The Politics of Language


Originally published in the Ceylon Daily News 9.7.1970

Language can be the key not only to cultural identity but also to the maintenance of privilege. The Tamils of Ceylon are seeking to preserve their power and status on such a basis, in the face of the growing poverty of most of their countrymen.

‘Every dialect is a way of thinking.’ – Fanon.

In the beginning were the Portuguese. They ran and overran the maritime provinces from, 1505-1658 with religious and commercial zeal, and Buddhism was the first casualty. The Dutch occupation which succeeded the Portuguese for the next century and a half was less hazardous to Buddhism as such but further eroded the age-old relationship between church and state. Commerce, opening up avenues of social mobility hitherto unknown, undermined social order. Fissures and cracks had begun to appear in traditional society.

Indeed the Sinhalese and Tamil kings had, during the thousand years of their common history, often been at war with one another, particularly between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, but the rallying cry had seldom been a communal one. Tamils, in fact, had lived under Sinhalese rulers, and Sinhalese under Tamil, and the closing years of the last Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy had belonged to a line of Tamil kings. On the whole, however, the communities did not intermingle, separated as they were by religion, language and culture and, at the time advent of Portuguese rule, by territory as well.

It was with the arrival of the British, however, that the old order was finally destroyed. Within two decades of driving out the Dutch from the coastal area, the British occupied the Kandyan kingdom the last bastion of the Sinhalese monarchy. The country was ready for the centralised and unified system of government which was to follow. Or, to put it differently, a monolithic polity was in the process of being superimposed on a pluralist society.

At first it was the maritime provinces that came under British hegemony. Consequently it was the low country Sinhalese who were immediately vulnerable to foreign influence, particularly the Karava community. The Salagamas had already become privy to the intricacies of commerce through the Dutch trade in cinnamon and spices.

The Karavas, under the British, were the first to undertake estate agriculture and business. The traditional caste system was breaking down (whether for good or ill is immaterlal here), commerce necessitated the of the English language, the urbanisation made secular society divorced from the village ethos. Already the Sinhalese were beginning to lose their identity.

So when the ‘economic revolution’ occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century it was the low-country Sinhalese who were in a position to benefit. They knew more than the foreigner about upcountry lands where estates were being established, and more than the Kandyan about the foreigner.  But other factors too made for the further segmentation of the Sinhalese population.

Ecology, we are told, makes for personality. The people of the mountains are generally said to be more easy going and less avaricious than the plainsmen. But however that may be the fact remains that the Kandyans, removed as they were from the immediate impact of commercialisation and urbanisation, were less vulnerable to British influence. Their lives were not. as contingent on the colonial ethos as those of their low country fellows, And to that extent their life-styles, their religious mores and their social set-up went comparatively unharmed.

But if the up-country Sinhalese retained some notion of their identity, it was the Tamils, in the arid and profitless regions to the north and the east, who were protected even more from colonial contamination. There was nothing in these parts of the country for the British to buy and sell, there was no possibility of establishing estates or instituting large-scale farming, and industry was of course the business of the mother country.

There was, however, one colonial possibility in these areas and that was proselytisation  through education. Mission schools sprang up overnight, and education became the one tool available to the Tamil with which to improve his economic lot, His own language and culture, meanwhile, continued, to be furnished by South India.

Armed with his education, the Tamil came south. But he remained a typical migrant. He did not put roots down in that part of the country which gave him his livelihood, unless it was to educate his children yet further. His family, in the first decade of his life anyway, remained in the north.

He sent monies home and visited his family once month. He kept up his religious practices and the austere style of living which was native to the austere type of land he came from but which was out of place in the lush south. He spoke his own tongue whenever possible, but improved his English in the interests of ‘getting on’. In effect, he retained his identity.

Gradually, as English became the sine qua non of administration, commerce, trade, the professions-a English became the passport to elitism the Tamil found an enviable niche in the administrative hierarchy. For him, whose identity was untrammelled by colonial vicissitudes, the economic use to which the English language could be put was more important than the symbol it afforded. For the Sinhalese, deracinated and lost to himself the status of being Westernised took on the guise of an alter ego.

What happened in 1948 is what has happened to every country in the Afro-Asian world on attaining independence: a native, Westernised elite took over the reins of power from the colonial elite. Nothing had changed. The peoples had exchanged one set of masters for another exactly alike only their colour was different.

Within a decade it became quite obvious that language was the key not merely to power but to the lost identity of the peoples. Ten per cent of the country ruled the rest by virtue of their prowess in English. Urban society (30 per cent) determined and threatened the life of the peasant masses. Even the urban worker was a cut above the village farmer.

Identity and power these were the issues at stake, and the key was language. Through language and religion the Sinhalese would find again some notion of who they were. Through language their access to power would become more broad based.

But there was still the Western-educated elite to be disposed of. True, they had served a function: they had used British liberal arguments to undermine British rule and achieve independence. But their job was done, their function completed. They were ripe for de-elitisation. The elite, however, refused to be a party to its own obsolescence. It held on to power. And given that national aspirations would inevitably lead to national language, the elite made language way of holding on to power. The use of Sinhalese would undermine the economic and bureaucratic power of Tamil elite. A war of the elites was transformed into a war of languages.

Linguistic communalism certainly obfuscates class interests. But the immediate confusion is between identity and privilege. The Westernised Sinhalese, by adopting Sinhalese as the national language, has, unlike  Tamil counterpart, nothing but his trousers to lose. He can still hold on to even if he does not wish to pursue his identity.

He has a choice, or he has the best of both worlds. The Westernised Tamil, on the other hand, deprived of the English language, also deprived of power. His own linguistic identity had remained intact. It was his power that was now being assailed –  his privilege.

The Sinhalese elite could pretend they were nationalists while at the same time retaining their class position; the Tamil elite pretended to their peoples that their whole culture was threatened by Sinhalese nationalism.

In the course of events however, it was inevitable that some power should descend from the Sinhalese elite to the rural middle classes. And so the village teacher, the ayurvedle traditional physician and the bhikku (monk)the traditional elite re-entered the political arena. Life, for the large mass of people, remained as before, but the forces of change had been unleashed.

But no such sharing of power has emerged in the Tamil north. So successful have the Tamil elite been in deploying the myth of cultural annihilation that Tamil society has remained culture-bound and immobile. Even the mild industrialisation that the central government has introduced in the north seems to have been achieved with little help from Tamil representatives in Parliament, so heedless have they become of the economic plight of their people.

Indeed when a Tamil minister resigned his post from the Cabinet, it was not a matter of great economic or political consequence but because the Prime Minister had refused to declare some abandoned fort, adjoining a Hindu temple, ’a sacred area’. It is possible that the growing poverty of the people will throw up the type of leadership which is prepared find a common denominator with the unemployed and underemployed masses.

But in the meantime, the Tamil elite continues to manipulate, mislead and commit the Tamil people to an era of mindless communal antagonism and economic decrepitude.