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15 June 1956

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Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, popularly known as the “Sinhala Only Act”, is passed in parliament by 66 votes to 29. The Left MPs from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party voted against the bill, along with Tamil MPs of other parties.

Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Neil DeVotta (2004), Stanford University Press.

Extracts from the Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956
An Act to prescribe the Sinhala Language as the One Official Language of Ceylon and to enable transitory provisions to be made.

1. This Act may be cited as the Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956. Sinhala Language to Be the One Official Language.
2. The Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon Provided that where the Minister considers it impracticable on the coming into force of this Act, the language or languages hithereto used for that purpose may be continued to be so used until the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the expiry of the thirty-first of December, 1960, and, if such change cannot be effected by administrative order, regulations may be made under this Act to effect such change.

3. (1) The Minister may make regulations in respect of all matters which regulations are authrorized by this Act to be made and generally for the purpose of giving effect to the principles and provisions of this Act. …


“We are completing by this [Sinhala Only] Bill an important phase in our national struggle. The restoration of the Sinhala language to the position it occupied before the occupation of this country by foreign powers marks an important stage in the history of the development of this island.” Phillip Gunawardene, Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister, Hansard, 14 June 1956.

“I pointed out that the result of forcing Sinhalese as the sole state language for official purposes on an unwilling minority brought with it great dangers. … If a minority feels deeply that an injustice and a great injustice has been done it is likely to embark upon forms of resistance and protests. The possibility of communal riots is not the only danger I am referring to. There is the graver danger of the division of the country. We must remember that the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Ceylon are inhabited principally by Tamil speaking people and if those people feel that a grave and irreparable injustice is done to them, there is a possibility of their deciding even to break away from the rest of the country.” Leslie Gunawardene, Opposition Member of Parliament, Hansard, 8 June 1956.

“Do you want two languages and one nation or one language and two nations? Parity Mr. Speaker, we believe is the road to freedom of our nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn little bleeding states may arise from one little state. … Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? … These are the issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue. … If you mistreat the [Tamils], if you ill treat them … if you oppress and harass them, in the process you may cause to emerge in Ceylon, from that particular racial stock with its own language and tradition, a new nationality to which we will have to concede more claims than it puts forward now. … If we come to the stage where instead of parity, we through needless insularity, get into the position of suppressing the Tamil [federal demand] there may emerge separatism.” Dr Colvin R de Silva, Opposition Member of Parliament, Hansard, June 1956.

“[By passing the ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill] against the unanimous opposition of the entire Tamil people who wanted a place of honour for their own language, [this] Government has struck a grievous blow at the unity of this country, which stands divided today. The members of this Government on the other hand have charged the Federal Party with endeavouring to divide the country/. … A federal solution within proper limits, and subject to proper safeguards, far from dividing a country which is already divided, is one of the best known methods of bringing about unity in a divided country. If democracy means anything, if human rights mean anything, no national minority proud of its language and culture can ever subscribe to the proposition that it should in respect of matters affecting its vital interest accept the dictates of a majority nationality merely because it is a majority. If this were so, it would amount to the tyranny of an impersonal majority … since this question affects the Tamil nationality vitally – I do not say the Tamil-speaking nationality – the Government cannot seek to impose anything, which is the result of a unilateral decision by the representatives of the Sinhalese people, on the Tamil people without doing violence to the elementary principles of democracy.” Senator S. Nadesan QC, Sri Lanka Senate Hansard, 26 June 1957.

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8 comments for “15 June 1956”

  • R. S. Ganeshan said,

    “If we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities”, Voltaire.

    The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and its consequences is the result of a botched attempt by the majority Sinhalese in the country to remedy the perception of slight and subservience suffered from colonialism. Merely because the Sinhalese were a majority it so happened they took over the reins of power handled to them by the British under a system of constitutional arrangement which was foisted on the diverse people inhabiting the country. The Tamils in the country were the second majority race. But the Sinhalese had completely ignored the fact that the Tamils too were a people, who like them, were subject to the said colonialists.

