After Independence | Sunday Observer

After Independence

Shortly after Ceylon’s Independence in 1948, the first government’s stimulus for striving towards the economic betterment and societal progress had facilitated to enact a few parliamentary acts to refine a unified national identity for Ceylonese communities. The aim of establishing stronger loyalties among the indigenous people of the island had instituted new citizenship laws clarifying “who is a citizen of the new independent Ceylonese nation.” Conferring citizenship through the process of naturalization forced thousands of Indian-Origin Tamils to return to India or to remain in Sri Lanka as stateless. Later, this had influenced the behaviours and the ways of thinking of minority groups, notably Sri Lankan Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern Province to take a stand against the Ceylonese government on political and ideological grounds. However, the UNP government that governed the country until 1956 did not formulate any policies with the aim of curtailing the rights of Sri Lankan minorities. It is important to note that 1956 onwards ethnic identities such as religion and language became the tool for political leaders and parties to manipulate the rural Sinhalese to their own political gains. Notably, the newly created coalition party of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Party), which included Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a major element, stood for official language and the nationalization of estates. In fact, the elements of MEP coalition government forced to bring the first major discriminatory legislation against the whole Tamil-speaking communities in Ceylon. Making Sinhala as the official language could be argued as understandable, however allowing one powerful group to pursue their interests at the expense of other groups leading to fragmentation of shared Ceylonese identity is irrational.

The Official Language Act of 1956 effectively excluded minorities including Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian-Origin Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims, and many English-speaking Sinhalese and Burgher communities in the public sector of Ceylon. In other words, the implementation of Sinhala Language Act blocked all avenues of opportunity for minorities’ survival in the Ceylon public service. However, only, the leaders of Sri Lankan Tamils had found it as a great discrimination against the minorities and had begun to seek political autonomy for their traditional homelands of Northern and Eastern Provinces. Regarding the language issue, the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was the opinion that taking any steps to repeal the Official Language Act was not possible. However after discussions with SJV Chelvanayakam, the leader of Federal Party, Prime Minister SWRD Banadaranayaike entered into Banda-Chelva Pact, with a consensus to have proposed legislation recognizing Tamil as the language of national minorities without violating the position of the Official Language Act of 1956. However, the provisions to recognize Tamil as administrative language for Tamils were not implemented due to the failure of MEP government to promulgate necessary regulations to implement the Act. In addition, the MEP took initiatives to establish regional councils to address the grievances of minorities; however it did not go beyond drafting a bill for the establishment of regional councils. In fact, the Banda-Chelva Pact ended with no progress as the government faced the serious pressure from the Sinhala nationalist elements.

Again, the SLFP government (1960-1965), which came to power under the premiership of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had concentrated on the establishment of regional councils or district councils through appointing a committee under WDV Mahatantila, Commissioner of Local Governments. Until 1964, no progress had been achieved as there were enormous disagreements among Sinhalese. Again, the UNP government (1965- 1970) had come to power under Dudley Senanayake and commenced discussions with SJV Chelvanayakam to find solutions to the language issues of Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Province. In fact, the UNP government had entered into an agreement with SJV Chelvanayakam recognizing the right of Tamils to transact their business in the language of Tamil throughout the country. The following matters were included in the Dudley-Chelva agreement:

1. Make provisions to use Tamil as the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

2. Amend the Language of Courts Act to conduct and record legal proceedings in Tamil in the Northern and Eastern Province.

3. Establish District Councils

4. Through the amendment of Land Development Ordinance, the following priorities will be practiced in granting lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces:

I) Lands in the Northern and Eastern Province will be given to the landless persons in the district

II) Tamil speaking persons residing in the Northern and Eastern Province will be given second priority

III) Other citizens of Ceylon- a special preference will be given to Tamil citizens of the country to settle in the Northern and Eastern Province

However, all these were abandoned due to the pressure from the Sinhala nationalist elements persisted to a large extent since 1956.

The United Front (UF) government, which formed after the general election of 1970 under Prime Minister Sirimavo Banadaranaike, had brought the Republican Constitution of 1972 removing Article 29, the only protection for Tamils in the 1948 constitution. This orphaned the Tamils politically. Furthermore, the 1972 constitution consolidated the position of Sinhala as the official language while Tamil was granted a distinctively inferior and hazy position, as well as Buddhism was given the ‘the foremost place’ among other religions ( De Silva 1981). However, the UF had attempted to decentralize power through implementing a few schemes aiming to manage the development activities at the district level. For example, the District Political Authority (DPA) was established in 1973 under the political leadership of a Member of Parliament. The aim of the DPA was to restructure the administrative and political system to decentralize the responsibility of the central government related to development processes. In other words, the aim was to decentralize the power in managing development administration in the district level. Again, to strengthen the decentralization of development administration, the UF government introduced Decentralized Capital Budget (DCB) through which the public funds were allocated to the members of Parliament to address the needs of people at the district levels. Furthermore, the UF government established the system of Divisional Development Councils to establish a vibrant relationship between the central administration and local communities to manage development programmes at local levels. All these attempts of decentralization had failed to accommodate the Tamils’ demands and were not made to devolve power to solve the grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils.

The situation changed with the general election of 1977 in which the UNP formed the government under the Premiership of J.R Jeyawarandene who immediately brought a new constitution with an introduction of a form of presidential government system which he believed, is the ideal government to bring any meaningful solution to communal issues. Considering the situation of Sri Lankan Tamils and other communities, the UNP government took a bold step to ensure people’s participation at village, divisional and district levels. The government introduced District Minister System replacing the District Political Authority to coordinate the development activities of districts. The district minister for each district was appointed to formulate the district development plan and to monitor and implement the development plans of the government. In fact, this system encouraged political authority and administrative system to work efficiently without any disputes and helped to coordinate all development activities within the district under district minister of the central government and the district administration to ensure the efficient implementation of developmental activities. In addition to that, the UNP government established a new mechanism under the provisions of District Development Councils Act of 1980 in order to increase the peoples’ involvement in decision making at local level.

Under this scheme, it was also expected to decentralize the power of the central government in the management of development activities throughout the island. In fact, this provided a certain measure of devolution of powers to Tamils to govern themselves in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The first phase of JR Jayewardene could be a landmark of the process of administrative decentralization in Sri Lanka and was the first attempt of any Sri Lankan government since its Independence for Sri Lankan Tamils to enjoy some sort of autonomy in their administration.

During the second phase of J.R Jayewardene, a system of Provincial Councils was established under the 13 Amendment to the 1978 constitution. Under this Amendment, the language of Tamil obtained the status of an official language. In addition, the accommodation made through the constitutional reforms in 1987 facilitated to devolve political authority to the provinces (although to a lesser extent). One could easily say that it is a radical departure of the content and scope of institutional mechanism that the post-independent governments had taken previously to solve the communal issues in Sri Lanka. However, there are shortcomings in the PC system, but they have to be attended in order to address the aspirations of Sri Lankan minorities. Therefore, the provincial council system with some alterations can serve as a potential solution to the ethnic question of Sri Lanka.

– Malini Balamayuran, PhD (Western Sydney), MA (Hawaii) Lecturer Department of Political Science Faculty of Arts University of Peradeniya