Even as independent Sri Lanka turns 69 today, many of us who are living in and outside of Sri Lanka continue to debate the meanings of the terms “independent” and “Sri Lanka” given the history of conflicts and violence that our country has witnessed for the past 69 years. As a recommended reading for the 69th Independence Day, Colombo Telegraph re-produces an extract from the Editorial Notes of Jaffna College Miscellany published in August 1940 where the editors S Handy Perinbanayagam and Lyman S Kulatungam wrote with great foresight about the importance of Sinhala-Tamil bilingualism to the political future of a country that was yet to gain its independence from British colonial rule. Though we cannot reduce the problems that plague Sri Lanka and its peoples in 2017, including the national question, to a language conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese or the state and its Tamil speaking populations, it is important to remember that the failure of the Sinhala-Buddhist political elite and Sinhala-centric political parties that have successively ruled post-independent Ceylon and Sri Lanka to embrace the progressive and inclusive vision shown by anti-colonial thinkers and activists like Handy Perinbanayagam of the Jaffna Youth Congress is one of the major reasons for our post-colonial misery today.
Sinhalese in Jaffna College
A much needed change was introduced into the curriculum of the College, when the authorities decided to introduce Sinhalese among the subjects taught in Jaffna College. The role a language plays in welding into a unity all that speak it is so obvious that we do not need to draw attention to it. The Roman Empire realised the important part language played and wherever the Roman Eagle spread its wings, the Latin language too spread its influence. The British were not slow to realise the advantage of having a common language for their empire and, wherever they went, with deliberate policy, they established schools for teaching English. And who that knows even faintly how the English language has wrought the bonds that knit the empire into one compact unity will doubt their wisdom? The English language is, in our opinion, the most potent of the peaceful means that conquest employs to win over the soul of a nation. Therefore, the part that a knowledge of Sinhalese will play in bringing about a consciousness of national unity in the minds of the Tamils cannot be exaggerated. We do not forget there is another party to the bargain. What we say of the Tamils has application to the Sinhalese also. They will be strangers to the Tamils, as long as they make no endeavour to know the Tamil language. The optimum policy for Ceylon will be for every Sinhalese boy and every Sinhalese girl to be taught Tamil in addition to Sinhalese and for every Tamil boy and every Tamil girl to be taught Sinhalese in addition to Tamil. And the time is not far off, we hope, when an effort will be made to realise this vision of ours. But we are thankful for the humbler beginnings made in this direction by some schools in the Island.
Those who would deny freedom to India have always harped on the absence of a common language for all India and have with ill-conceived glee pointed to every paltry dialect as an independent language, thus exaggerating a problem which in itself is grave enough. But the Indians have taken up the challenge and are making a determined effort to make Hindi an all-India language. We in Ceylon are more fortunately placed than the Indians in this regard. We have only two languages and the problem of a common language can be easily solved by recognising both as official languages and providing for instruction in both throughout the Island. We are sorry that even a Ceylonese Minister of Education, who has a fair measure of power in matters of this nature, has done nothing to bring about this consummation that we so eagerly look forward to.
We are also sure that before long a knowledge of Sinhalese and Tamil will have an economic value. The time is not far distant when a minimum attainment in both languages will be a requirement for appointments under the Government. And those who take to business also will need a knowledge of these languages.
The effort we in Jaffna College are making, we know, is small and inadequate. But we rejoice over it, because it is an augury of greater things soon to come.
*Reference: Perinbanayagam, S.H. & L.S Kulatungam. “Editorial Notes.” Jaffna College Miscellany XLX.2 (1940): 2-4.