The crumbling British South Asian Empire spat out three bloodied rumps. Their dominant elites dignified them as “independent States” and have struggled to squeeze the multiple nationalities – nations lacking their own States – into the elite’s imagined “composite nation”. The tortuous process has been glorified as “inclusive nation building”, which in reality is more like how sausages are made.
The simile does not suggest that history may be ignored when arbitrarily flavouring a country’s culture. Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) and first Governor-General Mohammad Ali Jinnah discovered that fact when he kicked off the vaunted nation-building within months of the Dominion’s “independence”. His new government in Karachi announced Urdu and English shall be the State languages in November 1947. The use of English was offered as a sop, a holding position, soon confirmed when the Education Minister swiftly made preparations to declare Urdu as the sole official language.
He brushed aside the sentiments of East Pakistan’s Bengali scholars who reasoned that if Urdu becomes the state language, their own people would be turned ‘illiterate’ overnight and made ‘ineligible’ for employment in the public sector. Bengali students in Dhaka rallied, demanding Bangla too be made an official language of Pakistan.
As public outrage boiled over, Jinnah arrived on his first visit to Dhaka in March 1948. He informed Bengalis that Pakistan is a new country, that Pakistanis must stand united against external enemies [India]. Allegedly to solidify a unity between Pakistanis living in the western and eastern wings, he reiterated Urdu must be adopted as the sole official language. Ironically Jinnah was functionally illiterate in Urdu. His almost colonial action in East Bengal, renamed East Pakistan in 1952, invigorated the Bangla Language Movement, shattered the social basis of the unity he claimed to seek and deepened disunity.
The Karachi government blamed the exploding nationalist protests in Dhaka on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Bengali “separatists” and “communalists” in the Muslim Awami League, and accused them of misleading the Bengali people to grab transient political gain. The West Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated elite soon unleashed the armed forces presumably because they believed Bengalis would prefer death to separation from West Pakistan.
The elite justified the militarisation as a necessity to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, concepts invented in the 19th Century to legitimise the defence against external aggression but illegitimately enforced now against internal challenges to the domestic West Pakistani elite who controlled the State; thousands of Bengalis were tortured, raped, killed and disappeared. The dystopian politics intensified Bengali nationalism to demand Bangla self-determination, fought for by the Mukti Bahini-led armed resistance in the Bangla Liberation War.
The carnage could have continued for decades more, wrecked the economy and laid the country waste if not for New Delhi’s swift intervention that midwifed the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and turned “separatists” into statesmen. The returns on Sindhi, Baluchi and Pachtoon nationalist movements have yet to roll in.
Ceylon’s Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike staged the similar dystopian politics with his “Sinhala Only” eight years later, in 1956, by legislating Sinhala as the sole official language. Ironically, Bandaranaike was functionally illiterate in Sinhala. He sought to dignify the myopic strategy to harvest votes among Sinhalese as patriotic nationalist politics allegedly to replace the coloniser’s English with Sinhala. He claimed also the new official language would “facilitate” Tamils to communicate with the Sinhalese, thereby uniting them as a nation.
The divisive consequences soon tore the country apart. Most nationalist Sinhalese who controlled his and subsequent governments found it incomprehensible why Tamils, who were coerced into learning Portuguese, Dutch and English languages under successive colonial regimes, cannot similarly learn Sinhala under Sinhalese rule. Their confusion impelled them to caricature Tamils’ non-violent protests as “communalism”. On the contrary, the S.J.V. Chelvanayagam-led Ilankai Tamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) championed a federal structure based on linguistic states, a principle that had surfaced in India in the late 1930s.
The Sinhalese-controlled government deployed armed forces to repress Tamil nationalism’s struggles for political rights; inevitably the demands escalated to national self-determination. The repression matured the ITAK’s two-decade long non-violent agitation (1956-1976), guided on Ahimsa, into the armed resistance of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that sucked the country into a 40-year (1979-2009) civil war. The Island has bled for the past six decades; and we see no light at the end of the tunnel.
