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I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.

First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee.

I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy.

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One of the more worrying aspects of the mess we have got ourselves into recently is the revival of talk of a homeland for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This involves treating the North and the East as a single unit, a matter that should have died a natural death following both the Supreme Court decision demerging the two provinces as well as the practical demonstration, in successive elections, that the East was a very different entity from the North.

I can however understand the renewed demand for a homeland, given our failure to build on the positive factors above after the conclusion of the war against the Tigers. I was worried then by the TNA continuing to talk about the merger, even though it was argued in their defence that this was simply a bargaining point, and of course they would accept the Province as the principal unit of devolution. Unfortunately, now that we hear more and more frequent references to abolishing the 13th Amendment, it is quite understandable that the TNA and its allies – which are now more formidable than they were two years ago – feel they might as well push the merger more forcefully.

When in 1987 the Liberal Party welcomed the Indo-Lankan Accord, and the introduction of Provincial Councils, we also made it clear that we thought the merger a fatal error, that would destroy the whole idea of devolution. We said this because we believed that devolution was needed on the principal of subsidiarity, which means decisions should be made in any sphere by the smallest unit affected by such decisions. Obviously there should be provision for consultation where others would be affected, and for National Policy to ensure consistency with regard to services available to the people, but the main purpose should be empowerment of people with accountability in units that were readily accessible to them.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2019
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