By 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.