By Lionel Bopage –
[Part 6 of this series was published on Thursday, the 30th November 2017]
More on the Points Dr Godahewa has raised
- Dr Godahewa says: The Tamil political leaders demanded for 50-50 power-sharing despite Tamils represented less than 10 percent of the population; if this was granted it would have been tantamount to discrimination against the majority Sinhalese;
In 1936, the Board of Ministers established by the State Council comprised only of Sinhala members. The lack of representation of the other 35 percent of the population and several other factors led Mr G G Ponnambalam, MP for Point Pedro, to make his infamous 50:50 demand in 1939. In February 1945 he put this 50:50 demand to the Soulbury Commission as well, this time as leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress Party – the only political party for the Tamils. What he sought by this was allocating half of the seats for the Sinhalese and the other half for all other non-Sinhala communities. Considering the original intent and following a prudential approach, it appears that branding the “50:50” as a demand to discriminate against the majority Sinhalese is not only a misnomer, but a misrepresentation. The demand was to form “a single identity powerful enough to battle Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism” that has been trying to discriminate against non-Sinhala communities.
This demand for 50:50 could be understood better by looking at the post-1956 period, since the election of late Mr SWRD Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. The Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956 (“Sinhala Only” bill) replaced English with Sinhala as the sole official language. The Sinhala nationalist forces that arose because of the colonial oppression and the colonial divide and rule policy, wished to stop using English as the official language. The pledge to make Sinhala the official language within 24 hours if Mr Bandaranaike was elected, was made with the sole opportunistic aim of capturing political power. While doing this, he gave no consideration to the status of the language that was spoken by both the Tamils and most of the Muslims. The Tamils felt for the first time that through this legislation that Sinhala Buddhist leaders had impinged most negatively on their civil right, advancement and political interests. This issue brought the Sinhala-Tamil conflict to the forefront of the political stage.
The dominant currents of Sinhala nationalism believed that the only way to revitalise the glory of ancient Sinhala civilization was for Sinhala along with Buddhism to occupy the most pre-eminent position in the state structure. However, the UNP leadership mainly represented colonial interests and the interests of the pro-colonial English-speaking elite of diverse ethnic origins. The policy calculus that was in operation under colonialism continued to operate without any change. Tamils needed an opportunity to express their aspirations for national rights and progressive national sentiments. The “Sinhala Only” Bill rather than providing any concessions to the Tamil-speaking people, was a declaration of war on their identities and right to use their mother tongue. This was a major shortcoming of the 1956 social ‘transformation’ that paved the way for grave consequences in later years.
The Tamils resorted to civil agitation campaigns which were initially peaceful and non-violent. However, the reactions of the government and Sinhala nationalists were always repressive and violent. The first violent repression occurred in 1958 when the peaceful fasting campaign of Tamil leaders at the Gale Face Green was attacked at the instigation of Mr Bandaranaike and his close bureaucrats. At first the Senior Police Officer did not bow to the order of the Prime Minister to use violence. Sinhala goons abetted and instigated by the extremists launched violent attacks using cycle chains, knuckle-dusters and clubs against those peacefully demanding solutions to their grievances. Soon this attack also spread into regions and both Tamils and Indians were attacked.
Though Mr Bandaranaike was elected with a strong Sinhala mandate, he did not seem to conclusively reject recognising the rights of non-Sinhala peoples. Rather his policy calculus was an assertion of the demand for recognising the rights of Sinhala Buddhists that had been heavily violated under colonialism and thus far not recognised by the UNP regime. However, the Sanga, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru Sinhala alliance led by the MEP rejected the demand for recognising the rights of the Tamil Hindus that had similarly been heavily violated under colonialism.
Mr Bandaranaike probably being aware of the limitations of the Sinhala nationalist stand, had contemplated developing an appropriate political framework designed to accommodate the rights of Tamil and Muslim peoples through a minimal decentralisation of political power. In 1957, he and late Mr S J V Chelvanayakam, leader of the Federal Party, signed the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact (B-C Pact). This was intended to devolve power to regional councils with some level of autonomy and resolve language related issues that existed.
However, the UNP led by Mr J R Jayewardene opposed the B-C Pact spreading the myth that it was aimed at dividing the country. The All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and the late Professor C Suntheralingam also opposed it for not granting an autonomous Tamil state. Realising that the issue was leading to political instability and his government was under threat, Mr Bandaranaike unilaterally abrogated the Pact. The Tamils were faced with the question as to what extent they could trust the Sinhala leaders. This, in practice, led to the belief that the state did not represent the interests of the non-Sinhala peoples.
In 1965, late Prime Minister Mr Dudley Senanayake and late Mr S J V Chelvanayakam signed the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact (D-C Pact). It was intended to devolve powers to district councils with some level of autonomy and resolve language related issues that existed. Even though the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact was a modified version of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact, the SLFP-led LSSP and CP coalition in opposition, too, opposed it using the pretext that it will lead to the division of the country. Again, Mr Senanayake unilaterally abrogated the Pact. During every subsequent election held, those in opposition have always td thwarted any efforts by the governments in power to resolve the national question under the pretext that it will divide the country.
The Language of Courts Act, 1960 made provision for the court cases to be heard throughout Sri Lanka in Sinhala only. In 1961, the Federal Party launched a civil disobedience campaign against the implementation of these provisions in Tamil dominant areas. Instead of addressing the just grievance of Tamils with regard to their democratic rights and arrange for the court cases to be heard in Tamil, late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike ordered Major Richard Udugama, the army commander in chief at the time to remove all opposition to the legislation. For several months, Police rule was imposed in the north and a number of Federal Party leaders were arrested.
