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Is Sinhala the Official Language of Sri Lanka? – I

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By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development

When I raise this question, one may wonder why I raise this question 64 years after Sinhala was made the Official Language of Sri Lanka by the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956. The people in the country, including the people in the North and the East, the politicians and the political parties in the South may believe that Sinhala is the Official Language of Sri Lanka applicable throughout the country. But the Tamil political parties in the North and the East and the Muslim political parties know that it is not the case. It is they who got this done extending support to Ranasinghe Premadasa to win the 1988 Presidential Election against Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

I was prompted to do this study on the operation of the Official Language Policy in Sri Lanka on my own experience that I gathered from my communications with some public officials in the Eastern Province. In December 2019, I sent a lengthy letter in Sinhala to the Commissioner General of Lands with copies to the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa complaining about a grave injustice done to a Tamil national in the East by the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa by depriving him of his right to his land contrary to law. On receipt of my complaint the Commissioner General of Lands convened a meeting of all concerned parties including the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretary of Batticaloa in January 2020 and directed them to grant relief to the affected person. Ignoring the direction of the Commissioner General of Lands, the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa sent me their responses in Tamil. Prior to that also they had responded in Tamil some letters that I sent to them in English on the same issue. On the other hand, I found that they had responded in Sinhala to all the letters that they had received from the Commissioner General of Lands.

In 2017, I visited the Uhana Divisional Secretariat in the Ampara District to conduct an educational programme on law and human rights for the staff of the Divisional Secretariat and the general public in the area. There a participant, an soldier, raised a grievance that he had faced. On an inquiry about a state land that belongs to him from the land office at Central Camp he had got a letter in Tamil. As he did not know Tamil he had to go in search of a translator and pay him Rs. 100 and get the letter translated into Sinhala. That is the plight most of the Sinhala people in the North and thee East are facing today.

According to the Constitution, today, Sinhala is not the Official Language of Sri Lanka, it is only an Official Language, one of the two National Languages of Sri Lanka, the language of administration, used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the seven Provinces where the majority of population speak and use Sinhala for transacting business in and with public institutions. Sinhala is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.

As all the public institutions in the seven Provinces – Parliament, Provincial Councils, Local Authorities, Government Departments and Courts use Sinhala to conduct business and to maintain records, and the people can receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with public officials in these areas in the country they assume that Sinhala is the official language of the whole country.

Sinhala remained the Official Language of Sri Lanka continuously for 32 years from 1956 to December 17, 1988. Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who is said to have opposed the Official Languages Act in 1956, saying that one language would result in two countries and two languages in one country, did not think it necessary to change the official language policy of the country when he introduced the 1972 Constitution.

The provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution are as follows:

S. 7. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official

Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956.

S. 8 (1). The use of the Tamil language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language

(Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

The language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided by the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

When President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the 1978 Constitution creating Executive Presidency, he did not change the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution. At the time he introduced the 1978 Constitution, he adopted the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution.

The following are the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.

Art. 18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.

Art. 19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

Art. 22 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka provided that the Tamil Language shall also be used as the language of administration for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

This is nothing but giving effect to the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.

By Article 22 (1) JR ensured that Sinhala shall remain the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka including the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Art. 24 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka and accordingly their records and proceedings shall be in the Official Language; Provided that the language of the courts exercising original jurisdiction in the Northern and Eastern Provinces shall also be Tamil and their records and proceedings shall be in Tamil.

Through 1978 Constitution, JR constitutionally guaranteed that: (a) Sinhala shall be the Official Language of Sri Lanka; (b) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka; (c) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka.

At the time JR adopted the 1978 Constitution Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or the Federal Party was the biggest Opposition political party in Parliament with 17 MPs and A. Amirthalingam was the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

Although Leftist political parties and the SLFP were critical of the Executive Presidency and opposed it, there was not much opposition or public protests on the part of the Tamil political parties against the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution. When the Official Languages Act was introduced in Parliament in 1956, there were huge protests and civil disobedience campaigns organized by Tamil political parties against it. Probably they may have realized by then that the language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided for by the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.

