FROM its gleaming new headquarters, Jaffna’s police force serves around 100,000 people. The vast majority of the local population are Tamils or Tamil-speaking Muslims; fewer than 50 locals are members of Sri Lanka’s biggest ethnic group, the Sinhalese. But the vast majority of the city’s 532 police officers are Sinhalese; only 43 are Tamil, and very few of the rest speak the Tamil language well.
This is not just an affront to Tamils, whose complaints about discrimination lay at the root of a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. It is also a practical problem. Sripathmananda Bramendra came to the new headquarters one day in December to obtain the paperwork needed to replace a lost licence-plate.
He waited for hours to talk to a Tamil-speaking officer. But the only one around was first busy with a superior, and then had to rush off to translate at a public protest. Everyone still queuing was told to return the next day.
Roughly three-quarters of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese; Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims make up the remaining quarter. But the population is relatively segregated, with most Tamils concentrated in the north and east. Unlike most officials in the provinces, police are recruited at national level and rotated around the country during their careers (doctors in government hospitals are another troublesome exception).
The result is that police stations in Tamil areas are staffed mainly by Sinhalese, who struggle to communicate with the people they are supposed to be protecting. This, in addition to the mistrust bred by the civil war, puts Tamils off joining the police, compounding the problem.
Even after Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948, English remained the language of administration. But in 1956, in an effort to court Sinhalese voters, the prime minister of the day pushed through a bill to make Sinhala the sole official language. For Tamil-speakers in the bureaucracy, the results were devastating. Those who did not learn Sinhala were denied raises and promotions. Many were forced to retire. The share of Tamils in the bureaucracy fell from 30% in 1956 to 5% in 1970. In the armed forces the plunge was even steeper: from 40% to 1%.
In theory, subsequent changes in the law have restored the status of Tamil, giving it near-parity with Sinhala in all government business. In practice, admits Mano Ganesan, the trilingual minister in charge of implementing the relevant laws, a properly bilingual bureaucracy is decades away. Since 2007 all state employees have been required to achieve proficiency in both Tamil and Sinhala within five years of being hired. But progress is sluggish.
In 2015-16 60% of those who passed the required exam did so with the lowest possible score, suggesting that they are far from fluent. Embarrassing errors remain common. Mr Ganesan cites the example of a sign above a bench in a government office that read, in Sinhala, “Reserved for pregnant mothers” and, in Tamil, “Reserved for pregnant dogs”.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives, an NGO, tracks violations of the official language policy and, on occasion, petitions the courts to rectify them. In 2014 it secured an order compelling the central bank to print all the wording on new banknotes in Tamil as well as Sinhala.
It is now suing to require instructions on medicine to be printed in both languages. More than 100 laws (many of them adopted in colonial days) have not been officially translated into Tamil or Sinhala. Even national identity cards did not become bilingual until 2014, after a legal challenge.
Forms in most public offices in the north are available only in Tamil, and elsewhere in the country only in Sinhala, causing problems for those who cross the linguistic divide. A similar problem applies to the courts, with a shortage of interpreters leading to delays in many cases.
The working language of the Supreme Court is English, but most appeal documents from lower courts are in Sinhala or Tamil, depending on the part of the country in which the case originated. The only Tamil-speaker on the court has just retired; the remaining judges must rely on English translations. The Court of Appeal, which also uses English, is only slightly better off: three of its 12 judges speak Tamil.
Police issue parking tickets and fines in Sinhala. Government circulars are mostly in Sinhala. The immigration department offers forms in three languages, but does not have enough Tamil-speakers to process the Tamil ones. Dial the emergency services, and there is often no one to field calls in Tamil.
Mr Ganesan wants to deploy bilingual assistants in all public offices, strengthen legislation to punish violators of the official language policy, establish a state-of-the-art complaints centre and even allow parties to lawsuits to request a judge who speaks a particular language. Implementing the language policy properly, he says, “will be the prelude to a political solution” to the Tamil grievances that stoked the civil war.
As a recent task-force on national reconciliation noted: “Shortcomings in bilingual language proficiency throughout the machinery of the state were identified in most submissions across the country as a major impediment to reconciliation.” The task-force first published its findings in English and later in Sinhala; the Tamil translation is still not ready.
(This article appeared in the Asia section of “The Economist”print edition under the headline “Crossed in translation”)