Is Sinhala the Official Language of Sri Lanka?

(Courtesy of The Island)

When I raise this question, one may wonder why I raise this question 64 years after Sinhala was made the Official Language of Sri Lanka by the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956. The people in the country, including the people in the North and the East, the politicians and the political parties in the South may believe that Sinhala is the Official Language of Sri Lanka applicable throughout the country. But the Tamil political parties in the North and the East and the Muslim political parties know that it is not the case. It is they who got this done extending support to Ranasinghe Premadasa to win the 1988 Presidential Election against Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

I was prompted to do this study on the operation of the Official Language Policy in Sri Lanka on my own experience that I gathered from my communications with some public officials in the Eastern Province. In December 2019, I sent a lengthy letter in Sinhala to the Commissioner General of Lands with copies to the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa complaining about a grave injustice done to a Tamil national in the East by the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa by depriving him of his right to his land contrary to law. On receipt of my complaint the Commissioner General of Lands convened a meeting of all concerned parties including the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretary of Batticaloa in January 2020 and directed them to grant relief to the affected person. Ignoring the direction of the Commissioner General of Lands, the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa sent me their responses in Tamil. Prior to that also they had responded in Tamil some letters that I sent to them in English on the same issue. On the other hand, I found that they had responded in Sinhala to all the letters that they had received from the Commissioner General of Lands.

In 2017, I visited the Uhana Divisional Secretariat in the Ampara District to conduct an educational programme on law and human rights for the staff of the Divisional Secretariat and the general public in the area. There a participant, an soldier, raised a grievance that he had faced. On an inquiry about a state land that belongs to him from the land office at Central Camp he had got a letter in Tamil. As he did not know Tamil he had to go in search of a translator and pay him Rs. 100 and get the letter translated into Sinhala. That is the plight most of the Sinhala people in the North and thee East are facing today.

According to the Constitution, today, Sinhala is not the Official Language of Sri Lanka, it is only an Official Language, one of the two National Languages of Sri Lanka, the language of administration, used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the seven Provinces where the majority of population speak and use Sinhala for transacting business in and with public institutions. Sinhala is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.

As all the public institutions in the seven Provinces – Parliament, Provincial Councils, Local Authorities, Government Departments and Courts use Sinhala to conduct business and to maintain records, and the people can receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with public officials in these areas in the country they assume that Sinhala is the official language of the whole country.

Sinhala remained the Official Language of Sri Lanka continuously for 32 years from 1956 to December 17, 1988. Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who is said to have opposed the Official Languages Act in 1956, saying that one language would result in two countries and two languages in one country, did not think it necessary to change the official language policy of the country when he introduced the 1972 Constitution.

The provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution are as follows:

S. 7. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official
Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956.

S. 8 (1). The use of the Tamil language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language
(Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

The language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided by the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

When President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the 1978 Constitution creating Executive Presidency, he did not change the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution. At the time he introduced the 1978 Constitution, he adopted the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution.

The following are the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.

Art. 18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.

Art. 19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

Art. 22 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka provided that the Tamil Language shall also be used as the language of administration for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

This is nothing but giving effect to the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
By Article 22 (1) JR ensured that Sinhala shall remain the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka including the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Art. 24 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka and accordingly their records and proceedings shall be in the Official Language; Provided that the language of the courts exercising original jurisdiction in the Northern and Eastern Provinces shall also be Tamil and their records and proceedings shall be in Tamil.

Through 1978 Constitution, JR constitutionally guaranteed that: (a) Sinhala shall be the Official Language of Sri Lanka; (b) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka; (c) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka.

At the time JR adopted the 1978 Constitution Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or the Federal Party was the biggest Opposition political party in Parliament with 17 MPs and A. Amirthalingam was the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

Although Leftist political parties and the SLFP were critical of the Executive Presidency and opposed it, there was not much opposition or public protests on the part of the Tamil political parties against the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution. When the Official Languages Act was introduced in Parliament in 1956, there were huge protests and civil disobedience campaigns organized by Tamil political parties against it. Probably they may have realized by then that the language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided for by the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.

Even at the time J. R. Jayewardene was compelled to bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution setting up Provincial Councils in 1987, he did not amend the provisions relating to the Official Language in Articles 18, 22 (1) and 24 (1) in the 1978 Constitution, although he added two new sub-Articles to facilitate the functioning of the newly set up Provincial Councils in the North and the East.