Even at the time J. R. Jayewardene was compelled to bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution setting up Provincial Councils in 1987, he did not amend the provisions relating to the Official Language in Articles 18, 22 (1) and 24 (1) in the 1978 Constitution, although he added two new sub-Articles to facilitate the functioning of the newly set up Provincial Councils in the North and the East.

Art. 18 (2). Tamil shall also be an official language.

18 (3). English shall be the link language.

Tamil was also made an official language so that the Provincial Councils proposed to be set up in the North and the East could conduct their official functions in Tamil without any hindrance. It did not relegate the status given to Sinhala as the Official Language of the whole country.

But all these were changed by Ranasinghe Premadasa to get the support of Tamil and Muslim political parties in the North and the East to win the Presidential Election held in December 1988.

The 1988 Presidential Election was held on December 19, 1988. Two days prior to the Presidential Election, on December 17, 1988 Premadasa got two Amendments – the 15th and the 16th Amendments to the Constitution – enacted. With the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, President Premadasa brought about far-reaching changes in the hitherto existing Official Language policy in the country as shown below:

After the 16th Amendment to the Constitution:

Although nominally Sinhala is The Official Language, in effect it is no longer The Official Language of the country, it is only an Official Language in the sense that it is the language of administration in seven provinces;

It is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.

One can say that constitutionally Tamil is the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka as there is no limitation imposed on its application as in the case of Sinhala.

The Proviso to Article 22 (1) could result in the creation of minority linguistic ethnic units at the Divisional Secretariat level using languages different from the language of administration in the province as the language of administration for such area.

Even Arabic may be used as the language of administration for some of such areas like Kattankudy/Saindamaruthu. Already there have been disputes between the Tamil and Muslim communities in Kalmunai each community demanding a separate Divisional Secretariats for themselves.

The 16th Amendment:

a. disabled the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956 and made it ineffective;

b. removed Sinhala from the pedestal that it had occupied all this time as the Official Language of Sri Lanka;

c. relegated Sinhala from being the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka to the language of administration in the seven Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;

d. raised Tamil from being the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka without any restrictions imposed on it as in the case of Sinhala;

e. replaced the use of national languages with English, thereby strengthening the position of communalist politicians to continue their exploitation of poverty and ignorance of their people enabling them to obtain documents from and conduct communications with all public institutions throughout the country in English;

f. instead of promoting national harmony through facilitating communications among public institutions in different areas in the country in national languages, promoted division among people by promoting English as the means of communication among provincial councils and local authorities using different languages as the language of administration.

g. relegated Sinhala from being the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka with their records and proceedings maintained in Sinhala to the language of courts in the 7 Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;

h. in relation to laws and subordinate legislation enacted by Parliament, removed the requirement that Sinhala text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between Sinhala and Tamil or English texts;

i. removed the requirement of persons seeking admission to the Public Service, Judicial Service, Provincial Public Service, Local Government Service or any public institution being examined through the medium of either of the National Languages – Sinhala or Tamil;

Now an applicant has the choice of deciding the language he is to be examined. It may be English or even Arabic.

In fact, this has been brought for the purpose of opening the public service to those students of International Schools who receive their education in English medium and who do not know either Sinhala or Tamil.

j. removed the requirement of persons joining the Public Service acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the official language within a reasonable time after admission to such service;

Now, there is no requirement for any public servant in the North and the East to acquire any knowledge of the Sinhala language; he has only to acquire knowledge of the language as is reasonably necessary for the discharge of his duties – that is Tamil.

k. Removed the requirement of publishing all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by any public institution, Provincial Council or a local authority in both National Languages;

l. Required all public institutions other than Provincial Councils or local authorities to publish all such documents in Sinhala and Tamil together with a translation thereof in English;

m. Required the Provincial Councils and local authorities to publish all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by them and all other official documents including circulars and forms issued or used by such body or local authority, in the language of administration in the areas in which they function, together with a with a translation thereof in English.

