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Name Boards: The Fate of the Tamil Language!

Keerthika Mahalingam

The usage of language is at the forefront of escalating racist issues in Sri Lankan society. In 1956, the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act was introduced by the late Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who laid the foundation for the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic issue and later evolved into a three-decade long war. Today, despite the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still suffering and reeling from its scars.

It is also unfortunate that acts like insulting and neglecting the Tamil language still takes place in this country. By doing so, it is clear that Sri Lankans who have had bitter military experiences have not yet learned the lessons from the past.

In Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages while English is the lingua franca. Accordingly, all documents, circulars and nameplates issued by the Government should include all three languages – ​​Sinhala, Tamil and English. But the reality is somewhat controversial. We can see that the Tamil language continues to be insulted on nameplates displayed on the streets, on buses and in public institutions. People who see nameplates that are insulting to the Tamil language try to take photos and release them on social media. Active social media users will be able to better understand such content circulating on social media. 

The non-inclusion of Tamil in Sri Lankan nameplates, misinterpretations and misspellings of letters in Tamil have been a problem for a long time. 

After the last Presidential Election, from all three languages, only Tamil was removed from the nameplates ​​in Panadura and Kerawalapitiya. This incident was an astonishing event not only for the entire Tamil community but also for all those who are committed to national unity and coexistence. The incident was also widely reported on social media which took place less than a week after the election. It also caused panic among the newly elected representatives of the country’s minority communities. After former Minister Mangala Samaraweera posted a note on his official Twitter account regarding the incident, the nameplates have been re-arranged on the urgent order of the Prime Minister due to the attention of senior government officials. 

In addition, in October 2019, speaking in Tamil was banned in a private hotel in the Colombo 07 area. “All employees must speak only in English and Sinhala. You should refrain from speaking in Tamil”, was announced in the restaurant through a notice board. The incident caused a stir among the majority of social media users as a foreign tourist who visited the relevant hotel took a photograph of the announcement displayed on the hotel from his mobile phone and released it on social media. The incident sparked massive controversy and also drew international attention which resulted in the Tamil people around the world expressing their displeasure.

Not only is the Tamil language being used in a derogatory manner on nameplates, but also the use of the Sinhala language in the issuance of circulars and fines issued by the police for violating traffic rules by government agencies has caused great inconvenience to the Tamil people who use only the Tamil language. Such incidents are a daily occurrence, especially in the North and East. For instance, former leader of the Opposition Party in the Eastern Province, C. Thavarasa lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in Jaffna against a police officer in Koppai, opposing the issuance of a fine billet in Sinhala in 2018. The complaint stated that “police officers must know Tamil as the second language in order to be promoted”

About 30% of nameplates are official nameplates, and a report released by the Center for Policy Alternatives in 2017 shows that the language used in all ministries and other public nameplates is not in line with the official language policies.

Official languages

According to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of 1987 and the 16th Amendment of the Constitution of 1988, Sinhala and Tamil are recognized as the official languages ​​of Sri Lanka and English became the lingua franca. Although districts with bilingual divisional secretariats are found in Sri Lanka, the Tamil language is still neglected from the village level to the national level.

Institutions responsible for the pragmatics of official languages

  • Department of Official Languages
  • The Department of Official Languages is currently the institution that facilitates the effective implementation of language policy as referred to in Articles 18 and 19 of Chapter IV of the Constitution. This institution is active with the objective of “Building a Trilingual Language Society for the Promotion of National Peace and National Unity”.
  • Ministry of National Languages ​​and Social Integration
  • Official Language ​​Commission
  • National Institute of Language Education and Training

Despite public dissatisfaction with their activities, significant improvements have been made in the programs of these departments and institutions in recent times. In particular, programs to make public servants proficient in a second language have been stepped up. In addition to the institutions mentioned above, institutions such as the National Language Equality Promotion Project and the Center for Policy Alternatives also identify and address issues that arise in the use of national languages and work to improve language use. 

The need to establish national unity among the Tamil and Sinhala speaking people of Sri Lanka has arisen, but it is doubtful why the government has not made any effort to put it into practice. 

  • Exacerbation of problems due to conflicting development projects
  • Not giving value to emotions
  • Inability to communicate ideas clearly
  • Misunderstanding of language
  • Racist sentiments based on language

For such reasons, many people tend to appreciate their mother tongue and hate Fraternal languages. This paved the way for Tamil native speakers to exclude Sinhala and for Sinhalese to define themselves without interest in other languages. Racist problems are exacerbated by the division between Sinhala and Tamil communities. Sinhala media outlets report on the problems of Sinhalese people while Tamil media outlets focus only on the problems and needs of Tamil people. For this reason, a person who speaks one language may not be able to clearly understand what another person is saying and may not be able to communicate clearly. Problems with the use of language can be cited as a major factor in the creation of racist and religious problems that have existed in Sri Lanka for decades. 

The use of the Tamil language on nameplates displayed in public places further exacerbates racial tensions. National peace and reconciliation can be easily achieved by reconciling the differences between the nations of this country and by activating a mechanism to empower correct language pragmatics through mutual understanding in society. Whatever the root causes of inter-ethnic disunity, steps must be taken to eliminate them at the onset. Tamil should also be mentioned correctly in government circulars and public notices in a manner that does not violate the fundamental rights of the Tamil speaking people. Furthermore, the Government too can easily pave the way for national peace and reconciliation by constantly looking into the matter. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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