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Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

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Text of a Lecture given to the Masters Course at the Kotelawala Defence University

June 15th 2013

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to – and was used for the purpose of exacerbating – ethnic tensions.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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