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Was SWRD the architect of the Sinhala only legislation of 1956?

by J. Abeygunawardhana

(August 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Outlining the history of events that largely contributed to the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka, reader Saybhan Samat very rightly attributes it to, inter alia, the divide and rule policy of the British Colonial administration. It is true that the minority Tamil people enjoyed a privileged position in every sphere - education, employment, trade and business etc. Key positions in the administrative setup were almost their monopoly.

In the words of reader Samat “Mr. Bandaranaike was very keen to restore the rights of the majority Sinhalese people which were denied to them by the British Colonial power since 1796.”

To put the record straight, in fairness to the architects of 1956 victory of the MEP Coalition, it has to be accepted that SWRD’s role was one of political expediency rather than a genuine attempt to restore the lost rights of the majority Sinhalese community.

‘Sinhala only within 24 hours,’ the eye-catching slogan which contributed in large measure to the landslide victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) in 1956, was of course, the coinage of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. But it was the other exuberant campaigners such as K. M. P. Rajaratne of the Jatika Vimukthi Peramuna, a constituent party in the MEP coalition, who clamoured for Sinhala only. Rev. Henpitagedara Gnanasiha Thera, Rev. Baddegama Wimalawansa Thera, L. H. Mettananda and F. R. Jayasuriya were some of the leading personalities who were in the forefront of the Sinhala only campaign. ‘Eksath Bhikkhu. Peramuna’ also played an important role. SWRD was no chauvinist. He only gave leadership to this movement which had gathered momentum even before the formation of the MEP coalition. The language issue came as a handy weapon to crush the opposition led by SWRD’s erstwhile rival Sir John Kotelawala.

Incidentally, Sir John’s untimely utterances in the Delft Island on the eve of 1956 elections, spelt his ruin. He declared that he would confer parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil Languages if he came to power.

In fact, SWRD himself was for both Sinhala and Tamil Languages, as far back as 1926. Subsequently, in 1943 - 44, when J. R. Jayewardene moved in the then State Council that Sinhala be made the official language it was SWRD who moved an amendment to include Tamil also. The following excerpt of a speech of SWRD Bandaranaike from the Hansard (State Council) 1944, Vol. I, Page 810, 25 May, 1944, is self explanatory:

“What is the object of having Sinhalese alone as the official language?............ I do not see that there would be any harm at all in recognising the Tamil Language also as an official language. It is necessary to bring about that amity, that confidence among the various communities which we are all striving to achieve within reasonable limits….. I have no personal objection to both these languages being considered official languages, nor do I see any particular harm or danger or real difficulty arising from it.”

Philip Gunawardena, Leader of the VLSSP, a constituent party in the MEP coalition, advocated Tamil as a ‘Regional Language’ (Prantha Bhasa), while supporting Sinhala only bill of 1956.

SWRD having succumbed to the pressure of extremist elements, in the first instance, later saw through the passage of ‘Reasonable use of Tamil Act (Tamil Language special provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958)’ to rectify matters.

The manner in which the Sinhala only Act (Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956) was implemented overnight gave rise to a just grievance among the Tamils. Having enjoyed the Lion share under the colonial masters, they now began to feel they were second class citizens.

Every successive government failed to implement even the administrative regulations under the Reasonable use of Tamil Act, in the teeth of opposition. Even the LSSP, which once fought for parity of status to Tamil Language shouted slogans such as ‘Dudleyge Bade Masalawade’ in their May Day processions.

J. R. Jayewardene’s protest march to Kandy (against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957), which was disrupted at Imbulgoda, is often referred to by critics of J. R. Jayewardene. All that is history now! It is not too late for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to offer a viable solution to the ethnic conflict, acceptable to all political parties, including the minority communist parties, ensuring a fair share in the administration to the minorities under a unitary state.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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