The passing into law of the 13th Amendment to the present Constitution, (Article 18 in Chapter IV) established Tamil as an official language of this country along with Sinhala. Article 22 states that Tamil and Sinhala shall be the languages of administration throughout Sri Lanka. Article 22 (2) states that `In any area where Sinhala is used as the language of administration a person other than an official acting in his official capacity, shall be entitled:
(a) to receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with any official in his official capacity, either in English or Tamil.
I have made reference to the above Constitutional provisions only to draw attention that even after 17 years, these provisions are not being implemented. I was at a government department to make a payment and met a Tamil gentleman who had been sent from pillar to post.
In sheer desperation he sought my assistance after a rude counter clerk had asked him in Sinhala (which he understood, though he could neither read nor write), `can you not read the notice above, I am not responsible if you stood in the wrong queue`.
The unfortunate man had by then been directed to three wrong queues. What may I ask is the position not only of a Tamil but of anyone who does not know Sinhala? Is it not a legal obligation to have Tamil and English signboards? Furthermore, is not the word `Service` associated with the Post office? So where is the service if they cannot cater to all the people of this country?
This Tamil gentleman, who was a government pensioner, then informed me that the Post Office was no exception and that no Police Station in Colombo would accept a complaint in Tamil; all statements were taken down in Sinhala and the complainant is required to sign without understanding what has been written down as his or her complaint.
This is a wholly unacceptable situation: I inquired from him as to whether any complaint had been made to government and the man looked at me as if I had come from the moon ---he wanted to know as to whether I was serious; `whom are we to complain to` he asked; when I responded that there is a Department of National Languages and also that Tamil was an official language in terms of the Constitution, he stated that he doubted as to whether the Department had any mandate to implement the provisions of the Constitution. Who then is responsible? I do wish the government would through a Press Release or a series of releases let the public know as to whom a complaint should be made to regarding the non-implementation of this particular provision of the Constitution.
The retired gentleman indulged me in a long conversation and said that three generations of his family had lived in Colombo and this was his home or gama too; `we have no connections with Jaffna now`, he said.
He referred to the alienation he and others of his community, who live in Colombo, feel and inquired as to why our leaders did not have the vision to build a multi-racial integrated society as Singapore had done; the initial mistake was to abandon English while the next was to change the name of the country. `Could we not have been both Sri Lanka and Ceylon, like Japan which also keeps the name of Nihon or for that matter India which retains the name Bharath, we felt as one when we called ourselves Ceylonese but when we say we are Sri Lankans is there not a special association of the name with the Sinhalese?` he asked.
He went on to say `how nice it would have been had we had a verse in Tamil in the national anthem--- we would also have a sense of belonging`. He then posed the question would not the Sinhalese feel as we do if the roles were reversed?
Yes, we need to understand why the Tamils feel the way they do, in our own interest; if we are to head off the LTTE separatists then we must cut the sod from under their feet and this can yet be done if we make the minorities who inhabit this land of ours feel equal in every respect, secure and feel that they can live in dignity and above all decide on their own destiny in the areas of traditional habitation, compatible with the security of all communities who inhabit this land of ours and also have a say in the formulation of national policy.
The President, sincerely believed that the Tamil people have been wronged and discriminated against sought to redress their grievances and find a solution to the problem after she assumed office but was compelled to go to war with the LTTE after they indulged in a Pearl Harbour type attack when negotiations were on, causing even more suffering to the Tamil people. It is now incumbent on her to take the initiative to find out how many Sri Lanka Tamils have been recruited in to the state service including the Police.
She should ensure that the ethnic proportions should at least be maintained though we should aspire to enthroning meritocracy in this country. The President should also personally ensure that Tamil schools have the same facilities as others. This is an imperative to win the confidence of the Tamil people and to counter their perception of being a discriminated minority.
As for the JVP and its uninformed stand on the Tamil issue they need to be educated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should send some JVPers on our delegation to the meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights and to meetings of the Sub-Commission in Geneva. They must be instructed on the Convention on Minority Rights and on the Working Group on the Protection of Minorities.
The JVP out of sheer ignorance is still lingering in a bygone era--the first half of the 20th Century; they must be sent at the tax payers expense to see the world outside of this country--- for a start they should go to Singapore, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea and Japan, they are all that the JVPers maybe wishing for us, they are economically prosperous, politically stable, socially just; they are relatively harmonious societies; a visit to these countries would certainly be a learning experience for them; they must know that a global society is evolving and that the world is becoming increasingly inter-dependent.
They should not let petty racial considerations which in the end are `silera` issues distract them from the realization that the most important challenge facing us is economic development and for that we should have a stable society in every respect.
Those of us who have steadfastly opposed the ISGA or a Con-federal arrangement and of course a division of the country, need to reflect on the position of Tamils who live amongst us in the south and those in the north--- they must surely not feel discriminated or unequal. This has been the crux of the problem from the time of the Sinhala Only Act: they have indeed felt discriminated against and it took us 30 years to correct that; we have paid a huge price for our misplaced sub-nationalism or was it racism?
It resulted in the insurgency that has brought us to the verge of separation; let us seriously and sincerely implement the provisions of the Constitution with respect to Language at least now; yes let us seek to make the minorities feel that this is also their land and that we are one nation. We owe it to ourselves to do this. Let us have peace with Justice.