This has resulted in the denial of the rights of tens of thousands of Sinhala speaking people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka from conducting communications with Provincial administrations and local authorities in their national language and placing them in great difficulty, compelling them to transact their communications with public institutions in Tamil, a language they are not conversant with.

The availability of English translation will not help the ordinary people, whether Tamil or Sinhala speaking. It has been done at the request of and for the benefit of the leaders of Tamil and Muslim political parties who continue to hoodwink the masses of the helpless Tamil speaking people with their false slogans of winning the rights of Tamil speaking people, while they themselves enjoy all the privileges conducting all their transactions in English.

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Who killed the UNP?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

‘RIP, UNP’? When I wrote a piece, under this title, way back in 2013, I was sincerely hoping it would never happen, perhaps, because there was still a trace of UNP DNA running through my veins. After all, my father was the first UNP MP for Matara albeit for only 33 days, elected in March 1960 to the shortest-lived Parliament of Sri Lanka. In fact, the full title of my article was “RIP, UNP? Hope not!” (The Island, 25 November 2013) which I concluded with the following plea:

“A vibrant Opposition is one of the corner stones of Democracy and is badly needed at this juncture, in Sri Lanka. There is no viable alternative to the UNP on the horizon. Hence my plea to all the big-wigs of the UNP. Please forget your petty differences and spend your energies on building the party than fighting each other. There is enough young talent in the party that needs to be nurtured than suppressed! Even if not for the party, you owe it to the country. Rather than RIP, may long live UNP!”

Although the infighting, I referred to was settled temporarily, the UNP was able to come to power in 2015, only though manipulations. Ranil did not want to contest the presidential election, nor did he want Sajith to do so. Instead, he hatched a plot with those with an inborn hatred of Mahinda, and persuaded Maithri to contest against his own boss, Mahinda. The morning after a hopper-dinner with Mahinda, Maithri announced his challenge as ‘the joint candidate’. No doubt external forces were behind these manipulations, as evidenced by US financial reports exposed later. Maithri was ridiculed but contrary to all expectations, he won.

Even in defeat, Mahinda demonstrated his political acumen by handing over the leadership of the SLFP to Maithri but the majority of the SLFP parliamentarians refused to support the Yahapalana government and were forced to function as an ‘orphan’ group. Meanwhile, Yahapalanaya transformed itself to a national government to facilitate a mega-cabinet! It did not take long for Yahapalanaya to be unpopular and to prevent the presentation of the COPE report which confirmed the first Central Bank Bond Scam, too, Parliament was dissolved by Maithri, at the request of Ranil. As the day of the August 2015 election approached, there were signs of an early Mahinda resurgence. To counter this, Maithri declared, openly and repeatedly, that even if the Mahinda faction wins the election, he would not appoint him Prime Minister which enabled a UNP victory. The very same Maithri is now ‘begging’ a portfolio under Mahinda! Perhaps, the hallmark of a successful politician is to be born without the gene for shame!!

Shortly before the presidential election, in November 2019, Ranil agreed, reluctantly, to allow Sajith to contest and must have savoured his bad defeat. Though Sajith withdrew from the lime-light, after this catastrophe, a group led by Mangala, encouraged him to leave the UNP. The continuing battle for the symbol led to Sajith buying a new party and forming SJB. The in-fighting between the UNP and the SJB made the recently concluded election a bit of a farce, as it was a battle for Sirikotha than for government.

The August 2020 election will go down in the annals of history as the most significant election in living memory for many reasons. It was very successfully conducted, during a pandemic raging around the world, and was one of the most peaceful as well. It shocked the winner Pohottuwa, too, as the result far exceeded their expectations. With the support of some allies, they got the two-thirds majority, considered nigh impossible with the proportional system of elections in operation at the moment. Though the total poll was 7% less than in the presidential election, the SLPP polled almost the same number of votes (6.9 million) and won some of the electorates it did not win in the presidential election.

