-class citizens, and for reasons of their own.


Belling the cat

Having flagged the issue in its entirety and equally comprehensively, Chief Minister Wigneswaran can take forward his lament from the past and appeal to the future, to work out a scheme for the benefit of the Tamil students in the North. By belling the ethnic cat and opening up Sinhala language classes in the schools in the Province, he would also take the most striking and even more visible first step towards a socio-political reconciliation between communities in the country.

Just now, Sinhalese hard-liners want to believe that Wigneswaran is among the villain of the post-war ‘ethnic piece/peace’. They confuse his political views with that of his pragmatic approaches of the kind. On politics, again, there is space for conciliation that needs to be crossed and filled, where Wigneswaran too may be as much in the wrong as detractors, otherwise. A gesture of the language-learning kind could go a long way in setting out the right mood and socio-political mood for better ethnic understanding, acceptance and accommodation, over the short, medium and long terms.

Any initiative of the kind, especially by a Tamil CM in the Tamil-majority Province, could only encourage – rather, force – other Provinces and the Government in Colombo to take a similar initiative for the Sinhala students of the future, to learn Tamil, in turn. Wigneswaran and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to which party he belongs, however, should not take umbrage under ‘power-devolution’, and say that for this to happen, they needed more powers on the Education front.  The two issues should be handled separately, for their own reasons.


Three-language formula

Successive governments, since the advent of ethnic war and violence at the very least, have tried out – however half-heartedly – to find ways to address the concerns that Vigneswaran too has flagged now. Post-war, the Rajapaksa regime tried out the ‘three-language formula’ – Sinhala, Tamil, and English – as an extension of the ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ poll and political agenda, towards better education and employability of the nation’s youth.

At the time, the Government even claimed (limited?) success for the formula among existing public servants. It distributed cash incentives to Sinhala and Tamil employees who had some proficiency in each other’s language (however limited it be). Like other well-meaning schemes that did not prosper, this one seems to have been allowed to die down, if not die out.

Catch ‘em young should be the way to do it. This would mean that the Government, including and involving the provincial political administrations, should have a medium and long-term plan, instead, to popularise language-learning of the kind envisaged, across the country.  This would have to begin with teaching the teachers to teach the students, from the first grade, if not at the LKG and UKG levels.

Sri Lanka’s unique scheme of Grade Five ‘National Scholarship Exams’ should be the first step, where the students should be tested for their multi-lingual proficiency. It should go at least up to O-Level, if not A-Level examinations. Considering that present-day generation of parents are as ignorant – and at times, proud of their deficiency – it would have to be a teacher-student exercise, if any scheme of the kind has to succeed.


Greater proficiency

It needs to be remembered here that for historic and relatively contemporary reasons, the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils have greater proficiency in Sinhala and Tamil than the Sinhalese and the SLT community, respectively. Should and could the Government employ them as language teachers after some basic training, and develop special curriculum for these twin purposes is something that the Rajapaksa regime did not examine seriously – but could now be taken up, nonetheless.

All of it could and would mean that future generations in the country would not have to fight over language – and not certainly over their linguistic deficiency, which is not inherent, but politically inherited. The Sinhalese need to acknowledge that Tamil is as much as ancient language – and may be older, too – and no harm would come their way if they learnt it, alongside Greek or Italian, French or Spanish, as they are wont to do in alien land and alien cultural environment.

The Tamils should have looked around when it all commenced with ‘Sinhala Only’, to note that in most, if not all post-colonial nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, the inevitable ‘imposition’ of the ‘majority language’ was happening already – and that they were not the only ones, chosen to suffer. In neighbouring India, for instance, the political proclivity towards promoting ‘majority’ Hindi, at the cost of a multiplicity of other languages and dialects had commenced long before Independence. It was only in Tamil Nadu, it faced protests and problems. Both continue to date.

After all, German, and not English, would have been the ‘official language’ of the USA, had it not been for a single-vote tilting the linguistic scales. Today, no one in the US is talking of German, or even Germany in that context. Spanish is already competing with English in parts of the US, where pre-recorded telephone responses even from government agencies are in that language, not in English! The faster the Americans too recognised it, better it would (also) be for Sri Lanka.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:



3 Comments for “Where From Here, Wigneswaran’s ‘Language Lament’?”

  1. Sangaralingham

    Everyone must learn the languages of the country not for anything but it is well established evidence people students learning more languages are brighter and smarter as their brainr iswired to be intelligent analytical quick to interpret facts ideas etc. every citizen must speak and learn a foreign language which at present seems English a good choice only one language act is not a social document but a personal document to get elected divide the society fragment the culture diversity and plurality of the country. No one need surprised this type of attitude beleive is present in many of all living individuals seems a form of animal instinct

  2. Just Society

    ” ‘Poetic justice’?

    ‘Hot’ it was, and the Sinhalese got it, too – as subsequent years and events showed. Yet, it was ‘poetic justice’ of sorts – though unjustified equally – after the SLT leadership of the time had deliberately coalesced with their Sinhalese brethren, in rendering the Upcountry Tamils, disenfranchised and Stateless, too. ”

    Your comprehension Ceylon politics at that time is pathetic. SJV formed the Federal Party specifically on that point. And you are characterising suffering endured by Ceylon Tamils as ‘poetic justice’.

    Sinhala Only and a series of other discriminatory policies that were brought in by the majority community just to disengage Ceylon Tamils from the national scene and it was fairly complete within three decades from 1948. And you refer, in your own foxy way, to it as poetic justice. Absolute nonsensical understanding.

    Please be advised that Ceylon Tamils are an ancient society. The so called Nagas are the Naganathans and Nagammas of Jaffna. This community is separate and distinct from the Sinhala society and more importantly of the Tamil society in India, another ancient people, divided by a common language. Ceylon Tamil society’s legal structure for intra-family asset transfer, family set up, food type and the language are distinct. Ceylon Tamil society is essentially matriarchal. Daughter never leaves her mother and have no mother-in-law conflict.

    Such a distinct society that had maintained their own system of governance even during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period lost it during the British colonial period by amalgamation of the North and the South. And transferred it to the majority community under the pretext of independence and it commenced its neo-colonial rule, fundamentally an unjust system of governance. Ceylon Tamils are a majority in their own land and not a minority.

    You will be well advised to note that it is that system that disenfranchised the Upcountry Tamils. Ceylon Tamils never had a say on anything in the post-independence Ceylon and they were continue to being subject of colonial rule that never ended. SJV’s proposal in 1949 would have ended it, but was never accepted by the new colonialist. It is still the solution to end the colonial rule.

    Colonial rule by brown on brown or by black on black requires deeper understanding. Or indeed by white on white and hence the reason for British opting out of EU.

    • Sangaralingham

      Whatever happen social attitude and progress depend on close cooperation with all communities. If not pity the country nobody live for ever the time soon come current leaders out of the pictures. United lanka hope rest with future leaders. Various religious groups may think society is thinking that they will be trusted based on the universal criteria as society progresses religion is a private social affair not for public to celebrate. Pray quietly seeks blessing. Study all the languages within the country to progress forwards. People are not running away. Need honest responsible reliable political administrator

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