25 February, 2024


Law; The Language Of The Elite

By Lakmali Hemachandra

Lakmali Hemachandra

Lakmali Hemachandra

“Mr.Gajapathy, there are blacker sins in this world than a dropped vowel….” –  R. K. Narayan, The English Teacher

The Legal Council of Sri Lanka has made a decision to hold its examinations only in English, meaning Sinhala and Tamil medium students of Sri Lanka Law College will now be required to answer for papers in English, meaning a majority of students of Sri Lanka Law College will now be compelled to understand and write in a language that most Sri Lankans are not very familiar with, the colonial ghost that we all revere, English.

The argument against this decision is very plain, it violates the language rights of hundreds of current students of the Law College and thousands of future students who will be barred from entering into the Law College for the abominable crime of not knowing English, the source of all knowledge as most elite Sri Lankans mistakenly believe. The legal case against this decision can be explained using two articles in the Constitution, Article 12 and Article 18. Article 18 of the Sri Lankan Constitution declares Sinhala and Tamil to be National Languages of the country while adding that English will be a linking language. That should be enough to demand that the Law College wake up to the post independent Sri Lanka and to conduct its activities in both Sinhala and Tamil languages, declared National Languages under the Constitution. Article 12 of the Constitution guarantees that no personal shall be discriminated based on language, which has to mean that it is wrong and unconstitutional to make English a condition in entering the legal profession. In my simple knowledge of the law, that is discrimination based on language. Ironically, in this country we think that Sinhala is the language of the privileged majority and provisions like this are there to protect Tamil people from being discriminated. However, Law College and the Legal Council are making it abundantly clear as to the real language of the elite and the privileged, at least in law.

It is simple then, the Legal Council is in clear violation of the Constitution of the country when it makes English a condition in passing the bar. No reason can justify why the Law College, the institution responsible for making lawyers, cannot hold its exams in Sinhala and Tamil. Unfortunately, even in Hulftsdorp, where the elite of the legal profession resides, logic has no success for there are several reasons that are cited for making this unfair, elitist decision.

They say that the papers get leaked when they are translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Two questions arise with regards to this argument. First, how on earth are students responsible for the fact that the Law College cannot get a paper translated without it being leaked? How it is the fault of the students who are not fluent in English that Sri Lanka Law College is so corrupted that it cannot get a simple translation done without creating havoc? If there is such a threat, then the administration of the Law College, the lecturers should be punished, not the students. It is an utter shame that these legal minds cannot put the blame where it belongs.

The next natural argument that rise in our minds when hearing this is, how come the Law College could not find a way, in all these years to make these papers in the ‘National Languages’ of the country or to make the question even clearer? Why are the papers made in English?  Answering that question brings out the real elitism embedded in the legal profession. Why are we making question papers about law in English in a country where the majority of the people speak either Sinhala or Tamil? Do English make their question papers on law in French so that most of its population will be bewildered as to what is written in the paper in front of them? Do Americans make their question papers on law in Russian? How does it make sense to make question papers in English when majority of Sri Lankans can barely speak or write the language? Or are we to assume that because the Supreme Court thinks it is acceptable to conduct its business in a language that most Sri Lankans are alien to, this too, this ugly elitism too, should be permissible?

Why can’t the law speak the language of the masses? Why does it insist on speaking the language of their colonial oppressors? From the Supreme Court to the Law College, why is it permissible to violate the basic language rights of the people?

The answer actually is simple, because the law does not want to include people, in its process. It likes to hide behind big words and tedious procedure and create an aura of intimidation around it using not only the armed police and unhygienic prisons, but also a language that nobody understands.  Judges and Lawyers do not speak the languages of the people, instead they speak the language of their oppressors and they remain distant from the masses. The law remains the business of a few elite, bowing down in front of a bench of judges who will never have to face the public that they try so hard to stay away from.

The real reason for this decision of the Law College to hold exams only in English is that they believe that the law should be limited to a little crowd of people who are well fluent in English even though or rather precisely because, being fluent in English is a privilege in this country, where most schools away from Colombo do not even have English teachers. The Legal Council wants the law to be the profession of the elite, the profession of those self-proclaimed decent people.

English is a language like any other, it has an alphabet, grammar rules and anybody who knows them can speak the language and write in it. However, in countries like ours, English is not a language like any other. The ability to write and speak in English is the privilege of a certain class of people. Either one is born into an English speaking family or one’s parents must spend a small fortune to get their children an English education. English is limited to a certain urban, mostly middle class social strata and the Legal Council wants all their lawyers to be from that class.