Not one to be outdone, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP is striving to impose Hindi as the sole official language on the plethora of nationalities – around 22 at the last count – in India. He is functionally literate in Hindi. But his language policy confirms that politicians, consumed by power, usually do not learn from history: he is convinced a single national language is necessary to unify a supposedly divided India but has yet to demonstrate that division, if any.
Moreover, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) votaries of Hindi as official language claim it is recognised in the Constitution, which in fact declared two official languages – Hindi and English. However, they do not seek to implement both; instead they are manoeuvring to enshrine Hindi as a national language. The sleight of hand is obvious. Since amending the Constitution to eliminate English as an official language would be hugely controversial and fraught with difficulties, Hindi could be “smuggled” in as the de facto sole official language under the cloak of a newly-minted national language that in practice, they hope, would apparently subordinate and, in time, eliminate English as an official language.
The opponents argue that the imposition of Hindi as a national language through the foot-in-the-door educational reforms betrays the solemn undertakings New Delhi gave, when the policy of linguistic states was adopted in the 1950s, to allow the states to freely develop their respective language and culture. The pro-Hindi lobby alleges that Hindi as national language does not retard the development of other languages; but many disagree and point out that it is nothing less than a serious reversal of the devolution of power enshrined in the Linguistic States Principle and reinforced by practice.
The opposition in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka further underline that Hindi is not a language of philosophy, literature, science and/or the arts; rather Bollywood popularised Hindi; and that its imposition may eclipse the proficiency in English and eventually dumb down the country’s intellect notwithstanding the borrowed Sanskrit vocabulary. The full outcomes of the political regression may soon be evident in India; ominously, first blood has already been drawn over verbal and physical violence perpetrated upon the 200 million, Urdu-speaking Muslims.
Reconstruction of memory
Privileging Urdu speakers, Sinhala speakers and Hindi speakers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India respectively consigns people speaking other so-called “regional” languages to the social periphery.
What’s worse, language is the repository of historical memories of each nation and its primary source of identity. Imposing an outsider’s language, whether of the “majority” within the State’s territorial border or from without, attenuates historical memories and violates their inextricably linked national identity.
English colonialists wiped out the Gaelic language of the Scottish people by mandating English as the language for official business and as the medium of education: children who spoke Gaelic were punished. The palpable intention of the English elite was to “inclusively” develop the Scottish people within the English milieu. That succeeded for time through a combination of military repression of the people and co-opting their collaborative elite, backed by the enormous wealth plundered from the British Empire. But Scottish nationalism expressed itself in the language of the coloniser – English – and is back with a vengeance after almost three centuries. The Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA) has surfaced on and off since 1965 and several members were imprisoned; the political Scottish National Party (SNP) unveiled the blueprint for independence in 2013. Despite the unsuccessful 2014 Referendum – its narrow failure was exaggerated and celebrated by the English-dominated press – the Movement is only growing stronger. The Scottish, and similar Welsh, experience underlines the futility of repressing cultural identity.
The historical memories of the native, pre-colonial peoples were by and large wiped out by eliminating their mother tongues, denigrated as “Devil’s Speak” in the United States to stamp out their cultural identity – culturecide – or cultural genocide. Canada and Australia have similarly attempted to erase historical memories of First Nations by brutally dragging several generations of their children away from their families, regimenting them in English language boarding schools and imprisoning them with white families to deform them into English speaking “civilised citizens”. The full extent of the atrocities are yet unknown and apologies made for recent revelations invoking multi-culturalism are not justifications for closing the investigations.
First Nations who managed to survive in appreciable numbers are struggling to claw back their history and culture. In Canada the State has belatedly recognised the Inuit peoples’ land rights “to create socio-economic and cultural equity between Inuit and other Canadians”; certainly, a welcome change. However, clarifying title to land also facilitates multinational corporations, thirsting after sub-soil resources, to lease the land owned by the Inuit.