Although it can claim success having won 47 seats as an ‘infant’ party, the SJB success was limited as it could win only one electoral district and polled much less than in the presidential election, getting 2,771,984 whereas Sajith polled 5,564,239 votes in the presidential election. What happened to almost three million votes?

The ignominious defeat the oldest major political party in Sri Lanka, the UNP was the biggest shock this election produced. No political commentator ever predicted this kind catastrophe and even whilst the results were being announced there were unofficial results circulating that Ranil and Ravi duo had won comfortably in the Colombo district. Ranil, who created a record by getting 500,566 preferential votes in the 2015 election, did not get enough votes to get elected. Mahinda broke his record by getting 527,364 preferential votes from Kurunegala, a much smaller district at that.

The final result showed the dismal performance of the UNP which polled less than 250,000 votes island-wide. In its fortress, Colombo, it got only 30,875 votes! The party that got a five-sixth majority, in 1977 under the uncle, has to contend with a single national list seat under the nephew. What ignominy!

There is no doubt whatsoever that Ranil is the giant-killer of the UNP but Sajith, too, should take responsibility for destroying his father’s party. He has done better than his father who tried to divide but gave up. Though the battle-cry during the election was taking over Sirikotha, Sajith seems to have lost interest, though some of his supporters are still keen. In a way this is understandable. Why should he take over a ramshackle outfit when he can build on his own invention? Though he can take a cue from the SLPP, which stands tall in under three years, one wonders whether Sajith has the capabilities of Basil.

Ranil is not the giving-up type and his acolytes have already announced that the UNP would be revamped! Can the UNP rise like a phoenix from the ashes? Though not humiliated in this manner, the UNP has risen from eight seats and nine seats to the seat of power, twice in the past. It is very likely that the staunch UNP supporters resorted to tactical voting, backing Sajith, as a divided vote would have been a greater disaster, and the million-dollar question is whether they would remain with Sajith or return. Perhaps, everything depends on how Sajith performs. If he does well and Rajapaksas fail, he could be the next president! What about the missing three million? Would the revamped UNP be able to get them? We cannot forget Maithri as his behaviour, too, contributed to the demise of the UNP. He is a ‘double-murderer’ as he has almost killed the SLFP as well.

Perhaps, it is Yahapalanaya, that ill-conceived marriage, which ultimately killed the UNP!

 

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A nuclear-free world is crucial for sustainable development

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by Anjali Roy, Ankit Kumar, Anurag Ratan, KS Lakshmi Naraayan, Kaustubh Jain, Sartaj Singh

Citizens News Service

‘Most people are completely, blissfully ignorant about the situation, and those of us who believe in sustainable development are not able to do anything;: this is how Dr SP Udayakumar describes the current situation relating to nuclear power and its uses throughout the world. Dr Udayakumar is a writer and anti-nuclear activist from Tamil Nadu, India. He is the convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which has been at the forefront of the anti-nuclear struggle in Kudankulam, . He also co-founded the South Asian Community Center for Education and Research (SACCER).

Nuclear power has proven to be more bane than boon

Dr. Udayakumar points out that the UN Security Council’s five permanent countries (the P5), which include China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States, along with Germany as the plus one, must be held accountable to the world about their use of nuclear power, as this source of power is very unstable and gives way to catastrophic results if misused or mishandled. Since a large number of countries are in possession of nuclear arms, a war even between two smaller countries can escalate into nuclear warfare. Even though the number of nuclear warheads might be lesser than what used to be a few decades ago, those that still exist have enough power to wipe out the earth several times over as nuclear technology has advanced multiple times than the warheads that were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Furthermore, existing nuclear sources require constant servicing and maintenance, taking a huge amount of human and financial resources.

In the case of nuclear war, many have put forward the Deterrence theory which holds that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other countries from attacking with their nuclear weapons, through the promise of retaliation and possibly mutually assured destruction of the countries involved. However, this theory has been proved wrong to a great extent, one such example being the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999, which happened despite both the countries being in possession of nuclear power. So, it would only make sense for the world to abandon the concept of nuclear power, and not just nuclear bombs, since the plutonium used in these bombs directly comes from the nuclear power plants. Aside from this, the nuclear energy produced by these bombs comes at a great cost to the environment which is seriously affected by its production and waste disposal, as well as the irreparable health damage to people who live around the zones near the plants.

