16 May 2018

And it all began with ‘Sinhala Only’ ok?

The root cause. People like to throw that phrase around when talking about problems and their resolutions. It’s a decent enough proposition, the assumption being that if root causes are identified and fixed, not only will the problem be sorted but its reincarnation, so to speak, would be preempted.  

The problem with root causes is that it naturally takes us to the past. That’s about history and archaeology, literally and metaphorically.  This takes us to readings, subjectivity, the distortion caused by outcome preferences and such.  It also comes down to how far down you want to dig, because some roots go a long way down and their excavation can not only be arduous but can reveal truths that make the particular digger uncomfortable.

Take the ‘ethnic’ conflict for example.  Where does one begin? The year 1983 and the July riots is a valid ‘beginning’ to some.  Even that can be written in many ways.  One can focus on the role of the then UNP Government, the deployment of the party’s trade union arm, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) and the non-deployment of forces that could have effectively prevented or at least minimize loss of life and damage to property.  ‘It was just the Sinhala Buddhists who have racism, chauvinism and intolerance in their DNA doing their thing,’ some can say (as some have said). Recounting is also about exaggeration and down-playing, this too we know.

Was it 1977 when the TULF became the largest party in the Opposition? Was it 1976 and the Batakotte (Vadukkoddai) Resolution of the TULF? Was it 1975 when Prabhakaran murdered the SLFP Mayor of Jaffna Alfred Duraiappah?  How about 1949 when S.J.V. Chelvanayagam founded the Federal Party or 1939 when G.G. Ponnambalam made his (in)famous 50-50 demand? Shouldn’t we begin with the Pan Sinhala Cabinet that was set up under the Donoughmore Constitution in 1936, one might offer. How about how the British elevated the non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist sections of the population as per their divide-and-rule preference? When Ponnambalam Ramanathan demanded in the 1920s that the first university be set up in Jaffna, didn’t it indicated some kind of nascent Tamil chauvinism, one could ask. It was all because of Anagarika Dharmapala, someone might insist. Really, but then Arumugam Navalar’s Hindu Revivalism pre-dates Dharmapala, the latter being just 15 years old when the former died at the age of 57, another could counter.

“Forget all that! It’s Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Only’ business in 1956 that set the country down this mad road to self-destruction. This and nothing else is the root cause. It is the Mother of all Root Causes, in fact!”

Somehow, over the years, this ‘Sinhala Only is the only Root’ has taken root. Now if this were the true root then dealing with it makes absolute sense. If, on the other hand, it is not 'The Root’ or if it is only ‘One of Many Roots’ then rooting for it amounts to barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. 

An exhaustive exploration would have to examine all claims and weigh their weight in the conflict-equation. Each has merit and each, in isolation, tells a partial story. We also need to seek out the less talk of and the absented in all this. Having said that, let’s consider this Sinhala Only Root.

‘Sinhala Only’ is the term used for the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956.  It replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhala. A language that’s mother-tongue to almost two-thirds of a population is as ‘national’ as any. When it is spoken by a further 10-15% there’s no question about its primacy. That said, it was not only ill-conceived but went against the grain of the philosophy embedded in the coinage of the name ‘Sinhala’, which comes from Siv-Hela, or the 4 Helas (Yaksha, Raksha, Naga and Deva), essentially speaking of and to integration and accommodation as opposed to exclusivity.  

It is not taken that way by many Sinhalese, this has to be acknowledged.  S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a demagog and a political manipulator if ever there was one, played to the worse sentiments of this community. His wife did not, but his daughter went to the other extreme, vilifying Sinhalese and Buddhists in a way that the United National Party has never done; but that’s a different story.

Why did the Sinhalese embrace ‘Sinhala Only’ and why were they ready to drop it and acknowledge that Tamil should also be a national language?  The ‘root cause’ of all that, I offer, is the English Only that preceded that ill-conceived and ill-formulated act in 1956.  

English was the language of the conqueror, who was also a mass murderer, a brigand, sacker of villagers, poisoner of wells and reservoirs, breacher of dams and perpetrator of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing. Guess who perished in all that? The Sinhalese (god damn them, should we add?)!

English was also the vehicle used by those forces that came along with the gun-toting thugs from Britain ready to ‘civilize the heathens’ not only by making religious conversion a prerequisite for education and employment but even razing temples and kovils to the ground, burning libraries and stealing manuscripts.  

Bandaranaike brought ‘Sinhala Only’ against that history. Naturally the majority of the disenfranchised found in the proposal an opportunity for betterment.  It is easy to say, after the fact,  that he could have included Tamil and need not have dumped English, but that won’t get us anywhere.  

What’s relevant is that this lack of vision only served to alienate Tamils while doing little to uplift the lot of the Sinhalese because the structures of control remained English-laden. Things have not changed over the years. Opportunity is spelled in English, so to speak.  The simple truth that there’s a way to lose culture and self by dropping mother-tongue and there’s a way to deny oneself the advantages of being fluent in other languages by misplaced send of identity and nationalism.  

In any case, it was a landmark for reasons other than this root-cause business (which, arguably, it is not).  And if one was hesitant to accept one cause for multiple problems, if one were ready to consider the multiplicity of causes and the complexities of historical processes and the outcomes they generated, there’s nothing more simplistic, erroneous and dangerous as reducing our ills to ‘Sinhala Only’.  Indeed, I offer, that ‘English Only’ has a better case (though incomplete) for the title ‘Mother of all Root Causes’.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com.  www.malindawords.blogspot.com