Importance Of Preserving Language Rights In Sri Lanka
by Lionel Guruge
Sri Lanka’s Constitution has undoubtedly undergone many revisions because of its Amendments. Of all these Amendments, perhaps one that carries a most significant weight is the 13th Amendment, which not only established a new form of sub-national governance, but also introduced a crucial legislation that respected minority rights and validated their identity. The Amendment reads as follows:
“(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.
(3) English shall be the link language.
(4) Parliament shall by law provide for the implementation of the provisions of this Chapter.”
This Amendment, introduced in 1987, was widely recognized as the pivotal point for language equality in Sri Lanka and soon paved the way for the establishment of the Official Languages Commission (OLC) in 1991, tasked with the mandate of protecting and promoting the needs of a bilingual Sri Lankan population. Building on this Amendment, the former regime also established a Ministry for Official Languages and Reconciliation, which was consolidated and re-named as the Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages by the current regime.
Article 23(1) of the Constitution mentions the language of administration with regards to legislation:
“[23. (1) All laws and subordinate legislation shall be enacted or made and published in Sinhala and Tamil, together with a translation thereof in English”
However, the Attorney General’s Department entrusted with the role of advising if any legislation is unconstitutional, has repeatedly failed to bring to Parliament’s notice that almost all legislation is written in English and subsequently translated to Sinhala and Tamil. Not only is this an obvious oversight in terms of the Department’s responsibility, but the actual process of writing legislation in English is a direct opposition to what is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. This author is personally aware of 260+ laws that have not yet been translated to Sinhala or Tamil, thus making the process of its enactment wholly unconstitutional. This has been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and further action is currently being discussed.
If one were to investigate the reasons behind such a blatant disregard of a Constitutional law, they might realise that the problem stems from a range of issues. Firstly, government officials are mostly unaware of this information, or they chose to ignore it based on the assumption that it warrants no harm. It is painstakingly obvious that the Official Languages Policy (OLP) is treated as insignificant in Sri Lanka; its importance has been suppressed beneath a number of other issues considered to hold more prominence in contemporary domestic politics. It is also worth considering the jurisdiction imposed on government bodies mandated to advance and protect language equality. The most potent example of this fact could be found in the Official Languages Commission. The OLC, though established as the only commission for language, is essentially a toothless institution, in that its jurisdiction is limited to requesting and communicating with other institutions to abide by the OLP, but does not reach enforcement levels. The authority vested in the OLC is arguably diminutive, although very few stakeholders dare to admit it. Evidence for this fact can be found in the form of an unfortunate circumstance, where the former Chairman corresponded with the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation to abide by the languages policy which resulted in his resignation due to pressure from prominent figures who believed he had no authority to dictate changes to other institutions. This could have been avoided if the move was challenged, which unfortunately no one was willing to do. This incident is testament to the fact that the OLC must be made an independent Commission, thus granting it more validity and jurisdiction.
The importance of language equality in consumer goods printing
This author, in collaboration with many other like-minded civil society personnel has submitted more than 300 complaints to the OLC and the Human Rights Commission with regard to infringement of the language policy. Many of these complaints were based on the print material of consumer goods, which inevitably resulted in the complaint being filed against the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA). If you were to randomly select a few household items or processed food products, many of them may not include its ‘Date of Manufacture’ and ‘Date of Expiry’ (among other details) in both official languages. It seems that the CAA does not have a mandate to regulate this practice among its collaborators, although they certainly have the authority to do so in this case. Sadly, this only propagates the theory that government officials lack a full understanding of the implications of adhering to the language policy. There has been no education within any of these institutions with regard to the OLP or its manner of implementation. It is a level of ignorance that seeps into society as well; a lack of realization that there are diverse communities that call Sri Lanka their home.
The Sinhala population must grasp this reality as much as the Tamil population, and identify that respecting another’s language is to acknowledge their identity. On a separate occasion, it was found that the officials working at the National Library themselves were unaware of the OLP and resorted to assuming that any Tamil customer or member would have the ability to speak Sinhala and therefore translated documents were not a necessity, nor a priority. Clearly, a shift in attitude fuelled by awareness-raising must be targeted with haste.
This author has already filed a Fundamental Rights case against the infringement of the OLP with regard to medicinal drugs and cosmetic products used in Sri Lanka. Medicine is not a necessity to only a select population or community; indeed, it is a sought after by all members of the public. In that aspect, not only Western medicine, but indigenous medicine must also include its composition, side effects, and instructions of use in both official languages.
It is a basic human right to be privy to information regarding the medicines they consume, which if consumed in an incorrect manner would have drastic health repercussions.
This applies in severity to medicinal equipment and its instructions for use. To print this information in only English is to deliberately disadvantage a large portion of the population, and not only goes against Constitutional requirements but can also be viewed as a sinister act of denying people their basic rights.
The importance of monitoring
The Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages is currently taking a few initiatives with regard to language. The above mentioned areas must be taken into serious consideration during these initiatives. Reformation within government institutions dealing with citizens and consumers must assume priority in their mandate. It is also equally important, however, to monitor any initiatives taken, as many former initiatives have lost its momentum and died a natural death without any monitoring mechanism in place.
The OLC has no jurisdiction nor do they have the resources to conduct any monitoring of their activities and initiatives. For example, a complaint was made to the OLC and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) regarding train announcements not being made in Tamil. The HRC took it upon themselves to convene a meeting with all stakeholders and give orders to abide by the Policy when making train announcements. Much to our consternation, this only lasted a total of 2 months, and it wasn’t long before a re-evaluation found that the Anuradhapura Train Station had snubbed the responsibility of making announcements in Tamil.
If there was more rigorous implementation and monitoring of initiatives, as well as significant consequences imposed for overlooking such details, perhaps attitudinal change could also be targeted. Even the tickets issued to drivers by police officers mention details only in Sinhala in majority Sinhala areas, and vice versa. A very simple numerical coding system could be set in place of the current method, where numbers are given for each respective road-related crime in both languages on one side of the ticket and the Police officer need only note the number on the ticket.
Even to consider upgrading to such efficient methods of conduct has not crossed the minds of many, leaving Sri Lanka in a very unsatisfactory state with regard to language.
Respecting another’s language need not be enforced by law; it is a sign of basic human respect and dignity afforded to a fellow citizen. Indeed it was heartening to hear both our official languages resonating against the melody of the National Anthem of Sri Lanka at our last independence day; however, much more needs to be done to ensure that both our official languages will be considered in parity with one another; hopefully sooner than later.