In popular parlance it is a common misconception that nuclear energy does not result in carbon dioxide (CO2) being released as a byproduct, as is the case in many fossil fuels, and also that it causes zero emissions. This has garnered the support of some advocates who tout nuclear power a popular choice for the future of clean energy. In fact, the Nuclear Energy Institute situated in Washington reports that there are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States which do not emit any carbon dioxide, and many studies have been done and expert opinions have been taken which suggest the same. However, most of these studies are sponsored by a company advocating for nuclear energy use, which also employs these experts.

It would be simply unrealistic to believe that nuclear sources do not emit carbon dioxide, as every kilowatt-hour of nuclear energy is responsible for CO2 emissions. And while it is true that greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear sources are much lower than that produced by fossil fuel plants, it can also be argued the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear sources are more substantial in comparison.

Dr Udaykumar has explained this whole situation very aptly with the help of an analogy of a plane with peaceful passengers and hijackers. He compares the citizens to the peaceful passengers of the plane which is hijacked and describes its hijackers as the nuclear technocrats and politicians of the real world.

Dr Udaykumar is against the concept of the possession of nuclear weapons even as a measure of defense by the countries as that might result in a nuclear war between countries which in turn might have the potential to leave behind its traces for generations.

The question here arises why is he against the whole idea of nuclear energy which includes nuclear power plants- a great source for producing electricity? The answer to this is reflected in one of his talks around the Kudankulam struggle, wherein he presented his concerns about the ill-effects and the industrial accidents that might occur- like the Bhopal Gas Tragedy or the very recent Visakhapatnam accident. He raised a voice against the Kudankulam nuclear power project. But this resistance was ultimately taken down by the govenment alleging false accusations on Dr Udaykumar and his supporters which however were never really proven. The accident was not the only thing he was concerned about.

Setting up nuclear power plants also requires a tremendous amount of money- people’s money, which is being invested in the making of nuclear power plants on the coasts of India that would end up harming the people themselves. It would lead to the contamination and thermal pollution in the sea that will, in turn, affect the aquatic animals and seafood and endanger the food and nutrition security. Moreover the harmful effects arising out of the improper disposal of nuclear waste generated in the power plants, can linger on for a very long time.

This very money can be used for mitigating many other problems that humanity/ world faces as a whole such as poverty, hunger, health inequity etc. The public’s hard-earned money which people pay as tax to the government needs to be invested in usable and effective manner rather than spending on nuclear arms and/or power plants.

In the functioning of the nuclear power plants, there have been accidents which have led to huge loss of lives and property, and some have even impacted the well-being of future generations. One such accident was the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979, that resulted in a partial meltdown of reactor number 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. It was the most serious accident in US nuclear power plant history. On a scale of seven, it was rated a five as an ‘accident with wider consequences’.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 1986 in Ukraine and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in 2011 in Japan were rated at seven- the maximum severity on the International Nuclear Event Scale- and resulted in uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment, leading to not only huge loss of human lives but also in radioactive contamination of food and water supplies.

Even in the rare event that throughout the life of the nuclear power plant, there is no accident, when it is decommissioned there is radiation leakage from the plant.

In the indian context, there have been accidents at almost every Indian site of a nuclear power plant or uranium mining or dumping facility from Kudankulam to Jadugora. In many researches they have been termed as extreme as “Nuclear Graves of India”.

What comes out of this insightful session of Dr Udaykumar is that the world is in need to reconsider the risks of nuclear power plants. A very obvious question that arises here is – if not nuclear power plants then what? Can other renewable sources of energy like wind and solar energy prove to be alternative resources for nuclear energy? We have to trust human innovation and focus on creating new sources of clean energy. Dr Udaykumar also said that the country needs to get united irrespective of the caste and religion. The country has to shift focus on better education, health, and other issues. When the country stands in unison, no power can hurt its people. This particular statement’s deepness and real strength should be understood which would go miles for that nation’s building.

