A strong NO to ‘Sinhala Only’
Menika sat up and watched with great interest a part of Wednesday’s TV news on the channel she favours. There was Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, elegant in an orangy yellow sari, her trim hair distinctively streaked grey. Matching her elegance was her deeply reflective speech in Committee Room A of the BMICH at the soft launch of the website for a bilingual/trilingual resources pool.
She was speaking as the Chairperson of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). Who better to grace the stage with the likes of activists like Mano Ganeshan, now Minister of National Languages, Coexistence and Dialogue?
She said, “Tamil-speaking people had firstly demanded language rights and the continuing refusal to resolve their primary problem led to frustration and anger and other discriminatory actions and restricted opportunities, willingly or unwillingly, snowballed to a point, culminating in a terrible ruthless war that destroyed the country.
“In most government departments and ministries for a long time we did not have a single person who could communicate in the Tamil language; the government is now very serious about facilitating its institutions to have sufficient officers to work in the Tamil language.”
She added that though this initiative was a small move, it was the first time in post-independent Sri Lanka that a government had made an effort to create an enabling environment to allow citizens to communicate with the government in their language of choice.
Ganeshan spoke stronger on the subject. “Along with all those who believe that we, in this land, are all Sri Lankans and have our rights, especially to use a language of preference, to follow a religion and call ourselves by the race/ethnic group we belong to while recognizing the equal status of all others.” Menika applauded this initiative as well as Ms Kumaratunga’s authoritatively-made statements.
We remember that she and her late husband Vijaya Kumaratunga made several visits to Jaffna to meet Tamil leaders with the aim of averting the ethnic conflict. She’ll have plenty of loud-mouthed critics who stupidly consider Sinhala Buddhists as the crème de la crème of the country. But many in the island are liberal minded, more so those who grew up in a country that had Ceylonese peoples on parity with each other racially.
Of course Ms Kumaratunge had to refer to her father’s ‘Sinhala Only’ policy. She diverted blame from her father by saying: “Although in the wake of the Official Languages Act of 1956 the government had introduced corrective measures the following year to ensure the reasonable use of Tamil, successive administrations failed to implement them.”
However, people who think straight with no bias, lay the blame fair and square on S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and his government for the Sinhala Only Act and consequently igniting the ethnic conflict which conflagrated due to other reasons such as unfair demands of the Tamils, who had benefitted disproportionately from the British subtle policy of ‘divide and rule.’
Manuka Wijesinghe’s book
The moment I read the news item about the launch of the website and what Ms Kumaratunge said in Thursday’s newpaper, I recollected Manuka Wijesinghe’s 2014 novel titled Sinhala Only.
Yes, it’s a work of fiction and a love story, but within its pages Manuka most heavily critiques the policy of making Sinhala the language of supremacy and thus creating horrendous trouble in this originally peaceful island.
She has 25 characters moving through the pages, inclusive of Hendrik de Silva, Fatty Molligoda, Beekmeyer, Dharmasena, Holsinger, Lebbe, Cader, Sunderalingam and Somasundaram among others.
So you get an idea of what her themes are. Into this list on pages xvi and xvii she throws in Failed Heroes and Heroines – SWRD, Sir John, Dudley, JR, Dahanayake, Sirima, Rohana. A super potpourri of characters!
In her introduction Wijesinghe states: “This is the drama of ‘Sinhala Only’ subtitled: ‘The death of pluralism’.”
“This book isn’t about insight. It is about hindsight. It is about people, not a person. It is about variety, not unitary. … ‘Sinhala Only’ gave birth to rabid ignorance, not to heroes. It transformed multi lingual frogs who were becoming princes into monolingual frogs, croaking in the well.
It is in the dire effort to overcome and comprehend the turning pages of history beyond the well, into which we have linguistically herded that I have written, not only an island’s history, but an island history ornamented with the sub continent’s history and remnants of world history. We are still a part of a larger picture even if we have been forcibly retarded.… Read the book. Thereafter, let us not bury heroes, but build bridges together…”
That, Menika strongly feels, is what the present government, with two liberal ‘heroes’ as leaders, is trying to do. We hope for the day when we can live together as we did sixty years ago: judging people not by the language they speak, or the way they dress or, the religion they follow but, by how good they are, how humane, with all the excellent qualities we, Sri Lankans, have within us like loyalty to country and gratitude for what we have, not being demanding all the time.