Art. 18 (2). Tamil shall also be an official language.

18 (3). English shall be the link language.

Tamil was also made an official language so that the Provincial Councils proposed to be set up in the North and the East could conduct their official functions in Tamil without any hindrance. It did not relegate the status given to Sinhala as the Official Language of the whole country.

But all these were changed by Ranasinghe Premadasa to get the support of Tamil and Muslim political parties in the North and the East to win the Presidential Election held in December 1988.

The 1988 Presidential Election was held on December 19, 1988. Two days prior to the Presidential Election, on December 17, 1988 Premadasa got two Amendments – the 15th and the 16th Amendments to the Constitution – enacted. With the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, President Premadasa brought about far-reaching changes in the hitherto existing Official Language policy in the country as shown below:

After the 16th Amendment to the Constitution:

Although nominally Sinhala is The Official Language, in effect it is no longer The Official Language of the country, it is only an Official Language in the sense that it is the language of administration in seven provinces;

It is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.

One can say that constitutionally Tamil is the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka as there is no limitation imposed on its application as in the case of Sinhala.

The Proviso to Article 22 (1) could result in the creation of minority linguistic ethnic units at the Divisional Secretariat level using languages different from the language of administration in the province as the language of administration for such area.

Even Arabic may be used as the language of administration for some of such areas like Kattankudy/Saindamaruthu. Already there have been disputes between the Tamil and Muslim communities in Kalmunai each community demanding a separate Divisional Secretariats for themselves.

The 16th Amendment:

a. disabled the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956 and made it ineffective;

b. removed Sinhala from the pedestal that it had occupied all this time as the Official Language of Sri Lanka;

c. relegated Sinhala from being the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka to the language of administration in the seven Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;

d. raised Tamil from being the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka without any restrictions imposed on it as in the case of Sinhala;

e. replaced the use of national languages with English, thereby strengthening the position of communalist politicians to continue their exploitation of poverty and ignorance of their people enabling them to obtain documents from and conduct communications with all public institutions throughout the country in English;

f. instead of promoting national harmony through facilitating communications among public institutions in different areas in the country in national languages, promoted division among people by promoting English as the means of communication among provincial councils and local authorities using different languages as the language of administration.

g. relegated Sinhala from being the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka with their records and proceedings maintained in Sinhala to the language of courts in the 7 Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;

h. in relation to laws and subordinate legislation enacted by Parliament, removed the requirement that Sinhala text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between Sinhala and Tamil or English texts;

i. removed the requirement of persons seeking admission to the Public Service, Judicial Service, Provincial Public Service, Local Government Service or any public institution being examined through the medium of either of the National Languages – Sinhala or Tamil;

Now an applicant has the choice of deciding the language he is to be examined. It may be English or even Arabic.
In fact, this has been brought for the purpose of opening the public service to those students of International Schools who receive their education in English medium and who do not know either Sinhala or Tamil.

j. removed the requirement of persons joining the Public Service acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the official language within a reasonable time after admission to such service;

Now, there is no requirement for any public servant in the North and the East to acquire any knowledge of the Sinhala language; he has only to acquire knowledge of the language as is reasonably necessary for the discharge of his duties – that is Tamil.

k. Removed the requirement of publishing all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by any public institution, Provincial Council or a local authority in both National Languages;

l. Required all public institutions other than Provincial Councils or local authorities to publish all such documents in Sinhala and Tamil together with a translation thereof in English;

m. Required the Provincial Councils and local authorities to publish all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by them and all other official documents including circulars and forms issued or used by such body or local authority, in the language of administration in the areas in which they function, together with a with a translation thereof in English.

This has resulted in the denial of the rights of tens of thousands of Sinhala speaking people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka from conducting communications with Provincial administrations and local authorities in their national language and placing them in great difficulty, compelling them to transact their communications with public institutions in Tamil, a language they are not conversant with.

The availability of English translation will not help the ordinary people, whether Tamil or Sinhala speaking. It has been done at the request of and for the benefit of the leaders of Tamil and Muslim political parties who continue to hoodwink the masses of the helpless Tamil speaking people with their false slogans of winning the rights of Tamil speaking people, while they themselves enjoy all the privileges conducting all their transactions in English.

By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development



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