This issue also affected Tamil peoples’ financial security. Tamils who did not learn Sinhala were denied promotions and salary increases in the Public Service. As a result, many of them retired early. This had a devastating influence on the Tamil community. Until the end of seventies the government recruited Tamils to the Police force to be employed in Tamil-speaking areas. However, since 1977 mostly Sinhala Police officers have been employed in these areas with many Tamils purged from the service. As such, the share of Tamils that served in the bureaucracy had fell from 30 percent in 1956 to five percent in 1970. The fall within the armed forces from 40 percent in 1956 to one percent in 1970, was much worse.
In the 1970s, government’s policy framework favoured Sinhalese in university admissions (As discussed earlier in this series) and public service recruitment. This generated a lot of hurt within the Tamil community. The first Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka was enacted in May 1972. It retained the artificial colonial constitutional construct of the unitary state that was autocratically imposed on the people. It offered special status and privileges to Sinhala language. In addition, it abolished Sub-section 29(2) of the 1947 Constitution that offered at least the notion of nominal security with regard to the rights of non-majority communities.
In the 1972 Constitution, the concept of a secular state was abandoned with Buddhism being guaranteed “the foremost place”. This caused further polarisation between Sinhalese and Tamils. Between 1972-1977 for short periods military rule was established in the north. There were first signs that the Tamil response to the government’s chauvinist and oppressive policies was turning violent. This period saw pro-government politicians being assassinated. And Tamil students who picketed against government’s chauvinist policies were arrested, tortured and detained for long periods of time. In July 1977, the UNP secured an unprecedented parliamentary victory. Late Mr. A. Amirthalingam of the TULF became the first ever Leader of the Opposition from the Tamil community. Nearly a month later, there were widespread anti-Tamil riots in the south with hundreds of Tamils killed and thousands made homeless.
The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka of 1978 not only retained the discriminatory provisions, but also took away all decentralised decision-making power paving the way for a wholly centralised and autocratic Executive Presidency. Late President JR Jayewardene ordered Brigadier Tissa Weeratunga to eliminate all Tamil opposition in the north within three months. For the first time, corpses of Tamil youth with severed limbs and body parts, sometimes partly burnt started appearing in the northern province. JR’s famous first order of elimination (many more such orders were issued later) led to the rise of Tamil militancy, with the attendant tragic consequences.
In the name of enacting legislation to safeguard democracy, repressive Acts such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Immunity of Responsibility Act were enacted. Many amendments to the 1978 Constitution made the state increasingly centralised and suppressed any form of dissent. The security forces and law enforcement agencies were held less responsible for keeping the law, but rather were more responsible for safe keeping the politicians in power. Human rights violations by politicians and security forces were swept under carpet. All forms of torture and disappearances became legitimate. If the judiciary delivered judgements against human rights violations, the government either took steps to promote those who were convicted, or to pay the fines the courts had imposed against them, or provided them financial incentives and even promotions in ranks.
With the humiliating defeat of the SLFP led CP-LSSP coalition, the TULF became the major opposition party and the late Mr A Amirthalingam the Leader of Opposition. Under the supervision of Minister, the late Gamini Dissanayake and others, the year 1981 witnessed the burning down of the Jaffna library – the cultural heritage of the Tamil people of the north. Assassinations, arrests, lootings and destruction of property increased dramatically. Being confronted with state terror, the TULF appeals to the Tamil youth for peaceful resistance were to no avail.
Furthermore, the Black July riots of 1983 were a turning point in the worsening armed conflict. Among the instigators of the riots were prominent government figures and leading Buddhist monks. Anti-Tamil riots prompted by the killing of thirteen soldiers by the LTTE in the north, resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of Tamils. The inability or unwillingness of President Jayewardene and the UNP to forge a workable settlement brought India to the centre of the crisis. According to reports, during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime, India unofficially allowed establishing training camps for Tamil militants.
The riots saw the LTTE growing rapidly in terms of its strength and militancy. Immediately after the riots, an Amendment to the Constitution enacted in August 1983 outlawed the advocacy of separatism in any shape or form. As a result, all TULF MPs were virtually expelled from Parliament. This autocratic move of the Jayewardene regime not only deprived Tamils of their democratic political representation, but also reinforced the belief of the Tamil youth that the only way forward was the armed struggle.
If we compare our situation with Singapore, at the time of independence, Singapore had faced many more problems than us. Under the long-term vision and leadership of the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore implemented a meritocracy and a policy of recognising English, Tamil, Malay, and Standard Mandarin as official languages. In a decade Singapore caught up with the rest of the developed world. At times, the governmental policies were not popular, but the island’s holistic interests were kept at heart rather than those of any one particular ethnic community. In Sri Lanka, the complete opposite happened. The “Sinhala Only” policy was implemented by disregarding the interests of other communities. It became not only deficient, but also made the Sinhala speaking community lose many opportunities and the flexibility in their upward social mobility. India kept English as a national language. It continues to do much better than Sri Lanka in overcoming communication barriers among a multitude of ethnicities and languages.
Ultimately, the 13th Amendment of 1987 to the 1978 Constitution pronounced Tamil as an official language, while Sinhala is the official language of the country. Yet, the damage, the hurt and the impairment the discriminatory politics have caused for several decades remains. Besides, there is a big difference between recognising Tamil as an official language and genuinely implementing it in practice. Bridging this gap requires developing institutionalised provisions throughout the Public Service and providing an appropriate regulatory environment for their practical implementation.
Much blood was spilt over two and a half decades to prevent Tamil being recognised as a language for “reasonable use” or as “an official language” – even in the Tamil predominant areas of Lanka – on the false premise that any devolution of powers to regions, districts or councils will lead to a separate state. It is in this light one needs to consider the ACTC demand for 50:50.
*To be continued…..
 Bartholomeusz T J and De Silva C R 1998, Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka, 12-13, SUNY Press.