THE LANGUAGE PROBLEM – A MIDDLE PATH SOLUTION

Article in the Sunday Observer of June 23, 1957

In our life-time, our Country has never faced a crisis so serious  as it is now confronted with and fraught with such dire consequences – reminiscent of the violence that was let loose in the Sub-Continent  of India during the year 1947 when  neighbours  who  had  lived  happily together for many previous years killed each other in a fit of communal frenzy. This crisis that has beset us is something which no one in Ceylon can afford to ignore – not even those who normally do not take an active interest in politics.

 
The  announcement  by the Federal Party of a satyagraha and civil disobedience campaign in August this year has caused the emergence of new groups of saviours – saviours of the Sinhalese language, some of whom have already familiarized Ceylon with fasting unto death – another of the Gandhian techniques adopted by these extremists of the North as well as of the South to achieve their objectives. Together they have made unhappy the life of nearly every one of this country who inwardly feels that to dwell in a pleasant land is one of the greatest blessings which a human-being can be heir to.
 
It is a fact that disruptive tendencies are unfortunately prevalent in our Country today and our national unity is thereby imperilled. With the crisis that has already overtaken our Country and ourselves it is utterly futile to waste our energies at this stage trying to apportion blame among the various political parties or leaders, and thus encourage them to indulge in accusations and counter accusations.
 
Between the two extremist alternatives of equal status and no status to the Tamil language, there is a  middle-path solution so well anticipated in the resolution that was unanimously adopted on the 18th of December, 1955 at the Joint Conference of the All-Ceylon Muslim League and of the All-Ceylon Moors’ Association. It reads :-
 
“That  Sinhalese be  accepted  as the only State language with due official recognition  being  given  to Tamil and English and provided that fundamental rights of the minorities in respect of religion, culture, language etc. are incorporated in the Constitution.”
 
This resolution expresses the general will of the Ceylonese Muslim Community irrespective of whether its members belong to the North or the South. Living as  the Muslims are scattered throughout the Island and yet forming a distinctive cultural group of the Ceylonese Nation, this resolution reflects the Community’s deep concern for one and happy Ceylon where the various  groups have so  far lived together in peace and harmony without racial strife, communal  conflict  or  religious  discord   and  have  sincerely endeavoured over a period of several years to achieve political unity in the midst of cultural diversity.
 
A middle path solution of this type has also been advocated by several other groups and the Prime Minister is aware of their views – through the various memoranda submitted to him from the time he came into power. One of them was from the All-Ceylon Union of Teachers which has branches both in the North and in the South. That the Committee of this organization was able to submit a memorandum acceptable to both sections is indicative of the deeply felt  desire  of the vast majority of the people of Ceylon to foster communal harmony and amity. In October last year a similar memorandum was submitted to the Prime Minister signed by Rev. Narawila Dhammaratna Thero, Mr. C. Coomaraswamy, Rev. Celestine Fernando, and Messrs. C.J. Oorloof, K. Nesiah and A.M.A. Azeez and thirty others representative of all the racial and religious groups of Ceylon.
 
That memorandum, inter-alia, stated :-
 
“We are aware that the Official Language Act at present on the Statute book and the manner in which it was passed have caused much sorrow and dissatisfaction to certain minority groups in our Country; and we believe that so long as there is resentment in a substantial minority group our unity as a nation will be imperilled.
 
With a  view  to  working  for  national  unity  and  efficiency  in administration, we  who sign this appeal earnestly request you to sponsor legislation, generally on the following lines :
 
1(a)Securing due official recognition to the Tamil language.
  (b)Providing for a longer period in which to complete the transition from English.
 
2(a)Providing for instruction and examination in schools to be based on the principle that every child should be taught and examined in its mother tongue.
 (b)Ensuring that the medium of instruction is also the medium of examination in respect of all candidates for the Public Service (provided that in the case of those candidates whose medium of instruction has not been Sinhalese they should be required to pass,  after a  reasonable  period, in  Sinhalese;  and  in the case of those candidates  whose  medium  of instruction has been Sinhalese they should be required to pass in Tamil if the nature of their service demands it.)
(c)Providing for both media of instruction viz : Sinhalese and Tamil, in the University when the present medium is changed.
(d)Ensuring  that a Tamil-speaking person, if he so desires, may transact business with the State in his own language.
(e)Ensuring that Government publications and notifications are in both Sinhalese and Tamil.
(f)Enabling  proceedings  in Parliament to be conducted both in Sinhalese and Tamil.
(g)Giving each local body the right to determine the language of its administration  (with  the  proviso  that members may speak either in Sinhalese or in Tamil and that ratepayers will be able to transact their business in either of the national languages.)”
 
It is  my  firm  conviction that if a bill had been introduced by the Government about this time or soon after giving statutory recognition to the Tamil language, the Federal party would not have gained so much popularity among  the  Tamil speaking peoples of Ceylon. While the Prime Minister probably  was  awaiting  propitious circumstances for the introduction of legislation to fulfil the second part of his election pledge on the language problem – namely reasonable use of Tamil – some of the administrative acts of his  ministers  and  officers  created  genuine doubts in the minds of the minorities of the ability of the Prime Minister to contain the extremists in  his camp and to give effect to the assurances he had given in Parliament and outside that “the minorities need have no fear of injustice or discrimination in the carrying out of the government’s policies and programmes.”
The moderates among the Tamil speaking people in such circumstances could not successfully oppose the Federalists. As the Federalists gained strength in the North, the extremists began to gain strength in the South and the masses were being exploited by language saviours.
 
That was a dismal situation abhorrent to all the moderate and liberal elements of the Country whether of the North or of the South. They were helpless for the initiative had to come from the Prime Minister and they were despairing whether any positive steps would be taken by the Government to ease the tension that was being created.
 
The four point formula adumbrated by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives on the 25th of April this year by which he sought to fulfil the second part of his Election Pledge on the language question however has given fresh hopes and new courage to the moderate and liberal elements.
 
As could be anticipated the formula has not satisfied the extremists of either the North or the South. And therein lies the possibility of a reasonable and early settlement of this vexed question. A Round Table Conference has been suggested. With the Prime Minister committed to the Country by his election pledge on language and the Federal Party by its own categorical pledges  to  its  electorates any  Round  Table Conference in the present circumstances would prove as abortive as the one attempted by the Prime Minister on the  24th of  May, 1956. Besides,  debates in Parliament and discussions in the Press on this problem have been going on for over an year and there is no important aspect that has been left unexpressed. The Prime Minister himself cannot be unacquainted with the views representative of any of the minority groups.
 
It has therefore become imperatively necessary that the Prime Minister’s Bill, giving statutory recognition to the Tamil language in fulfillment of his election pledge  and on the  lines  indicated  by him in his Parliamentary statement of the 25th of April, 1957, be introduced early whatever reaction it may produce on the extremists in the  North and in the South. The Prime Minister having been voted to power by the vast majority of the Sinhalese people and therefore enjoying the confidence of the Sinhalese people as no other person does today has now a patriotic duty to perform – to save the Country, of which he is the present leader, from disruption and preserve the national unity for which several generations have striven. And it is the duty to Ceylon of all those who love this Country to give whatever assistance each of them can to the Prime Minister by actively canvassing public opinion against the extremists in the Country.
 
There is little time left. But I am deeply convinced that Ceylon will face successfully the crisis that is now threatening her unity and freedom.
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