Most people have their own ideas as to why the country has not progressed as much as expected in the post-Independence period. Some feel it is the politicians who have led the country who are responsible, forgetting that it was a choice made by the voter at the hustings in selecting those self-same politicians. Others [...]


Is “Sinhala Only” the cause of the country’s ills?


Most people have their own ideas as to why the country has not progressed as much as expected in the post-Independence period.

Some feel it is the politicians who have led the country who are responsible, forgetting that it was a choice made by the voter at the hustings in selecting those self-same politicians. Others opine that democracy is not suitable for the country and that a dictatorship would have served us better. There are many other diagnoses as to the cause of the failure of the country to move forward.

One of the more frequent comments over the years is that the Sinhala Only policy ushered in by SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956 is the root cause of all our problems. Last week his eldest daughter Sunethra Bandaranaike’s views on this point were sought by a viewer when she was being interviewed on TV One’s current issues programme Newsline.

The interview was primarily related to her work as Chairperson of the Sunera Foundation with an outstanding record of working to enhance the quality of life of persons living with disability and facilitating their fullest integration to society.

Towards the end of the programme a viewer posed the question to Ms Sunethra as to whether the country would be thriving now if not for S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only policy. Sunethra did not mince her words. She said that she agreed with what the viewer said and went on to add “He was my father but the truth must be told. Why he did it is anybody’s guess.”

The talk show host Faras Shauketally thanked her for being honest, up front and open.

Sunethra was being candid and open about the issue although her disapproval of the Sinhala Only policy meant that she had to disagree with her father. The Bandaranaike siblings have always been candid with their views even when it is to their detriment. Although Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s Government followed an economic policy which critics described as a “closed economy” Chandrika Bandaranaike did not hesitate to dissociate herself from that policy and rather went in for “an open economy with a human face” when she contested the 1994 Presidential Elections.

When she was campaigning at the 2000 Presidential Elections and describing the LTTE as “minimaru LTTE” on election platforms, she was cautioned by supporters not to be so strongly critical of the LTTE in the middle of the campaign as it may alienate a section of the Tamil populace. Her spontaneous response was, what she was saying was true.

The youngest of the Bandaranaikes, Anura was no different. In the run up to the 1988 Presidential Election when the SLFP was trying to build an alliance with all anti-UNP forces to support Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, during discussions with the JVP, he did not hesitate to be bluntly critical of the JVP’s actions despite his colleagues cautioning him to tone down in the interest of building a common front.

Coming back to Sunethra Bandaranaike’s comments there are two points worthy of note. The first was: she did not hesitate to disagree with the policy even though it was implemented by her father. A useful lesson in politics for modern day politicians that the natural affection for one’s kith and kin should not prevent one from expressing disagreement with their policies particularly so because they relate to public matters.

The second aspect of Sunethra’s comments relate to the impact of the Sinhala Only act on the country’s progress. Prior to 1956, although the country had gained independence in 1948 it was still governed by the English speaking elite with little participation of the ordinary people. Those in power at that time were often insensitive to the needs of the ordinary people.

This fact is brought out very vividly by an incident during the time of the Premiership of Sir John Kotelawala. A delegation of Swabasha trained teachers went to meet Prime Minister Kotelawala to demand that their salaries be increased to be on par with that of the English trained teachers. The Prime Minister summarily dismissed the demand saying the English trained teachers had to be paid more because they consumed ham and bacon while the Swabasha trained teachers had no such need.

In fact one can argue that if not for the change in 1956 which gave the common man his due place, the Southern insurrections of 1971 and 1987 may have happened sooner. What Bandaranaike was attempting to do by ushering in the common man’s era was to bring about a transition that made the ordinary people part of the process of Government.

His celebrated statement that “he was performing a caesarean operation on the womb of time” was a conscious reflection of his thinking. He repeatedly emphasised that political freedom won in 1948 had no meaning without economic freedom.

Many of the problems that Bandaranaike faced during his stewardship was as a result of his being unable to control or manage the forces that his assumption of power unleashed. Ultimately he himself succumbed to the conspiracy that was set in motion by Venerable Buddharakita Thero who was a business magnate with interests in shipping who was enraged that Bandaranaike would not play ball with him.

One of the criticisms of the Sinhala Only policy was that it made the Tamils second class citizens. In fact one can argue that prior to 1956 both Sinhalese and Tamils were second class citizens. Where Bandaranaike failed was in not making both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and ensuring that the standard of English was maintained and built on. He tried to make amends later by ensuring the reasonable use of the Tamil Language through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact but could not sustain it due to hostile forces which ganged up to force him to tear up the pact.

His reluctance and disappointment in being forced to do so was evident when he stated that he was forced to tear up the pact much against his wishes but would not be responsible for the consequences of such an action. At worst Bandaranaike may be accused of being opportunistic in using the slogan “Sinhala Only in 24 hours” in the 1956 Election campaign. But he was never racist in his campaign. His intentions were not to discriminate but to empower the poor and marginalised.

Bandaranaike was essentially a generous and large hearted man. He was propelled to power largely and almost exclusively by the Sinhala majority. But not once was he heard to say that his ascent to power was due to the majority community alone to the exclusion of the minorities. He rendered a great service to the educational and social elevation of the Muslim community. In fact it could be stated that the educational renaissance of the Muslim community started under his tenure. In this he was greatly assisted by the Education Minister in his Cabinet, Dr. W. Dahanayake, and Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud.

Another example of his large heartedness was the grant of Rs. 100,000 (a princely sum at that time) for the pioneering effort of the Moors Islamic Cultural Home for the first translation of the Quran into Sinhala. The fact that the Muslims had not voted for him at the Elections did not prevent him from reaching out to them and serving them as any leader was required to do.



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