Unsurprisingly this too makes sense in the minds of these incorrigible elites for it is believed that the law would stop being a business and start becoming the noble profession it is supposed to be when the commoners are shown the way out. If the law remains in the hands of the moneyed, there will be no corruption in it because the drive to make money using the legal profession will not exist. The noble elite will not sell the law, instead they will use it as the golden banner to be put up in front of their houses so that we the commoners can worship it. The level of pompousness these arguments carry are not to be taken lightly for it defines the stagnating conservatism in the legal profession, starting from its Victorian values to its elitist logic. Instead of modifying the law, removing its inherent class, race and gender biases, the legal elites are fighting to save its classist, elitist, oppressive outlook.

The problem is broader than English, for it is a problem of ruthless class warfare on the side of the Legal Council and the Law College. From this year students are expected to pay fees for apprenticeship courses conducted by the Law College and the sums can be too much for some apprentices who are not paid a cent by their senior lawyers. Apprentices are currently treated as slave labour and hardly anyone in the legal business wants to put tighter regulations in order to save them from extreme exploitation. In addition, the Law College has started charging fees at every turn, adding to their unending burden. May be it is this constant need to show money, that places corruption at the heart of the legal profession. Sure, the situation would have been better in the pre-open market Sri Lanka when money did not speak this loud. However for the common people of the country, the law has always been a stranger speaking an alien language, an oppressive feudal lord that roams around in huge black cloaks. Before or after the free market reforms, people have not been able to identify law as something that they make and give life to. It is a weapon used against them by Presidents and Ministers, Police Officers and Administrative Officers and in front of the intimidating glares of Judges in robes who refuse to speak their languages, the common people feel fear of the law not protection from it.

These Judges and Lawyers, the elite of the legal profession must walk in the common man’s shoes or even better the common man must walk in the shoes of the Judges and Lawyers under a system of laws made by the people, not by their deceitful representatives. Unless the law making powers are democratized and the law is freed from its suffocating conservatism, justice is merely a word used fashionably to pass an oppressive law as the people’s decree. It is unfair that masses will be barred from entering into the legal profession. The law will only be democratic if the masses are participating, not in the hands of a few technocratic elites. If it is democracy that we espouse, then we must make provisions to conduct all activity in courts in Sinhala and Tamil languages for they are the languages of the people. The Legal Council must revoke its arbitrary and unfair decision to hold examinations only in English for the simple reason that Sri Lankans cannot speak or write that language.

I am sure that most of these elitist, classist gentlemen and ladies of the high society think that their ability to speak the English Language gives them a right to bulldozer over the poor, subaltern masses of the country, somewhat similar to the thinking of the rich that money is entitled to have everything. However, as the words at the top suggest, there are greater abilities than English and there are greater inabilities than lack of it. Indeed there are blacker sins in the world than a dropped vowel, the classist snobbery of the Sri Lanka Law College definitely ranks high among them.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    The Bandaranayakes brought this disaster by declaring Sinhala as the official language. How stupid is SWRD to make Sinhala the official language with immediate effect. Lots of Tamils and Muslims lost their increments and jobs. Then they brought Standardization. The university standards sank immediately. Now they are are bringing Enlish back. What a set of clowns who are ruling us.

    • 2

      This is no right. At the time B brought them people of the island had a greater hatred against the English. In retrospect, we can accuse him of having done that, it was the trend to tha ttime – SIMILAR to the one that is being in ground today – regardless of whatever harm being done by Rajapakshe, only for single reason his term was able to stop the civil war – makes people to stay deaf and blind. Even if their lovely ones would have been taken away, sent dissapeared, got physically and mental hurt, nothing like in line have been considered. These people (majority ) are made believe that Rajapakshes are the only ones who can give a life and take a life to this nation.
      No doubt, when listening to JVP and todays UNPs we all feel they would do much better than Rajapakshes in power. DJ though self proclaimed on his political knowledge, is in the view that JVPers would have better chances to win the hearts of the people if people would consider the way they handled issues in the short time given to them in the recent past. They were the only ones not ot have abused people s funds. not to have boasted about what they have achieved – golden values of human nature which th eyoung generations would at once agrre with .

