Why Devolution Should be on a Linguistic Basis

by R. M. B. Senanayake

Sinhala nationalists who deny that the Tamils have any grievances are now campaigning for the abolition of the Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment. But S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the western educated liberal who introduced the Sinhala Only Law realized that an injustice was done to the Tamil people for it was not only an instrument to discriminate against Tamils in State employment but also to force them to deal with the State and its agencies only in Sinhala which the large majority of Tamil people did not know. How could the Tamil people give voice to their problems to the powers that be unless they learn Sinhala for, given the Sinhala as the only medium of education, future political leaders would know only Sinhala?

Even then the Tamil people suspected rightly that the Sinhalese wanted to exercise power only for their benefit and since most Sinhala leaders believed in a zero-sum game in the economic sphere thought it was necessary to reduce the number of Tamils in State employment. These extremists later realized that the Tamils were entering the high paying professions like the Medical and Engineering and Accounting professions in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the population.

So they introduced media-wise standardization for entry to the universities. This was the last straw as far as the Tamil youth were concerned and they took to arms to establish their own State where they could manage their resources to serve their objectives of higher education.

Were the Tamil people left with any choice when the motive of discrimination was so patent?

So education and higher education would have to be a devolved power. The Tamil people have a human right to deal with the Police in their own language. But Sinhala was the official language which means the language of record in all government offices. It is not possible to have two official languages in every government office throughout the length and breadth of the country. Nor is it neither necessary nor economically feasible for it would mean enormous extra cost.

The British colonial ruler had only English as the official language for their centralized administration through provincial chiefs drawn from the bureaucracy who were free to act with independence and according to bureaucratic values of good governance.

But in 1956 a new political and governance culture was introduced by the SLFP. The local MP wanted to exercise power in the executive sphere instead of confining themselves to the legislative sphere to which they were elected. They wanted to exercise power in appointments, transfers and discipline in the public service which are maters of internal administration. They wanted to influence the Police in their functions. The Tamil politicians were not in the ruling political party and could not exercise power in a similar manner. They were also better educated and understood that it was improper to engage in this new political culture. They probably knew that this new political culture would lead to the collapse of democratic public administration and would lead to a one party military state.

SWRD, the liberal political leader, sought to rectify the injustice to the Tamil people because of the Sinhala only policy. He did the only practical thing which was to suggest devolving power to the Tamils through a Regional Council for the North and East where Tamil would be the official language and where Tamil politicians could exercise power through such Council. The British had only English as the official language, which meant that all records in government offices were kept in English only, although locals could speak to government officials in the local languages and were interpreted for the benefit of English officials. These officials were required to learn the local languages to converse with and understand locals. Court proceedings were recorded in English only. SWRD probably realized that it was neither practical nor economically feasible to have two official languages in every government office throughout the length and breadth of the country. So he drew up the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1958. But Sinhala extremists protested and he was forced to tear up the Pact. Another liberal leader among the Sinhalese-Dudley Senanayake agreed to a similar proposal for devolution of power with Chelvanayagam but extremists forced him too to abandon the pact.

All tempts to get the Sinhalese public servants to learn Tamil by providing incentives have failed. Nor is it necessary. Consider Switzerland, where four languages are spoken-German. Italian French and Romansh. Three of them are of equal status in the Federal Government but in each Canton there is only one official language and it is the language of the majority. Canada has two official languages but they are not applicable throughout Canada. Here is what the Act of 1988 set in place.

* that English and French will have equal status of languages of work within the federal public service within geographically defined parts of the country that are designated bilingual (most notably in National Capital Region, Montreal and New Brunswick), as well as in certain overseas government offices and in parts of the country where there is sufficient demand for services in both official languages. In remaining geographical areas, the language of work for federal public servants is French (in Quebec) and English (elsewhere);

These countries are federal and Switzerland is smaller than in Sri Lanka. The need to devolve is also necessary to reduce the cost and burden of having two official languages in the central government for day to day functions would be done in one language only – Sinhalese the Sinhala majority areas and Tamil in the Tamil majority provinces. So it is necessary that there should be devolution of power on linguistic basis as India did and there have been no persistent secessionist movements in India and the movement in the South has died down.

Why? Because there are wider economic opportunities in a larger State than in a smaller state provide there is no discrimination against the minority in the larger state. The people also realize that economic development is not a zero sum unlike the Sinhalese who probably because of the insular mentality of an Island people cannot grasp this fact of economics.

Now there is a clamor to abolish Provincial Councils. Some want to reduce the Tamil majority by combining Sinhala majority and Tamil majority provinces. Others who rather naïve about local government want to establish a Grama Rajya or District Councils to which power should be devolved. But this requires another article.COURTESY:THE ISLAND