Social anthropologist Prof. Sasanka Perera, in a keynote address delivered at a conference on Language and Social Cohesion underlined some vital issues on which the Government and the people of Sri Lanka need to reflect deeply in these crucial months and years.
Prof. Perera points out that language is not a simple issue of communication. In contemporary social and political practice, language goes much beyond its basic utilitarian purposes. In this sense, Sri Lanka is no exception. By now, Sri Lanka has ended an immensely destructive military conflict that had much to do with a crisis of identity linked as much to language as to ethnicity and contested notions of binary-nationalisms and competitive interpretations of history. In this context, this is a crucial time to seriously consider the politico-developmental position of language in imagining the future of the country.
Some sixty years ago one of Sri Lanka’s socio-political stalwarts and Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) theoretician Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in a prophetic warning said that if the Government wanted to play to the gallery and go for only one language then someday there would be two States. But if it rose above populist politics and agreed to a two-language policy there would be a multi-racial and multi-religious united Sri Lanka.
Successive Governments did not listen then and even if they wanted to the leaders were either assassinated or ousted by extremist elements, many of whom suffer from the delusion that their mental perception of the issue is absolute and not relative. The Governments did not or could not listen to Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s warning and we paid a devastating price in the 30-year war where hundreds of thousands of people were killed or injured, livelihoods were destroyed and the material damage or financial losses soared to billions of rupees.
Now at last, more than four years after the LTTE was defeated, we are seeing the dim light of a distant dawn in terms of a lasting peace through a fair and just solution to the ethnic conflict. After the Northern Provincial Council elections on September 21, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is establishing a cordial working relationship with the Provinces first Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran and TNA leader R. Sampanthan. While this working relationship is consolidated at the highest level, the people of Sri Lanka also need to co-operate in whatever way they can, especially on the language issue where the conflict began. At that time some government officials said they had no typewriters to give Tamil translations. Later the Government had to buy armoured cars, modern helicopters and mortar bombs to settle the conflict that could have been settled with a typewriter. We must never make the same blunder again.
National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, another socialist stalwart, has during the past few years implemented several effective steps to promote the two language Sinhala-Tamil policy with English being necessary as a common language in this modern world of online education through internet, search engines and other marvellous hi-tech facilities.
Priority now must be given to teach children both national languages not just as another subject but for them to play a role in the resolution of the conflict. Earlier we all were part of the problem though perhaps in different degrees. Now we all need to be part of the solution. In state offices, police stations and courts of law, facilities must be available for the use of both languages. Destination boards on buses and trains need to be in all three languages and in the same size to emphasise that there are no first class, second or third class citizens here. Name boards in other places should be in all three languages as we take the first but important steps towards rebuilding a truly-multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural Sri Lanka.