This post analyses the provisions of the Constitution of Sri Lanka and amendments related to language, especially the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1987. The author also looks into two specific acts – one, is the Official Language Act of 1956 commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act’ and The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958.

‘Sinhala Only Act’: Official language Act of 1956

In Sri Lanka (before 1972, Ceylon), English was the official language from 1815 to 1956. Prior to independence the ‘Swabhasha movement’ led to a consensus that English had to be replaced as the official language of the nation by both Sinhala and Tamil. But shortly after independence, the majority community turned the movement from Swabhasa to ‘Sinhala only’.

 In 1951, a three-member Language Commission was appointed by the Governor-General of Ceylon to inquired into the steps taken so far for the introduction of Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages of the country. When the final report was submitted, the chairman of the commission recorded that “in my opinion the replacement of English by Swabhasha would have been very much easier if, instead of two Swabhasha languages as official language, one alone had been accepted in terms of the motion introduced by Mr. J. R. Jayewardene in the State Council on June 22, 1943.”

Followed by this and a nationalist resurgence on ethnic lines, the newly elected government passed the Official Language Act of 1956’ which declared Sinhala to be the only official language, popularly known as the ‘Sinhala only Act’. A reason for this was the entrance of a large number of Tamil speaking members into the government service, during the colonial rule. A reason for this was the prevalence of English in the Tamil-speaking North. Therefore, the Sinhala-speaking people intended to correct this imbalance in government jobs by way of this Act.

Similarly, after the transition to Sinhala from English, the Tamil populace complained of a similar issue not only of discrimination in public employment, but of inconveniences and difficulties created by receiving forms and correspondence from government agencies in Sinhala, which they could not read. Tamil citizens have argued that, due to the Sinhala-only policy, they were treated as aliens in their own land. Such practical considerations gave rise to emotional sentiments towards their own identity and culture. While for the Sinhala people the Sinhala only demand reflected their aspiration to retrieve their own cultural heritage, for Tamil people it arose a fear of the dangers of political domination by the Sinhala majority, which could lead to the undermining of Tamil language and culture in Sri Lanka. The Act was promotional for Sinhalese but operational for the minority. This resulted in several ethnic conflicts between the two groups leading to the civil war of Sri Lanka at a later stage.

Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, 1958

In 1958, in response to the grievances of the Tamil-speaking people, the government passed the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. The Act provided special provisions for the use of Tamil language as a medium of instruction, medium of examination for public services and for special administrative purposes in northern and eastern provinces. The Act hardly satisfied the aspirations of Tamils. Their arguments were; firstly, that it did not recognize Tamil as a national language; secondly, there was no follow-up strategy to implement it; and lastly, it was too late and too little. The government refrained from implementing the provisions rather in its subsequent terms it focused on the rigorous implementation of Sinhala only policy.

Government officials who did not have proficiency in Sinhala were subsequently denied bonuses and salary increases; public servants hired after 1956 were given three years to learn Sinhala or forfeit their jobs; and Sinhalese civil servants were transplanted north to ensure that government agencies in Tamil areas operated in the Sinhala language. The Language of the Courts Act No. 3 of 1961 further called for Sinhala to gradually replace English in all courts, including those in Tamil areas. No effort was made to implement the Tamil Language Act. Rather, a government policy was instituted to hire Sinhalese into government service. The effects can be well recognized from these data: In 1956, 30 percent of the Ceylon administrative service, 50 percent of the clerical service, 60 percent of engineers and doctors, and 40 percent of the armed forces were Tamil. By 1970 those numbers had plummeted to 5 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent, and 1 percent, respectively.

Successive governments were more discriminative towards the minority, insufficient resources were allocated to Tamil areas and even shelved internationally sponsored development projects in these areas. When development projects were commissioned in the north and northeast, they were designed to benefit the Sinhalese only.

Constitutional Provisions or Constitutionalized Discrimination

With minority rights undermined and majority preferences constitutionalized, Sri Lanka became increasingly polarized. In 1972, Sri Lanka enacted its first Constitution and instituted Sinhala as the “Official Language of the State,” and the regulations drafted under the Tamil Language Act of 1958 though incorporated into the Constitution were regarded as “subordinate” and could be amended by ordinary legislation. The 1978 Constitution made Sinhala and Tamil national languages but maintained Sinhala as an official language. In 1987 through the Thirteenth Amendment partly fuelled by international pressure, particularly from India (The signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord) reinstated Tamil as the official language. Chapter 4, Sections 18 (1) and (2) of the Constitution proclaims: “The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. Tamil shall also be an official language.” This follows the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1988 which stated that Tamil speakers living anywhere in Sri Lanka have the right, inter alia, of communicating with any government office or officer in their own language and of receiving communications too in that language. With this the 16th amendment made relative changes to recognize minority rights. What was problematic was the wording of the Constitution. This suggests that Tamil was added as an afterthought, or a later addition – which, in fact, it was. This shows that the provision was only a result to tolerate the minority by managing the conflict. This tolerant rather than the promotional aspect is evident from the aftermath of the situation which shows the absence of political will to recognize minority rights.

Outside of the Northern and Eastern provinces (and imperfectly even there), Tamil speakers continue to be discriminated against in their access to, treatment within, and experience of public services such as government departments, police stations, courts, public transport and health service – through non-compliance of state agencies with the official languages law – thus, denying them de facto equality. Certainly, there are real constraints of human and financial resources in the public service such that interpreters and translators from Tamil into Sinhala and vice versa are in short supply. It doesn’t help that the Official Languages Commission, the statutory agency created to monitor the enforcement of the law, is obliged to discharge its mandate on a desultory budget. However, hostility or disinterest on the part of the bureaucracy has hindered the enforcement of Tamil as an official language, as has the absence of any compelling reason for Sinhala-speakers to become proficient in a language spoken by linguistic minorities and unimportant to political, economic and social power.

Former Chairman of the Official Languages Commission, Raja Collure, stated in 2006: “Successive governments have failed to implement the constitutional provision in regard to the use of Tamil as the second official language”. In the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation (LLRC) of 2011, it was noted many people still could not transact business in their own languages. The think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives, in their research on language rights, reported of an incident where a Tamil-speaking pregnant woman seeking treatment at a Government hospital in Puttalam, was instructed in Sinhala, and was allegedly assaulted by the nursing staff because she did not understand the instructions and contravened them several times. This is in violation of the Constitution.


Today Sri Lanka recovering from the devastation of civil war is recognizing minority rights but there is a still long way to go. For instance, at the Independence Day celebrations in 2016, the national anthem was sung in both Sinhala and Tamil since the new government has taken many such significant steps now. This was challenged as unconstitutional, but the court held in favour of the rights of Tamils. However, hostility continues to persist between the communities.

This article is authored by Pratyush Pradhan, a second-year law student at the NALSAR University of Law.

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