After all, arms don’t kill people, people do.

(Authors are students of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Indore, India and were part of the internship at CNS)

 

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Class, caste and the politics of destruction

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UNP’s Defeat – I

By Jayantha Somasundaram

“… the liberal-cosmopolitan intelligentsia … supported … the UNP. Few, very few, deigned to support the SJB.”  Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka The Election Result and the Intelligentsia (Colombo Telegraph August 7, 2020)

According to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, appearing the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. This adage is very fitting when we look at last week’s Parliamentary election results, the political fate of the United National Party (UNP), and at events that occurred 30 years ago.

First the context: South Asia is a feudal society and is, therefore, subject to caste stratification and caste bigotry. And in Sri Lanka, too, caste consciousness and discrimination is pervasive. It determines political alliances, political fortunes and political history. The Sinhala Govigama elite did not see the other major castes, even after they had acquired wealth and education, as mere inferiors. They viewed them as lacking legitimacy because, as Professor K.M. De Silva explains in The History of Sri Lanka, “recent immigrants, from South India, and their absorption into the caste structure of the littoral, saw the emergence of three new Sinhala caste groups – the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava. They came in successive waves into the eighteenth century.”

When an elected-Ceylonese seat was introduced in the Legislative Council, in 1911, the Govigama leadership united behind the Tamil Vellalar Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in order to defeat his opponent, the Karawe Sir Marcus Fernando, whose candidature was proposed by Sir James Peiris. This led Governor Sir Hugh Clifford to say that the election “was fought purely on caste lines … caste prejudice providing a stronger passion than racial bias.”

The UNP, founded in 1946, reflected this mindset. “D.S. Senanayake had entered independence with a basically Sinhala-Govigama and Tamil-Vellalar administration” observed Janice Jiggins in Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese. Inspector Malcolm Jayasekera, who was attached to Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake’s security detail, recalled that when ministers travelled to the provinces, Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera, the General Secretary of the UNP, would, at their Rest House stops, join the security detail for lunch, because, as a member of the Navandanna caste, he didn’t feel welcome at the table of his ministerial colleagues.

When Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, in 1959, the Leader of the House was C.P. De Silva. Professor A. J. Wilson records, “Dr. N.M. Perera told me that the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, was going through a ‘gethsemane’ in his presence, asking, ‘How can I appoint a Salagama man’ (as Prime Minister)?”

Caste discontent became obvious during the April 1971 uprising when it was found that the combatants of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were from depressed caste groups, like the Batgam and Vahumpura. Janice Jiggins notes that “Many in the armed services took the view that the fighting was an expression of anti-Govigama resentment and, in certain areas, went into low caste villages and arrested all the youth, regardless of participation.”

UNP’s 1970 Defeat

The shattering electoral defeat of the UNP, in 1970, compelled J. R. Jayewardene to depend on extra parliamentary agitation to regain power, and street-wise activists, like R. Premadasa, with a base among Colombo’s underclass, and Cyril Matthew, the trade union boss. By the time the party took office, in 1977, Premadasa had become one of the contenders for leadership. But Premadasa belonged to a depressed caste.

“Previous leaders had come from the landowning Goyigama caste whose well-off members had quickly got onside with the British colonial rulers, sent their sons to elite British universities and learnt to play cricket and parliamentary politics …. Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s first leader to come from the lower orders. He had scant formal education.” (Far Eastern Economic Review 13/5/93) The prevailing political leadership, “the UNP’s J. R. Jayewardene and the SLFP’s Sirima Bandaranaike both belonged to the same Anglicised elite in Colombo.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

Since Jayewardene could only serve two terms, Premadasa was patient, confident that he would, in due course, become President. “Mr Premadasa was always searching for outside allies. He was forced to do so because of opposition to him, within the party. This opposition was based on class and caste factors… (and) was one of the factors which made Mr Premadasa try so hard to form an understanding with the JVP and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).”(Sunday Leader 5/1/93)