The political essence of official language policies of the elites of respective major linguistic group that wields State power in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, is the virtually the same: to similarly deracinate the cultural identities of groups that don’t speak the major language under the pretext of “nation-building”. Blatant racism is only the lesser part of the explanation. More to the point, the elite of the major linguistic group homogenise language to dispense with coalitions with troublesome elites of other linguistic groups and exercise power to directly dominate and control the entire population. A focus on “identity conflicts” usefully explores anthropological dimensions but tends to miss the central dynamics of political power.
The tragic consequences are unfolding before our eyes. In Sri Lanka we are living the folly of the Lilliputian Sinhala-Buddhist feudalist elite, as it fumbles with “Sinhala Only”. Meanwhile its current affluent generation are voting with their feet to join International Schools, proliferating like mushrooms and teaching in the English language medium.
Dynamics of nation-building: exclusion and resistance
For a while the Sinhalese elite and its mainstream intelligentsia (excluding literally a handful of the Old Left), content that Sinhalese hegemony had been secured by legislation and administrative actions, were shaken out of their reverie when Tamil’s armed resistance exploded in the late 1970s followed by Muslim radicalism. Most nationalist Sinhalese have been flummoxed, wondering how Former President DB Wijetunge’s earthy metaphor of the sturdy Sinhalese “Tree” and clinging Tamil and Muslim “Vine” (Interview, Sunday Observer, 6/feb/94) proved so tragically wrong.
More so when the Sinhalese rural youth they had pampered with land settlement schemes and rural development programs revolted in 1971 and 1987-89, betrayed by the mirage of a Sinhala Only Golden Agrarian Age.
The elites in successive governments responded by rapidly modernising the expanding the hitherto largely ceremonial armed forces to repress Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim resistance. Large numbers of unemployable Sinhalese – mostly collateral damage of the Sinhala-Only policy – were absorbed into the burgeoning military that wolfed down scarce national resources.
The anti-Tamil 40-year war (1979-2009) and military operations against the two JVP uprisings dragged the government deeper and deeper into debt to finance the military and to replenish foreign reserves essential to import consumer goods.
The prolonged military operations widened and deepened corruption: the judiciary made questionable rulings to incarcerate numerous Tamil youth and condoned the suspension of the hallowed habeas corpus; new opportunities to get rich quickly opened as many Tamils arbitrarily arrested and indefinitely detained under the PTA reportedly “bought” their freedom; the medical profession received intra-venous injections of corruption as JMOs (Judicial Medical Officers) routinely falsified autopsy reports and covered up evidence of torture, naively believing they were helping the armed forces to save the motherland from the Tamil “Tigers”; reported mass graves in the north and south and extra judicial executions have been hardly investigated with the professionalism they demand; defence procurements enriched a new social layer of crony capitalists who supplied everything from boot laces, brass buttons, dry rations and weapons; and their kickbacks greased the palms of large sections of the Sinhalese political class and bureaucracy. Human rights were violated in the name of saving the country from “terrorism”. The cumulative result is Basil Fernando’s non-rule of law system.
However, criticising the government a few Sinhalese acquaintances explained to us in the mid-1990s, would only benefit the “terrorists”. They were confident the “vibrant democracy” that Sri Lanka they believe is would weather the challenges posed by unconstitutional rule, institutionalised impunity, virtually non-existent democratic accountability and endemic corruption. Little do they realise that the very “challenges” reveal that the country is far from a democracy and probably never was one.
The feudalist elite inveigled the Sinhalese people in general to tolerate the unbridled corruption and non-rule of law as necessities for the success of the Tamil “Tiger” Safari; soon people acclimatised themselves to the new political normal. Their moral collapse is vividly documented by Asoka NL Ekanayaka and amply confirmed by the choice for President in 2019 of the 69 lacs of almost exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist voters.
Most members of today’s political class and dysfunctional State institutions are by and large the effluents of a system broken by the four-decade long war. Sinhalese concerned to fully comprehend how the country came to this pass may find it edifying to take walk down the Road to Nandikadal.
[Next: Part III – Systemic change]
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who read Political Economy for the Ph.D. degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies, Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com