Bradman Weerakoon questions Jayaweera’s Account of Language Policy in the 1960s

Bradman Weerakoon Jaffna_fort_entrance NEVILLE 11

 The Making and Un-Making of History – Neville Jayaweera’s ‘Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision’. … reviewed by Bradman Weerakoon, in The Sunday Island,  7 September 2014

Neville Jayaweera’s Memoir on his period of service as Government Agent Jaffna between August 1963 and 1966 is as Michael Roberts says in his Foreword a veritable feast of information to be mined. This was a defining phase of our history. It saw the Tamil resentment in the North on account of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act (1956) grow into a full – blown civil disobedience movement. That spun into the 30 year war we were all caught up in until recently. Neville Jayaweera (NJ) in Jaffna was at the epi – centre of the storm as it developed.

NJ’s detailed recall of incidents of many years ago, assisted by the daily diary he kept, should help fill many of the gaps in the history of those times. Only a few of us are yet around to bear personal witness to what really happened and it makes such memoirs of history as it happened, invaluable.

I shall comment on only a few aspects of the many dramatic incidents he writes about. One was his moral dilemma in persuading Prime Minister Sirimawo Bandaranaike, to exempt the Jaffna District of which he was in charge, from bearing the full and unfair rigour of the ‘Sinhala Only’ legislation. By his courageous action, facing the pressure of NQ Dias ‘the most powerful public servant at the time’, NJ tells us how he relieved the people of Jaffna from having to receive official correspondence and other important documents, such as Birth and Death Certificates, in Sinhala only. NJ’s policy of ‘consultation, compromise and conciliation’ thus, he shows, triumphed over Dias’ insistence on ‘confrontation, aggression and ascendancy’.

I was official Secretary to the PM (Mrs Bandaranaike) at the time and have a different “take” on what was going on then. Aware of the impracticability and unfairness of imposing the full effects of changing over to Sinhala in the largely Tamil – speaking districts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the PM and her chief advisor, the astute Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who in addition to being Minister of Finance was Parliamentary Secretary of Defence and External Affairs had decided from the start of the PM’s tenure (1960) to moderate, and not impose, Sinhala on the North and East. They were guided in this decision by the late PM, SWRD Bandaranaike’s final piece of legislation on the official language, the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No 28 of 1958, popularly known as the ‘Reasonable use of Tamil’ Act. This had provisions, that in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the medium of instruction for children in school could be Tamil, that persons educated in Tamil could be recruited into the public service in Tamil, and that official correspondence with the public, including issuance of Birth and Death Certificates, be in the language of the local people, if Tamil.

This desirable piece of legislation, to be operative, however needed ‘Regulations’ which had to be passed through Parliament and the Senate. Mr Bandaranaike had not made the necessary Regulations and neither in fact did Mrs Bandaranaike in her time. It was only in 1966 (Mr Dudley Senanayake’s time) that these were brought into effect. However Mrs Bandaranaike, being convinced of her husband’s concern for the needs of Tamil people and his concept of the ‘reasonable use of Tamil’, followed the spirit of this legislation in the policy she followed on language in the North and East. I know she was also guided in this decision by the proviso to the ‘Sinhala Only’ (Official Language) Act itself which permitted ‘The Minister’ (ie herself) where it was ‘impracticable’ to change over, to postpone the operation of the Sinhala Only law.

So in effect not only the people of the Jaffna District (NJ’s ward) but all people in the 8 Districts of the North and East (Jaffna, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai enjoyed the benefits of her dispensation. They continued to receive correspondence and documents in English, Tamil or Sinhala, as they wished.

NJ uses the ‘concession’ he obtained from the PM and his approach of ‘consultation, compromise and conciliation” (his moral compulsions) in his dealings in Jaffna, to create the favourable conditions that made it possible, he claims, for the Federal Party to enter the National Government of Dudley Senanayake in 1965. It may have helped; but having a ring – side seat of the political ‘trade-offs’ (a normal practice where political leaders scramble to secure majorities to form Governments) I think there were more profound reasons why the Federal Party joined with the UNP in 1965. The ‘deal’, the Accord between the UNP and the Federal Party got them District Councils (with some power over specified subjects) but under the ‘control and direction’ of the Central government, and the Regulations under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. Moral suasion alone did not do it.

NJ is in error when he states (top of page 33) that the “the central provision of the Accord was the granting of regional devolution to satisfy Tamil aspirations”. What they got was District Councils. Regional devolution was yet a dream a long way away.


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