Linguistic Oppression and the Negation of a Nationwide Identification in Sri Lanka

In March 2015, the surprising newly elected president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, said that the nationwide anthem may very well be sung in Tamil at official and institutional occasions. For anybody alien to life on the teardrop island, this announcement could have come as a shock since, in spite of everything, Tamil and Sinhala are the 2 official languages of the nation. But the truth in Sri Lanka has been radically completely different.

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Sinhala and Tamil are the nationwide languages of Sri Lanka, in accordance with Chapter IV of the 1978 structure — which was amended in 1987 to offer Tamil the standing of an official language that was denied 9 years earlier — and English was declared the hyperlink language. Sinhala and Tamil are genetically unrelated languages. The previous belongs to the Indo-Aryan household and is spoken by about 74% of the inhabitants, specifically native and second-language audio system. Tamil, a Dravidian language, is spoken by about 18% of residents on the island, primarily consisting of Tamil individuals and Muslims.

However Sinhala and Tamil are extra than simply two languages in Sri Lanka. As with different elements of the world, languages are social instruments that enable us to speak, however they can be automobiles of energy ceaselessly used as ideological weapons of oppression.

Anthems and flags are in all probability probably the most agglutinative semiotic symbols that reaffirm a nation’s id, setting the boundaries in opposition to exterior forces but additionally as potential instruments for unity or division, relying on how they’re exploited politically. Nationwide anthems assemble a story of belonging that turns into unavoidably linked to ideas like energy and resistance by means of historical past. However precisely for all these causes, anthems (and flags) might be instrumentalized with a transparent symbolic which means. 

The Civil Battle

The Sri Lankan Civil Battle that occurred between 1983 and 2009 had, amongst many causes, linguistic roots. The Sinhala Solely Act of 1956 — which stripped Tamil of its official standing as a language and as an alternative gave this proper to Sinhala to exchange English — was one of many triggers of the battle. Whereas the Sinhalese individuals claimed that the act was a measure to distance themselves from their English colonizers (by way of demotion of their language) and reassess their just lately acquired independence as a nation, the Tamils felt the act was an indication to subjugate them — with all of the financial and training implications it entailed — and have become of the principle causes to justify their demand for self-determination.

After the conflict led to 2009, there was an unofficial ban imposed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that prevented the Tamil model of the anthem — in use since 1951 — from being sung at official establishments. The defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels within the battle led to the progressive refusal of the Tamil model of the anthem, even at institutional occasions that occurred within the Tamil-speaking area. On many events, the measure was even imposed by the safety forces as one other instance of what has been referred to as the “Sinhalization” of Sri Lanka.

The post-war years have witnessed the unfold of racist rhetoric in the course of the presidencies of Rajapaksa and Sirisena. Intermittent communal violence, excessive nationalist propaganda and discrimination in opposition to minorities have continued.

Wounds Have Not Healed

In a 2017 report, my colleague and I examined the discourse of transitional justice on the island. We analyzed the reactions of social media customers to the measures taken by President Sirisena on permitting the nationwide anthem to be sung in Tamil. On the time, the brand new authorities got here to energy with a promise to foster reconciliation, guarantee accountability and enhance human rights in Sri Lanka.

In our trilingual corpus (Sinhala, Tamil and English), many of the information analyzed confirmed the polarization of a Sri Lankan society whose wounds weren’t but healed. Whereas a sector of the inhabitants welcomed Sirisena’s determination as an try to advertise reconciliation towards minorities and held hopes for a brand new fashion of politics, others noticed within the gesture an indication of weak point of a president whose first vital measure was taking a bow to the Tamils.

Paradoxically, many of the arguments each for and in opposition to the measure had been the identical, with the actors concerned being the one distinction. Thus, the supporters of the bilingual efficiency cited comparable conditions in Canada and South Africa, whereas these in opposition to it supplied the instance of India as a task mannequin to observe, with just one out of its 22 official languages chosen to sing the nationwide anthem.

A New President

In Sri Lanka, the final election in November 2019 noticed how a brand new chief however an previous political pressure and identify may rise to energy. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the previous secretary to the Ministry of Protection underneath the federal government led by his brother, turned president. Proper after the electoral outcomes had been made public, the Tamil-language avenue indicators of some roads in Colombo, the capital metropolis, had been attacked and eliminated. These sorts of acts, solely attributable to a minority group, are significant in terms of wanting on the Tamil language inside Sri Lankan id.

In January 2020, President Rajapaksa introduced that the anthem would solely be sung in Sinhala throughout celebrations for independence day on February 4, going again to the pre-Sirisena days and reliving previous ghosts from a forgettable previous. The measure — which was understood as an announcement of intent of a president who claimed he wished to be the chief of all Sri Lankans — was seen as an emblem of discrimination towards the Tamil minority who had been excluded from collaborating in one of many nation’s principal indicators of id. Activists and members of civil society reacted by singing the anthem in Tamil in a video that circulated on social media platforms as a gesture of assist towards their fellow residents, in addition to the rejection of the discriminatory measure taken by the brand new authorities.

Any ethnic group’s best identification is its language, and the rejection of minority languages has turn into a software to marginalize their cultures and traditions. In lots of circumstances, they’re additionally used as proxies for ethnoreligious discrimination and the imposition of the supremacy of the bulk by way of language. The concepts of unity, reconciliation and coexistence should inevitably contemplate a Sri Lankan id past and solely based mostly on one ethnicity, one faith and one language. Singing the nationwide anthem in each official languages may very well be an ideal first step towards it.

*[The Centre for Evaluation of the Radical Proper (CARR) is a accomplice establishment of Truthful Observer.]

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Truthful Observer’s editorial coverage.

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