However, Premadasa soon realised that the Govigama establishment, in the UNP, was grooming Upali Wijewardene to succeed Jayewardene. Married to Mrs Bandaranaike’s niece and a kinsman of Jayewardene, educated at Royal College and Cambridge University, successful businessman with an international empire, Wijewardene was the perfect successor. “His attempts to get into politics, through JR, was thwarted by Premadasa who felt Upali would be a threat” wrote former The Island editor Vijitha Yapa, while Upatissa Hulugalle reminds us that “Premadasa cursed Upali in Parliament a few days before he disappeared.” (The Island 30/1/01). Upali Wijewardene was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1982.

“In early 1990, when Vijitha Yapa was Sunday Times editor, a columnist published some cabinet news that Premadasa was angry about. At a function, at Gangaramaya Temple Keleniya, Premadasa told (Upali’s cousin) Ranjith Wijewardene (the owner of the Sunday Times) in a small gathering: “I want to advise you, do not let those who destroyed Upali destroy you.” (Colombo Telegraph 4/4/14)

Upali Wijewardene

In the Constitution, that he crafted in 1978, President Jayewardene was careful not to provide for a vice president, who would explicitly be regarded as his successor. So Premadasa had to be content with the inconsequential office of Prime Minister. “As Prime Minister, he had no powers,” said Premadasa’s daughter. “Despite his being deputy leader of the party, and Prime Minister, he was not nominated for the presidency until the last moment. Both Lalith and Gamini were aspiring for the ticket.” (Sunday Island 4/1/97)

1988 Election

“Some Govigama politicians opposed the appointment of Premadasa, as deputy leader rather than Athulathmudali or Dissanayake, because it made him Jayewardene’s presumptive successor.” Though appointed Prime Minister, in 1978, when Jayewardene became executive President, the UNP leadership did not consider Premadasa as a prospective successor to Jayewardene. Instead “the leading contenders were Upali Wijewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Wijewardene was a cousin of Jayawardene… and was, in 1982, considered a likely successor to Jayawardene.

To the very end of Jayewardene’s administration, Premadasa had no assurance that he would be the UNP’s candidate at the 1988 Presidential Election. “Nearly all those in the UNP hierarchy, who advocated a third term for President Jayewardene, were killed, ostensibly by the JVP,” notes Rajan Hoole in The Linkages of State Terror (UTHR). In a sense, it was the JVP that won him his candidature, they were at the height of their anti-Indo-Lanka Accord and anti-Indian campaign. The only way the UNP could win the presidential election was by putting up a credible nationalist. For example, a champion of the Indo, Sri Lanka Accord, Gamini Dissanayake was on a poor wicket. Premadasa finally became President, on 2 January 1989, of a Sri Lanka “riddled with caste distinction and snobbery… Premadasa remained an outsider until he died.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

Premadasa’s choice for Prime Minister would have been his loyal lieutenant Sirisena Cooray, but he could not ignore the fact that Lalith Athulahmudali came out the better of the two, in Colombo, at the 1989 Parliamentary Election. Rather than give Athulathmudali the position, with its implied deputy status, he invented an annually rotating premiership, assuring each aspirant a turn, and then appointed D.B. Wijetunga who was never a contender for office. Premadasa, thereafter, forgot about the ‘rotating premiership.’

On the anniversary of his installation as President, Premadasa “would receive a blessing from priests at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, in Kandy, and then present himself to the public from a chamber where the ancient rulers of the Kandyan Kingdom were crowned. The upper-caste clergy, at Kandy, may have gritted their teeth at presumption by a person who traditionally would not have been allowed near their most holy places.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)

“The dominant Siam Nikaya was once exclusively confined to the Govigama caste and remains overwhelmingly Govigama. The Karava, Salagama and Durava castes obtained ordination, in Myanmar, setting up the Amarapura Nikaya,” explains Punya Perera in “Caste and Exclusion in Sinhala Buddhism” (Colombo Telegraph 7/3/13)

(To be continued)

 

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