Racial tensions have devastated Sri Lanka, but some parties still continue to play that populism card to win elections. After the Official Languages Act widely known as the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act was enacted by Prime Minister S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna government in 1956, the Federal Party held peaceful protests, but they were attacked, and tensions rose. However, the Official Languages Act itself was introduced to reverse more than one and half century of language discrimination under the British colonial government. The vast majority of the population was discriminated through the denial of their mother tongue in official matters. But the Tamil politicians viewed it differently, and felt they would be discriminated with the new legislation.
Making matters worse, the then UNP acting leader J. R. Jayawardene said he would enforce the Sinhala Only Act in 24 hours. In 1958, the State of Emergency was declared to stop riots against the Tamil people. To his credit, Mr. Bandaranaike held talks with Federal Party leaders led by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. But certain groups ganged up against Mr. Bandaranaike.
When Mr. Bandaranaike wanted to withdraw the official language law, and later discarded it because of growing opposition, he warned the country would face severe consequences. So we did.
Veteran politician and Lanka Samasamaja Party front liner Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, who chaired the committee that drafted the 1972 Republican Constitution, also warned the people that two official languages would mean one country while one official language would mean two countries, or a division. But most people didn’t listen. Then in 1965 the Dudley Senanayake government took office in coalition with the Federal Party, and M. Thiruchchelvam was appointed as the Minister of Local Government. He helped draft the policy of two languages and equal status for all communities. But the draft was leaked to the media by a minister who opposed the Bill, some media sections gave it wide publicity. And the Bill was scrapped again. However, by 1987 the matter was settled and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution stated that, “the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala” while “Tamil shall also be an official language,” with English as a “link language.”
In 1970, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike swept back to office with a two-thirds majority, it introduced the district quota system for university admissions. Preference was given to students from areas where education standards were known to be low. In the Jaffna district education standards were high. That meant a Jaffna student who got three distinctions at the GCE Advanced Level examination was left out in preference to a Monaragala student who got one or two distinctions. Some believe this was also a cause which led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other Eelam groups. After an apparently illegitimate referendum held by the J. R. Jayawardena government in 1982 to extend the term of parliament by six years, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna pulled out of mainstream politics. We know what happened after that. The ethnic war began and went on for about three decades, with hundreds of thousands of people being killed or injured, while the economic damage was incalculable.
With these experiences in mind, we join the United Nation in marking on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In a statement, the UN says the focus this year is on the midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent undertaken by the Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of its 43rd session. As the Decade approaches its half-way mark in 2020, a review will take stock of the progress made, and decide on further necessary actions.
According to the UN, there are around 200 million people living in the Americas, but identify themselves as being of African descent. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside the African continent.
Whether as descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, or as more recent migrants, people of African descent constitute some of the poorest and most marginalised groups. They still have limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security. Their degree of political participation is often low. In addition, people of African descent can suffer from multiple forms of discrimination based on age, sex, language, religion, political opinion, social origin, property, disability, birth, or other status.
In Sri Lanka, with an important Parliamentary General election to be held on April 25 despite the horror of the coronavirus pandemic, some parties may yet try to play the racial card also. We urge the politicians and the people, to reflect deeply on what happened in Sri Lanka, the Afro-American crisis and the continuing human slave trade. Racial politics or discrimination must end if Sri Lanka is to reach its sustainable development goals with an eco-friendly policy.