By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The Senanayakes, who were the enlightened founders of the nation, continued the colonial administration without making any radical adjustments to meet the post-colonial realities. It was Bandaranaike who stepped in to adjust the fundamentals which, of course, meant ruffling the feathers of the English-educated ruling elite. His most controversial move was to pass the Sinhala Only Act. It was designed to overthrow English not Tamil. To begin with Tamil, like Sinhalese, was never a language recognized by any colonial regime. In restoring the lost rights of the majority to communicate with their elected government in their own mother tongue – a right granted in all democratic and non-democratic nations — Bandaranaike did not overthrow Tamil. In setting out to redress the imbalances Bandaranaike was the first to recognize and place Tamil as a language in the statue books.
The cry of the Tamils was that it was not given parity of status. Over a million Tamils live abroad under majoritarian rule where the minority language of the Tamil has not been recognized or given the status it has in Sri Lanka today. They accept the “second class” citizenship in those countries without a murmur. Even in India – the original homeland of the Tamils – they accept Hindi as the official language of India. Only in Sri Lanka do they whip up the language issue despite it being recognized in Parliament, government institutions, judiciary, academia, schools, provincial councils and all other key places including societal interactions. The state media, for instance, publishes and broadcasts in all three languages. Even the national anthem is now sung in Tamil. There are lapses, no doubt, but genuine efforts are made to rectify them. The bottom line is that there are no deliberate policies to deny Tamil their linguistic and cultural rights.
Besides, even after 60 years of Sinhala Only the legislature, the executive and the judiciary continue to run in English. Chandrika Kumaratunga, however, complains that English is not the link language. Technically she is right because it is officially not declared as the link language. But to all practical purposes it is the common language used at the highest levels. This reality contradicts her own experiences in her public and personal lives. As President she did not communicate with other communities in Sinhalese. Nor did she use Sinhalese even in her private life. Example: When Kumaratunga speaks to her dancing partner, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, she speaks in the link language English, not Tamil. So what’s her beef?
The English-educated minority still continues to rule at the top, as in colonial times. In the highest levels, from the President downwards, English operates as the link language. There isn’t a single individual at the top, either in the private or public sector, who does not communicate in English. English is indispensible for survival both at home and abroad. Example: Justice C. V. Wigneswaran did not pass sentence from the bench in the Supreme Court in Sinhala. He earned his crust through English. So where’s the discrimination? Sixty years after Sinhala Only M. A. Sumanthiran butters his bread not through Sinhala. He practices his law in English. So where’s the discrimination? So how is he disadvantaged? What are the special privileges that the Sinhala lawyers have which the Tamil lawyers don’t have, eh?
Out of the English-educated elite the Jaffna Tamils alone were in a privileged position. If they were talented and possessed a good command of the English language there were no obstacles for upward social mobility. The inherited colonial privileges remained intact. Consequently, the Tamil of the North obtained a disproportionate share of privileges, positions, perks and power. The irony in the cry of discrimination raised by the Tamils of the North is that it was raised by the most privileged community in Sri Lanka. They were comfortably ensconced under colonial patronage and protection.
When, however, the most privileged community cries discrimination there is something wrong either in their grasp of reality and/or their meaning of the word discrimination. Besides, those who cry discrimination have to explain first why they raised this cry in the 30s and the 40s when the Jaffna Tamils enjoyed the best living conditions under British patronage. Now they cry discrimination by the “Sinhala Governments”. But their cry of discrimination began when the British were ruling the nation. And when the British examined their complaints they found that the Tamils had no evidence to substantiate their claims.
This cry of discrimination was not picked up by the Muslims or the Indian Tamils because they were not competing for jobs in the public service. It was a cry confined only to the Jaffna Tamils who had a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service. And they dominated the public service through English – a medium they acquired through Christian missionary schools. Their fear was that if Sinhala replaced English then their preponderance in the public service would diminish. Fundamentally, Sinhala was not a threat to the Tamils but it was a threat to the English-educated elite holding a disproportionate share in the public service. Clerkship in government service was ingrained in the Tamils because it guaranteed a big dowry, pension and security. The Tamil elite opposed Sinhala not because it threatened their culture – it is still thriving as it was in pre-independence times — but because it went against the grain of the Jaffna Tamils who were brought up believe that even if their job was to rear chicken they should do it in the public service.
By the time Bandaranaike introduced Sinhala the old colonial order had passed its use by date. Colonialists had balanced their imperial political equation by privileging the minority. The primary aim of new nations coming out of colonialism was to re-set the colonial calcifications and restructure the historical imbalances. The new leaders of new nations were also faced with grass root forces rising from their slumber to claim their rightful place in history. Restoring Sinhala – and also Tamil – was legitimate. It was opposed only by the English-educated privilegentsia.
Kumaratunga’s underlying theme of blaming the Sinhalese undercuts her father’s achievements to restructure the colonial past and establish a new order by balancing it with the restoration of the forces that were suppressed under colonialism. The initial decades of the post-independent era of the Senanayakes were the constructive phase of laying down the solid building blocks for a liberal-democratic society. There were hardly any radical changes under the Senanayakes that deviated from the colonial institutions, conventions and practices. And D. S. Senanayake the Father of the Nation, excelled with his native genius, in constructing a rainbow nation befitting a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious polity. Even G. G. Ponnambalam, the acknowledged leader of the Jaffna Tamils who was demanding 50% of power to 12% of Tamils, joined the Senanayake government.