  • 9

    Every parent, from north to south, wants education in English for their children.Some are unable to attain it, as there are not enough teachers of English – this must be remedied.
    All know that English is the portal to knowledge in all disciplines, including law.
    The “patriots” who thrust “Sinhala only” on the nation, educated and are even now educating their children, in English, not only in sri lanka, but also abroad. Many migrated to ensure better future for their children.
    We will remain a backward nation and will not produce world class scientists and others, unless English is enforced as the medium of instruction from the primary school – sinhalese or tamil could be taught as a second language.
    Enforcing law as the medium for law/legal education will benefit future generations.

  • 8

    You are wrong. It is true that when Mr SWRD brought in the Sinhala Language act the Sinhalese rejoiced. It had not led to an improvement for the Sinhalese.If you seek to check the bonafides of the Sri Lankans who had fared well outside Sri Lanka, you will find that they are the English educated and if you check further most of those that are really outstanding are members of the Tamil community.That is the value of English. The Shirley Amarasinghe, the Kanakaratnes, the Nelville Jayaweeras , the Weeramathris who excelled in the world stage were all educated in English.

    I know of very poor people who spend hard earned money to teach their children English.

    The second reason is more mundane. The lack of literature. What is available here are mostly pertaining to Sri Lanka Juriprudence.As an example I can site one. Can any Sri Lankan lawyer hold on his own against a lawyer specialising in Patents , say against a lawyer in that field in the US or EU? This with education in English.If they are educated in Sinhala they will be treated as office assistants to prepare and serve Tea of coffee.

    Third is the separation, compartmentalisation and constriction of values.Since 1956, more and more people are talking about Sinhala Buddhists, Sinhala Christians, The Tamil Hindus, the Tamil Christians and the Muslim Islamists.( There is at least one Muslim whom I know is Muslim Buddhist). This is detrimental to the development of the society and the country.

    Since you are also educated in English it would be nice if you could broaden your views to facilitate help to the down trodden.

    The solution is to provide one year course in English as the Peradeniya University does.

  • 2

    Lakmali Hemachandra: I salute your bravery in tackling this topic. For too long a self-perpetuating elite have kept an iron grip over the practice of law in Sri Lanka. You have identified them well. They perpetuate the customs and practices of the old colonial master even down to the ridiculous donning of wigs and robes that make them the laughing stock of many. Most of them are fully paid-up members of the Brown Sahib clan who consider their fellow countrymen as a sub-species who must be suffered. They maintain the walls to this fiefdom high and insurmountable to ensure that only the real ‘elite’ – from the ‘proper’ schools – can get in.

    The biggest hurdle to changing the status quo is the political will. The ruling tribe in the profession are so strong that over the years since independence, all our politicians have only been able to extract a degree of subservience from the leading honchos of our lawyers in exchange for allowing the status to continue. Nowadays, even the highest office holders in our legal sphere drink from the same trough as our politician scum.

    Of course the laws of Sri Lanka should be administered in Sinhala and Tamil. The minority who claim English as their ‘mother tongue’ is probably in single digits. There simply is no justification in the perpetuation of English in the law college and in the courts.

    The fault lies in the under investment in our development of Sinhala in the last 60 years. Our youngest and brightest arrive at the doors of Higher Education only to be asked to learn English. It is impossible to quantify this slap to the esteem of those who should define the future of our people.

    This phenomena is the biggest stumbling block to the progress of our indigenous people and the sooner it is corrected, the better.

    As a start, it would be a huge boost if our President(s) and others spoke in Sinhala when addressing, say, the UN, and when giving interviews to other foreign media – a good translation is always better than suffering variable English from the ‘man woke onthara bijja’ school of English.

  • 3

    springkoha.Thankyou very much.Do not worry we will be begging from the worldfor the next 1000yrs.May you live that long

  • 6

    It does seem unjust that the language of law is not the mother tongue of most of the people in Sri Lanka. At the same time, knowledge of international law, including patent laws, corporate law, human rights law etc require competence in English.

    It seems obvious that people should be able to give evidence in court in their own language. This requires courts, police and lawyers with multilingual ability.

    English is also an essential language for learning science and medicine. This is because the important scientific and medical literature (and textbooks) are in English.

    It is inevitable that English will remain an elite language in Sri Lanka. It is an elite language around the world. Sri Lanka can use its colonial legacy and high literacy rate to good effect with the increasing influence of the Internet. The government should employ more English teachers in rural areas, beginning with primary education. The internet is also a great source for learning English and the government should encourage internet access in rural schools, so that people can learn English as well as other languages.

