The Sinhalese-Only Language Policy: Linguistic Root of the Conflict


First book printed in the Sinhala Language in 1640. Photo:

The root of terrorism in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the linguistic policy made by the government in power.

Tamil Tiger’s tension against the Sinhalese ruling party was originated from “the 1956 Official Language Act”, in which the Prime Minister S.W.B.D. Bandaranayake of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) made Sinhala the only official language while Tamil as the national minority language. This law mandated Sinhala as the sole official language of Sri Lanka. This is the language of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community and is spoken by over 70% of Sri Lanka’s population. This was intended to act both as a statement of independence from Britain and as a clear sign of superiority of the Sinhalese over the Tamil. Consequently, this act forced large numbers of Tamil who worked in the civil service, and who could not meet this language requirement, to resign. Affirmative action in favor of Sinhalese was also instituted at the same time. Many Tamil interpreted this deliberate marginalization as proof that they deserved a separate nation-state for themselves.

In an interview with the BBC, he expressed his justification that “because 70% of the people of Ceylon (former name of Sri Lanka) are Sinhalese”.

To the Tamils, the language policy has been derailed from what the country’s first Prime Minister promised that “our essential task is to create a nation, and that our people speak not only one language, but two or perhaps three”. As their religion Hinduism and native language Tamil set them apart from the majority Sinhalese, strong feelings of oppression and restricted employment opportunities led to ethnic riots among English-speaking Tamils, which sought to create an independent Tamil state named “Eelam” in the North-eastern part of the country, including Jaffna, Trincomalee and Mullativu.

According to Michael Edward Brown and Sumit Ganguly, Fighting words: language policy and ethnic relations in Asia, 2003:

The passage of the Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 was a turning point in Sinhalese-Tamil relations. Tamil grievances subsequently grew because, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, language policies had wide-ranging implications for educational and economic opportunities. By the 1970s many Tamil youth had become both radicalized and militarized. […]

Both groups, in the main, enjoyed cordial relations for more than 2,000 years. Then, in the 1950s the Sinhalese abandoned the movement to make both Sinhala and Tamil the country’s official language and instead instituted Sinhala as its sole official language. The Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 led to ethnic riots in that year and in 1958, marking the beginning of acute Sinahalese-Tamil animosity. The manner in which the Sinhala-Only Act and Sinhalese linguistic nationalism facilitated violent conflict, however, has not been fully appreciated.

According to Neil DeVotta, Blowback: linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, 2004:

The Sinhala-only language movement ensued when hitherto politically and economically marginalized Sinhalese forces coalesced to demand preferential treatment from the government. […]

The initial agitation surrounding the language issue was … called the swabasha(self-language) movement.

The swabasha movement included both Sinhalese and Tamils who campaigned for their respective languages to replace English. It must be recognized that theswabasha movement was not designed to revamp the [colonial] governmental structure. On the contrary, it was an attempt by the hitherto marginalized vernacular speakers to change the criteria by which the opportunities for socioecnomic upward mobility via education and  government employment were determined. The proponents of swabasha wanted the rules of the game tweaked so that they too could partake of the spoils. […]

The excellent English education system instituted by American missionaries in the northern regions had taught many Tamils English. Indeed, by 1930, literacy in English in the Northern Province was second only to Columbo. […] The paucity of industry and agriculture in the northern regions, the prestige and security stemming from state sector employment, and the opportunity thereby for upward social mobility in the rigidly casteist Tamil society encouraged many northern Tamils to migrate south seeking a university education and governmental careers. Tamils consequently became heavily overrepresented in the elite Ceylon Civil Service, the judicial service, and higher education. Two years prior to independence, for example, Tamils made up 33 percent of the civil service and 40 percent of the judicial service. They also accounted for 31 percent of the students in the university system. In the medical and engineering fields, Tamils numerically equaled the Sinhalese. Such overrrepresentation diminished the appeal of the swabasha movement for upper-class and upper-caste Tamils, and the movement to replace English with the vernacular languages was thus Sinhalese-led. […]

Sinhalese nationalists, apparently agitated over the Tamils being overrepresented in the coveted civil service, began to adopt a communalist posture and demanded that swabasha mean Sinhala-only. This demand was the first real indication that the informal rules governing Sinhalese-Tamil coexistence could be undermined … What is important to recognize is that the socio-economic structures that encouraged government employment, given the security and prestige such employment afforded during an era of economic scarcity, were a major reason for the call for Sinhala-only. […]

In resorting to chauvinistic rhetoric, Bandaranaike was well assisted by numerous lay Buddhists and activist Bhikkuhs, who together organized emotive and impressive processions demanding a Sinhala-only policy. Such bhikkus anathematized the Tamils as “parasites,” argued that linguistic parity was undemocratic and unjust, since 80 percent of Ceylonese spoke Sinhala, and cliamed that the failure to institute a Sinhala-only policy “would be the death-knell of the Sinhalese”. These monks evidenced no desire for compromise and instead suggested that Sri Lanka was for the Sinhalese only. For example, one leading monk thundered: “The Dravidians want parity or Tamilnad. We will give them neither. This country belongs to the Sinhalese. We can’t give even an inch it to the Tamils.” Other monks claimed that not just Sinhala but Buddhism too would disappear if parity was instituted. […]

It was obvious that a Sinhala-only policy would have a radical effect on minorities’ future employability, especially in the state sector. With the bill’s passage, Suntharalingam complained, “the Sinhalese would hold all jobs from top to bottom and the Tamils would hold the scavenging and latrine cooly jobs.”

On the other side, some Sinhalese felt that linguistic hegemony was essential to their linguistic survival. K.M. De Silva, William Howard Wriggins, J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, 1988, quote Jayewardene:

“The great fear I had was that Sinhalese being a language spoken by only 3,000,000 people in the whole world would suffer or may be entirely lost in time to come if Tamil is also placed on an equal footing with it in this country. The influence of Tamil literature, a literature used in India by over 40,000,000 and the influence of Tamil literature and Tamil culture in the country, I thought, might be deterimental to the future of the Sinhalese language.”

Jayewardene played a key role in passing the 1956 Sinhala Only Act. When he came back into power as Prime Minister in 1977, at the same time that the Tamil United Liberation Front won in Tamil-speaking areas on a platform of secession, he orchestrated the passage of a new constitution (in 1978) which created the office of Executive President, with much broader powers. The 1978 constitution also offered a linguistic concession to the Tamils, in the form of Article 19:

18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

In the aftermath of the riots of 1977, the government also withdrew the controversialuniversity-entrance policies of 1974. However, this seems to have too little and too late, especially given the uncertain meaning and apparently erratic implementation of articles 18 and 19. So the Thirteenth Amendment, certified 11/14/1987, four years after open civil war broke out in 1983, said that

2. Article 18 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (hereinafter referred to as the “Constitution”) is hereby amended as follows:-
(a) by the renumbering of that Article as paragraph (1) of that Article;
(b) by the addition immediately after paragraph (1) of that Article of the following paragraphs:
(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.

Source: Language Log

According to the latest CIA fact book, Sri Lanka’s language composition can be found as follows:

Sinhala (official and national language) 74%,
Tamil (national language) 18%,
other 8%
note: English, spoken competently by about 10% of the population, is commonly used in government and is referred to as the link language in the constitution

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