Language is an important identity marker as people and communities identify themselves from the linguistic backgrounds and cultures. Languages form an important component of culture and traditions. There is no denying in the fact that due to the sacred nature of the languages, communities do tend to take privileges and pride of the distinctiveness of their respective cultures. Moreover, in the modern-day, States have continuously recognized the importance of diverse cultures that exist within their territories; recognition of minorities and indigenous communities and their languages and norms are also specially listed out in the official frameworks laid by the states. Sometimes, in the worst of the cases, one wrong or erroneous move can prove to be a threat to the social-political fabric of the nation. As a language forms the basis of the identity of communities, a legislative or a political misstep can surely lead to violent and treacherous consequences, something that happened in Sri Lanka in the form of an ethnic civil war that continued for more than 26 years.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a small south Asian country located in the Indian Ocean; it is separated from India by the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Munnar. The Island nation is a home to the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The origins of the 26 year long civil war lie in the continuous political rancor between these two communities.
Immediately after gaining independence, the Ceylon Parliament passed a law called the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1948. The law was discriminatory in nature as it disenfranchised the Indian Tamils, who were the minority in the island nation, and made it extremely unfeasible for them to obtain citizenship; thousands of them became stateless by the virtue of the law.
The Sinhala Only Act 1956 passed by the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike established Sinhala as the only official language of Ceylon. This law meant that for all official purposes and education, Sinhala will be the prevalent medium of communication. This move was considered to be extremely prejudiced in nature as the Tamil –speaking people were denied the right to express themselves in their medium. The ones who were not fluent in the language were dismissed from the government jobs. Throughout the course of history, this move is classified as communal and a catalyst to the discrimination of the minorities. The passage of the bill was followed by the Gal Oya Riots in 1956 and ultimately the demand for the separate state for Tamil Speaking people called “Tamil Eelam” began to escalate following the contentious politics.
For years, many radical policy implementations were made which favored the Sinhalese and were designed to accelerate the unjust bias towards Tamils, prominent of them was banning the import of Tamil medium media and the killing of the journalists. The continuous process of discrimination turned into a Civil War. In 1981, the Jaffna Library was burned down by the Sinhalese mobs and further aggravated the Tamils as thousands of books of immense cultural value for Tamils and other goods of cultural heritage were reduced to ashes. The political historians term it as a violent precedent of ‘Ethnic Biblioclasm’.
The civil war officially started in July 1983 when the Tamil rebels under the organization of ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’ discharged against the Sri Lankan armed forces. This was followed with state sponsored pogroms of Tamils and more violent attacks for retaliation were carried out by both the sides. In 1987, Indian government under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi officially sent the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) to the island under the Indo- Sri Lanka Peace Accord. In 1989, owing to little to no success in the island, IPKF was withdrawn.
The civil war consisted of a number of Eelam Wars carried out throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. LTTE carried out 378 Suicide missions during the entirety of the turmoil. Several Political assassinations such as those of the Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 were also carried out by the organization. The vicious cycle of violence continued till 2009 when finally the Sri Lankan military killed Prabhakaran, the supreme leader of LTTE. The civil war led to over 1 lakh killings as reported by the United Nations. Moreover, UNHCR also reports more than a million internal displacements. The economic impact of the war was also huge; statistics point to $200 Billion worth of losses.
Sri Lankan politics in the previous decade has been away from the debates of pluralism. As the Rajapaksa brothers come to power in Sri Lanka, the concerns of minority communities have made headlines. The implications of Rajapaksas winning the elections have got the debate over the security issues and the concerns of the minority on the issues of pluralism and accountability. The question of safety and security has already baffled Sri Lanka since the Easter Day Bombings in 2019. For an island nation ravaged by a 26 year old civil war and for its people who have only just begun to recover from it, particularly the Sinhala Majority, the fear of terrorism cannot be discounted. Moreover, the dynamics of India-Sri Lanka foreign relations have witnessed changes with the leaders from New Delhi and Colombo engaging more in matters pertaining to South Asian Geopolitics. The External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar made a visit to Sri Lanka as soon as Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged victorious and the New Delhi also extended a $400 Million currency swap facility to Colombo. As from Sri Lanka’s end there is a distinctive understanding of the process of India’s actions. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also exclusively made a statement in New Delhi-“Sri Lanka would not encourage anything that would jeopardize the security of the Indian Ocean.” Such developments have pointed out to the improvement of diplomatic nations between both the South Asian nations.
What we can simply learn as a lesson from this chapter of political history is that the world needs the principle of solidarity to flourish. The case study of the Sri Lanka also dwells us into introspecting the venerability of the linguistic and ethnic diversity that we have in the world and making us realize the sanctity of languages as a social institution.