    • 2

      Dr RS,
      I agree with you 100%.

  • 3

    I think you are blurring the distinction between the language of the courts and the language of instruction of a tertiary educational institution. It is clear that the courts should accommodate to whichever language people in the country speak – Sinhala, Tamil and English. However, in a globalized world, it is to the advantage of Sri Lanka with a population only of 20 million that its citizens are educated in the English language, whether in Law or any other college. It is ironic that it is often the very same elite (educated in English and making sure that their children are competent in English) who make a case for the national languages in higher education so that they can control and rule over the non-English speaking population, while their children continue to enjoy the opportunities and privileges that this world has to offer thanks to an English education.

    Sri Lankan students from Sinhaalese and Tamil speaking rural backgrounds have no problem learning Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, French, German and Japanese in one year pre-university language immersion courses when they depart to these countries. “A’ level students languish in this country for a year waiting for their results. This time could be taken for the education system to bring all those non-English speaking students up to speed in English before they enter university. If a student is intelligent enough to enter the university, s/he is certainly intelligent enough to master a second language in an immersion course.

    However, this is only a stop gap solution until the country gets its education policy together. The better option is that all instruction from secondary school onwards be in the English language in Sri Lanka. The primary schools can provide the foundation in the mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil, and this could be reinforced by ensuring mother tongue competence until “O” level together with literature, culture and history being taught in the mother tongues. All other subjects can be taught in English. The country would save valuable resources from not producing translations of outdated textbooks in math, natural and social sciences and instead focus on producing good quality teaching material for native languages, literature, culture and history. What is needed is a change in education policy, not the deprivation of rural students entering Law College from an English education.

    It is a pity that Ms. Hemachandra who represents the younger generation, and who should have learnt something from the ideological/nationalist lunacy of the previous generation of the ruling elite, wants to drag the bright, emerging, communication savvy younger generation into the dark ages.

  • 0

    Is it a sign of retreat from the ‘participatory democracy’ that seems to encompass Mahinda Chinthanaya? It seems unimaginable that the ‘legal council’ should resort to such immoral,highhanded and unconstitutional decisions to change the hands of the clock back. The ‘crosseover’ elite can be suspect for this act that should be challenged vehemently.

  • 1

    Very soon the new judges being appointed will not be able to converse in English, due the dropping of English as medium of instruction in schools. They cannot read the good books on law coming out. These judges will be real godayas, something the past leaders had in mind. Once the judges can only string a few lines of English, have no knowledge of the wonderful world of English law books, sentences will be given to suit the need of the rulers. It is the people who will suffer.

  • 1

    India and Ceylon/ Sri Lanka got their independence in the late 1940 s.
    Malaya and Singapore in 1958. Again Singapore became an independent country and Republic in 1965.

    I was told by a person from Singapore, that the founding fathers of modern Singapore learnt a
    lot from the language policies of the Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. In addition to that they also have learnt many other things eg. Importance of secularism.

    Singapore gave importance not only to the global and a link language English but also to mother tounges of different ethnic groups.

    It is time for the GOSL to change language policies to improve the standard of English in rural and sub urban areas without compromising on the importance of Sinhala and Tamil.
    If winning elections using chauvanism will never stop SL from reaching the bottom of slippery slope staryed in 1956.

    Whether SLFP and it’s leaders take this problem head on with extreme organisations

  • 0

    Nangi,good article.Keep it up.Then only we will progress, the [Edited out] will be remain a [Edited out].

    As the priest say Sadu, Sadu, sadu

  • 0

    Lakmali Hemachandra – Born again AHRC and its Fernando.
    She is just a mouth piece and a HMV.

  • 0

    M/s Hemachandra. You are right. Let us English speaking elite unite and keep the yakkos in their place.

    The best way to do it to restrict their path to education

  • 0

    Singapore excels in recent decades because they gave primacy to the English language. They now have a 1st class education system, excellent medical specialists, superb lawyers, financial wizards, IT experts and business persons – all educated in English. The vast majority of Singaporeans are Chinese – proud of their ancient and highly developed language and culture. But they did not allow pseudo-nationalism and bogus patriotism to stand in their way and development.
    Religious bigotry, thankfully, is not a curse in that fine City State
    ruled by pragmatic political leaders.

    R. Varathan

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