Our sister paper Lankadeepa on Thursday reported that 35 students of Paanama Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya had to submit affidavits to sit for the GCE Ordinary Level examinations, as their names in their national identity cards and examination admission cards had been distorted. It said that lack of knowledge in Sinhala among the officials in Batticaloa Divisional Secretariat had caused the blunder and this had seriously affected the young minds of the concerned candidates of the examination.
Very few in the country might know that the matter is a minor manifestation of a larger issue that had largely contributed to the thirty-year long war which claimed nearly hundreds of thousands of lives. That is why we chose to discuss the issue which might have been ignored by the large majority of the population.
Needless to say that the psychological effect of the incident has the potential to dishearten at least some of the students affected by the blunder made by the officials. The Lankadeepa story further states that this was not the first time Paanama school students had faced this problem. In fact, it cannot be only Paanama students who had been faced with this injustice, as in many places and on many occasions names of people belonging to one linguistic community are written in official documents by the members of another linguistic community.
Though this issue might have so far been new or trivial to the Sinhalese community, distortion of names of Tamil-speaking people in official documents by the Sinhalese officials is a long drawn or decade-long complaint among the Tamil-speaking communities -- Tamils and Muslims. Especially distortion of names in birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, identity cards, and title deeds etc., had been a continuous complaint. And this and the correspondence between the state and the Tamil-speaking people in Sinhala language had been a part of a greater issue called the language problem.
It is a well-known fact that the war between the Tamil armed groups and the armed forces triggered in 1970s and 1980s was a violent political manifestation of frustration against the language issue that came to a head with the introduction of the Official Language Act of 1956, commonly known as the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, among others. And as we have mentioned above the distortion of names in documents and sign boards is a long drawn indication of the language problem.
Despite Tamil Language also becoming an Official Language through the much talked-about Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and the resultant controversial 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Tamil media still complain about distortion of names of people and places in official documents and sign boards. In Colombo alone there are so many sign boards of government institutions where the names are wrongly written. They also lament on the government officials corresponding with the Tamil-speaking people in Sinhala.
On the other hand, Sinhalese in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, like the students of Paanama also complain about the distortion of their names and correspondence with them in Tamil. Hence, in spite of the Tamil armed rebellion being militarily suppressed nearly ten years ago, we still have to discuss about the causes of ethnic distrust.
Some 25 years ago, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), on behalf of the Tamils and the Muslims in the coastal areas of Ampara District, demanded a separate Kachcheri or a District Secretariat in Kalmunai manned by officials conversant in Tamil. The reason they cited was the inability of the Tamil-speaking people in those areas to interact with the Sinhalese officials at the Ampara District Secretariat who were not conversant in Tamil. However, some elements among the politicians and the media depicted it as a separatist demand and it is still an unresolved issue.
Despite we, the journalists, too sometimes making mistakes in this regard, we are taught to pay special care when writing names, as nobody likes to see his/her name distorted and hence nobody has the right to distort another person’s name. Since Sinhala and Tamil languages are phonetically written, they are more prone to make mistakes in this regard.
Despite some issues seeming to be trivial, they might have the potential to create crises involving an entire nation, as we witnessed for over 30 years since 1970s.