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Lesson to be learnt: A point of view

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Lesson to be learnt: A point of view
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Had it not been for the Revolutionary war of Independence, America perhaps would have remained a colony of Great Britain for longer than it did. It was the disregard of the demands by American colonists that precipitated this war. The most significant reasons for their discontent were taxation without representation in the British Parliament, and the imposition of unreasonable taxes. If Great Britain had had the foresight that its stand on demands made would precipitate war, it would have been more accommodating. This would have delayed the cry for independence. The lesson to be learnt by those in power is how vitally important it is to continually gauge and ascertain the mood of the people, if consequences with serious implications are to be avoided.

Sri Lanka too has experienced revolutionary wars; one in the South and one in the North. The one in the South was towards gaining control of political power while the one in the North was to establish a separate state. The cause for both was serious discontent among sections of the population. The policies that gave rise to discontent disregarded the early manifestations of the discontent. The ad hoc remedial measures adopted addressed the symptoms, but not the causes of discontent. The cumulative effect was to exacerbate discontent, culminating in violence. The lesson not only for the Sri Lankan democracy is for open dialogue with the widest possible exposure when formulating policies and for responsiveness in a mature manner to public reactions following the implementation of policies.

Sources of discontent

Although the Tamil community had realized that their position of influence would erode with greater democratization long before independence, it was the policies adopted by independent Sri Lanka that were the source of increasing discontent in the Tamil community and which became the justification for demanding political arrangements based on the concept of separate and equal, in the form of federalism and separation. These policies were associated with language, university admission, colonization and disenfranchisement of Indian Tamils. Each of these issues is addressed below.

The "Sinhala only" Act in 1956 is stated as the start of the process of discontent. This policy was implemented despite serious protests from varied quarters. However, with time, successive Governments revised language policies from the reasonable use of Tamil in 1958 to Tamil being made a national language in 1978, to Tamil being accorded official language status along with Sinhala and English in 1987. Despite the fact that the Tamil language is on par with the Sinhala and English, it continues to be a source of discontent for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka mainly on account of administrative shortcomings. The expectation of the Tamil community is that the state should provide facilities for them to conduct affairs in Tamil at every Government institution everywhere in the country. This is not a realistic expectation, and no country in the world has committed to provide such a facility.

Despite this fact, no Government in Sri Lanka has attempted to explain what is realistically possible. Instead, they have attempted to implement policies incrementally from 1956 based on political expediency, the latest being to train public servants to be functional in all three languages, perhaps in the expectation of meeting the utopian goal. By contrast, Tamil is only a regional language of India, in Tamil Nadu. Outside the state of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil language has no status in India. Unlike in Sri Lanka where Tamil is the language of record in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and therefore the language in which Court records are kept, in Tamil Nadu, Court proceedings are conducted in English, and judgments are delivered in English. The lesson to be learnt is that instead of a piece-meal approach to a very emotional issue such as language, it is vital that a clear and realistically implementable language policy is negotiated without limiting these negotiations only to the Tamil leadership, but involving the Tamil people as well, because language is at the heart of education and social advancement of all citizens.

Another issue that was a source of Tamil discontent related to admission to the university. The circumstances that caused the Government to revise the basis for admission from raw marks (merit) were not given sufficient publicity. For instance, until 1969 testing for admission to the University was in the English medium and was based on merit. During this entire period the percentage of Tamil students gaining admission to the Engineering Faculty for instance, varied between 30 - 35 percent, meaning 1/3 of the students in any given batch were Tamil, while 2/3 of the students were Sinhala. Thus, up to 1969 there were about twice the number of Sinhala students to Tamil students in any batch. This was accepted as based on merit and there was no contest. In 1970, the then Government implemented admission testing separately in the Sinhala or Tamil medium with the intention of continuing the shift towards University education in these languages. Even though the basis for selection was merit, it resulted in a complete reversal. Thus, in 1970 the number of Tamil students qualifying for Engineering was 100 compared with 68 Sinhala students (my current location prevents me from citing the reference data from the relevant HANSARD). Hence when testing was based on Sinhala and Tamil media, there were 50% more Tamil students than Sinhala students.

Many explanations were offered as to the possible reasons for the reversal and the issue was also debated in Parliament. Notwithstanding the causes for the reversal, a correction for the aberration was undoubtedly justified, resulting in a revision of the basis of admission to University. Since that revision other revisions were also introduced, all in an attempt to compensate for inequality of access to facilities and resources due to geographic location; a reality that exists in every country. This Affirmative Action targeted for benefit, the less privileged of all communities. The lesson to be learnt is that insufficient transparency in the rationale to justify the need to revise the basis for admission resulted in Tamil students perceiving the Government’s measures as being discriminatory, thus giving grounds for them to be willing recruits into the LTTE.

Another source of discontent was ‘colonization’ - an administrative term derived from British colonial times for settlement of people in newly opened areas of agriculture. The Tamil leadership supported by academics portrayed colonization as an effort initiated by independent Sri Lanka to recreate the glory of the past. This was a total distortion because colonization was initiated during the Governorship of Sir Hugh Clifford in the 1920s.

Another issue was the so called "disenfranchisement" of 1 million Indian Tamils. The facts are: (1) only 1/4 of this number (~250,000) was eligible to vote even under colonial rule. (2) The legislation relating to citizenship eligibility was based on negotiations concluded and agreed upon between Indian officials and a delegation led by Mr. D.S.Senanayake.


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