But like all ex-colonies, the subterranean undercurrents that were lying low for centuries under colonialism were surfacing, seeking adjustments to the fossilized status quo. New indigenous forces rising from the ashes of colonialism were asserting their power. An ex-colony could no longer remain in the colonial mould without adjusting to the new post-independent realities. After the Senanayakes had laid down the foundations for the first phase, the second phase was introduced by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who boldly and daringly took the nation into a “period of transition”, as he called it. Removing privileges of the Westernized elite was a prime necessity to restore the rights of the people who lost it to colonial masters.
Removing English – the language of 6% of the English–educated elite – and restoring the mother tongue as the official language of the state was a historical necessity. It was not a political gimmick adopted by Bandaranaike to beat the UNP and come into power. The people had a moral, political and legitimate right to communicate with their government in their mother tongue. But any readjustment of the colonial legacy would invariably hit the hip pocket nerve of the English-educated elite. Chelvanayakam became the hero of the English-educated Tamils who dominated the public service when he opposed the Sinhala Only Bill because it was a move to retain the supremacy of the English-educated in the political and administrative hierarchy.
Power was concentrated in the hands of those had a command of the English language. The Saivite-Jaffna-Vellahlas rose to heights of power through English. It was the English-educated Saivite-Jaffna-Vellahlas who dominated the public service, professions and some sections of the private sector enterprises. English was the “sword” that kept the non-English speaking people under subjugation even after independence. The ruling elite dominated politics not on class hegemony but on linguistic supremacy. The English-educated elite, dominating the political, administrative and professional power bases, formed one solid block cutting across ethnic, religious, caste differences and Chelvanayakam’s cry of discrimination on language resonated with the English-educated professional class who wielded power.
It is this Westernized elite that resented Bandaranaike. This resulted in demonizing Bandaranaike and hero-worshipping his anti-thesis, Chelvanayakam. Kumaratunga is one of those who has eagerly embraced Chhelvanayakam. She thinks she is making a great intellectual contribution when she abandons her father and embraces S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, who was described by Bandaranaike as “one of the most dangerous types of human beings in the world…” He added these “dangerous people….are capable of deluding themselves completely, capable of deluding other too!” (Parliamentary Debates, Vol 31, May – June 1958, cols.244 -5). There is no doubt that if the father was living he would have dismissed his daughter as one of those deluded people. In any case, she just couldn’t defend Chelvanayakam, and Bandaranaike in the same breath. So she sides with Chelvanayakam giving just one line to her father.
Delusional or not, it is the pro-Tamil stance that sets the tone and the colour of her speech. What is most striking about her speech is the ease with she heaps blame on the Sinhalese. Quite bluntly she says that “the majority community in Sri Lanka established itself within the political power structures, claiming their rights in the economical, social and cultural spheres, setting up laws, institutions and practices to guarantee their privileges to the exclusion of the “other” that are the minorities. The ruling elite, comprised mainly of the majority community, arrogated an unequal share of opportunities to itself, while excluding the others.” Can she name one country where the majority has not held an unequal share of opportunities? Just by the law of averages it becomes the natural order of the day. It is only when the minority holds a disproportionate share of power and opportunities that eyebrows are raised. But her idea of equality is in giving a handful of tigers the command over a land full of lions.
Her Quixotic arguments questions her claim to be a “political scientist”. She also accuses the Sinhala majority community of “excluding the others”. So how many “others” did she exclude during her reign as President when her “ruling elite, compris(ing) mainly of the majority community, arrogated an unequal share of opportunities to itself…?” Is she aware that Karuna Amman, the man from Batticoloa, broke away from the LTTE accusing the Jaffna-centric leadership of arrogating an unequal share of plum jobs for the Jaffna boys? Neither the evidence adduced by Kumaratunga nor her arguments correspond to her claim of a being a “political scientist”. How can she be a political scientist when she can’t get her basics right?
Her arguments confirm only her hidden anti-Sinhala-Buddhist agenda. Even the choice of words indicate her attitude towards the majority. The “Sinhala groups” are labeled as “extremists”, some of whom are allied to “chauvinist” parties, she says. On the other hand, the Tamils who led “the world’s deadliest terror group” are referred to as “some factions of the Tamil citizenry” – not extremists – that led a “violent and destructive civil war waged against the State….”. These quotes from her speech should give a taste of the pro-Chelvanayakam flavour contained in her talk.
Of course, in saying all this she is posing as the champion of the Tamils. In other words, she is saying that she is quite happy to stand on her father’s coffin that brought her all the votes to make her president and kick the historic Sinhala-Buddhist legacy left behind by her father’s historic role all the way to the Antarctic. Her phrases and attitudes echo the time when, as President, she was obsessed with P-TOMS and was ready to hand over the North and the East on a platter to Velupillai Prabhakaran for ten years without an election (TIME). Her latest speech indicates that she is still stuck in the ideological phase of the P-TOMS which went down Mavil Aru.
Her failed politics and her latest attempt to revive her defeated agenda confirms her own conclusion: “It is truly sad that people of some intelligence and knowledge adopt such attitudes knowing full well how dangerous and destructive they can be to the Nation’s progress.”
*To be continued
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