By Jagath Asoka –
If you are a Sri Lankan—in the deepest sense—what is your identity? I think most Sri Lankans, first, would use their ethnicity or religion to identify themselves, not their country. Will Sinhala ever be the language that unites us, not the language that belongs only to the ethnic Sinhalese? What would happen to the Sinhala language if it is also spoken by the majority of our minorities?
What is the significance of knowing the Sinhala language in our day-to-day living in Sri Lanka? Is Sinhala a vehicle for expressing our thoughts, perceptions, sentiments, and values characteristic of a particular ethnic group? Is it a representation of a fundamental expression of our social identity? Does Sinhala help us maintain the feelings of cultural and ethnic kinship? Can the Sinhala language unite various ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka?
I do not think that the Sri Lankan Sinhalese would make an attempt to learn Tamil because they can survive without it; they have nothing to gain by expressing their grievances, political or otherwise, in Tamil. On the other hand, the minorities in Sri Lanka have to survive among this majority. If you are a Tamil or a Muslim, what is the impetus to learn Sinhala?
For all practical purposes, we must have two, or even three, official languages—Sinhala, Tamil, and English—in Sri Lanka, but can we form a single national identity without a common language? Can we blame the ravaging imperialist monsters for creating two bleeding halves of this edenic paradise? We know that English is not going to be our common language of the masses, because English is somewhat inaccessible and belong to the realm of the intellectual elite. English, spoken competently by about 10% of the population, is referred to as the link language in the constitution. I do not know the percentage of Tamils who are fluent in Sinhala, but I know one thing: When Tamil or Muslim politicians articulate their thoughts fluently in Sinhala, they get the attention of the majority Sinhalese. Try it if you do not believe me!
We—Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and other minorities—have been living together; from its earliest recorded history to now, Sri Lanka continues to be a multiethnic society, yet we have not found a way to communicate effectively and sincerely with each other. When people speak a common language, it is easier to communicate; our inability to find a common language has been a curse with disasters reaching biblical proportions. We have been told that during the early centuries of Sri Lankan history there was considerable harmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils. What happened to that harmony? How did it turn into hegemony?
In Sri Lanka, most Tamils, including Tamil politicians, are not very fluent in Sinhala. Is it because they refuse to learn Sinhala as a vehement protest against Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony? Is it not pragmatic to learn Sinhala in a country where around 72% use mostly Sinhala as their day-to-day language? The problem with Sinhala language is that its ownership by the ethnic group that identifies themselves as Sinhalese; in the USA, people who speak English do not identify themselves with a particular ethnic group. English is the de facto—not de jure—national language of the United States, and some 95% claim to speak it “well” or “very well”; however, no official national language exists at the federal level. English has acquired official status in 28 of the 50 states; Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii. What can we learn from this de facto American experience?
It seems like our national politics has evolved around influential personalities whose vision and agenda were too myopic, based on their personal political gains focused on communal grounds, not on national unity and harmony. As a result, among the Sinhalese—organizing on communal grounds—nationalism manifested as a movement to restore Buddhism to its former glory, and others followed suit; e.g., the Burgher Political Association in 1938, the Ceylon Indian Congress in 1939, and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944. It seems like our focus has never been on what it means to be a Sri Lankan; if “Sri Lankans “ is not our sincere deepest identity, the dream of shared values and national unity will never be fulfilled, especially among those who fuel bigotry and disharmony for their personal political gains.
The discussions and need to change Sri Lankan language policy started way before Bandaranaike era. There was a consensus to declare both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages; however, in 1956, the Sinhala Only Act replaced English as the official language of Sri Lanka, but failed to give official recognition to Tamil, which is the mother tongue of three largest minority ethnic groups—Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, and Moors—who together account for around 28% of the country’s population.
If you are a supporter of this Sinhala Only Act, you would say that this was our best way to show our independence from our colonial masters; but if you are an opponent, you would say it was an attempt by the Sinhalese to oppress and affirm dominance on minorities. The Act justified a demand for a separate nation state by Tamils, which resulted in decades of civil war.
Who benefited from this Act, the subaltern Sinhalese and the Tamils Sri Lankans: those Sri Lankans who were fluent in English? The subaltern elite of the Sinhalese and Tamils held civil service jobs, which required fluency in English. It is interesting to notice that among the subaltern elite, the Sinhalese subaltern elite held the view that the Tamils had enjoyed a privileged position under the British, than their share of the island’s Tamil population. Can you blame the Tamils for that?
The SLFP decided to campaign on the slogan “Sinhala Only”—one of their key election promises in the 1956 parliamentary elections—and they won. The Sinhala Only bill was passed with the SLFP and the UNP supporting it, but the LSSP, Communist Party, and the Tamil nationalist parties opposed it.
How are we going to solve a problem that is almost unsolvable? For Sri Lanka to remain as a unitary system, undivided, all Sri Lankans must feel that they belong in it; all Sri Lankans must feel that the society serves them. What gives that sense of belonging without division? We ask for a separate piece when we fell that we do not own the entire thing, when we feel that we do not belong in it, and when we feel that we are being discriminated against. But is there a solution that is not based on emotion, but on survival, realism, and pragmatism?
If I were a Tamil or a Muslim, living in Sri Lanka, I would definitely be very fluent in Sinhala, just like I would encourage everyone to learn English if they choose to live here in the US. Promoting Sinhala as our common language is a very controversial and incendiary issue in Sri Lanka. If you are fluent in Sinhala, would you lose your ethnic identity as a Tamil or a Muslim?
If you are a Sri Lankan Tamil or a Muslim—and if you are very fluent in Sinhala—I am pretty sure that the bigoted ethnic Sinhalese politicians cannot play the language card against you. If fact, you should know Sinhala better than any Sinhalese person living in Sri Lanka so that Sinhala language would not be an impediment to maximize your potential and god given talents.
I have seen on TV, extremists proclaim: This country belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists. My question is: What about the rest? As Sri Lankans, we have the same rights and responsibilities. What can we do to make us feel that Sri Lanka belongs to all Sri Lankans? Is this idea—we all are Sri Lankans with equal rights and equal responsibilities—a political miracle? Can we ever achieve it?
When are we going to move beyond communal and tribal politics and think as one nation: As Sri Lankans? Is it possible to have this single identity, Sri Lankans, without a common language? As long as the majority identify themselves as Sinhala-Buddhists, first, we can never solve this problem.
I think, with our recent political changes—I sincerely doubt that these changes will survive unless we get rid of the crooks, bigots, thugs, and asinine pseudo-intellectuals; pish! It seems like the entire Sri Lanka—all of us now have a genuine opportunity to participate in our Herculean task of building a single identity and consciousness: I am a Sri Lankan. Can we ever detach ourselves from the ethnic identity of the Sinhalese Language? We can talk about Sirisena’s tree-worship, which is innocuous, or talk about our burning national problems that continue to plague us: a country without a single national identity and what can we do about it?