    This is the reason for majority chauvinism. It is deliberately and purposefully articulated to be blind to the legitimate aspirations of minority peoples.

    Sinhalese chauvinism has deep historical, cultural, mythological and psychological roots which in turn has bred an unrelenting stance to deny any reasonable accommodation to ameliorate or diffuse Tamil apprehensions as to their well being safety or security.

    Since independence in 1948 the hostility between the Sinhalese and Tamils have assumed a sharper intensity as to the assertion of their cultural and religious identity, and manifested itself to a peak with the upheavals of 1983 and the destitution, impoverishment and homelessness of the Tamils.

  • prashan said,

    It seems that Tamil nationalism is at least as absurd as Sinhala nationalism. The language act and its repercussions continue to be debated and contested in Sri Lanka. There is no question that when it was instituted it was biased in favour of the majority, but there is also little to suggest that the act is the final word on the issue. Language and the parity of local languages continues to be debated. The act was repealed and efforts continue to implement more equitable language policies.

    Tamil chauvinism also has deep historical, cultural, mythological and psychological roots which apparently give rise to the same inability to accommodate and acknowledge that progress has been made, however incremental it may be, to move beyond historical positions of intractability towards a more inclusive and accommodating reality.

    The type of narrow, biased and de-historicised thinking reflected in the comment by Ganeshan is as much an impediment to the realisation of the legitimate aspirations of minorities as the worst chauvinist diatribes by majority extremists.

  • R. S. Ganeshan said,

    It is indeed gratifying to find that Prashan accepts that the institution of the Official Language Act was biased in favour of the majority. He however mentions that a debate as to the parity of local languages continues and that efforts are being made to implement equitable language policies. Why is it so overdue?

    A Tamil person cannot still have his statement recorded in Tamil at a police station in Colombo or anywhere in the suburbs, even today. Not only that, even a marriage certificate for a Tamil couple is provided in Sinhala. I can cite many such instances.

    Last year, when I met the Chairman of the Official Languages Commission, I asked him where I could obtain pension forms in Tamil in order to claim my late father’s pension dues. He was unable to give a satisfactory reply, but I found that his official business card was dutifully printed in all three languages.

    What is the reason for this negligence? The Official Language Act was repealed during JRJ’s regime. The Tamil language was only made an ‘official language’ in 1987 at the request of India under the terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord. So in fact there was no genuine change of heart. It was simply compulsion. That is why it has not worked.

    I do not deny the fact that there exists a serious lack of self-awareness between the Sinhalese and Tamils today, which is why a bigoted national minority is in conflict with the bias and hauteur of the national majority on this beautiful island. But this was not there in February 1948 when Sinhalese and Tamils considered themselves Ceylonese.

  • Lakshman Gunesekara said,

    My biggest complaint – and in that sense people might regard me as a Sinhala nationalist – is why the state did not sustain its initial impetus and initiative in the 1950s of building up a translation industry from English to Sinhala. The state failed miserably because of its neo-colonial mentality and also because of the anglophile tendencies of the ruling class: they never bothered to maintain a translation industry. That translation industry is now beginning to happen naturally because the population has expanded and I’m thrilled to see translations of various English language books now in the book fairs in Colombo, but it’s long overdue and still not happening in a strong way. If you go to Indonesia for example the best Western works are in Bahasa Indonesian within months of publication. You don’t presume an Indonesian knows English or Dutch for that matter? They were a Dutch colony. No! They speak Bahasa Indonesian and they have a huge translation industry. It’s the same in Japan – their translation industry competes to translate the latest scholarly books and to provide them to Japanese readers. You don’t need to know English to get a PhD in Japan or in India, but here you need to know English. I find that ridiculous and it shows the hollowness of this set of Sinhala chauvinists and the claims they make.

  • Farzana Haniffa said,

    One thing I would say is that the fact that Tamil as a national language is not implemented has huge consequences for the Muslim community, especially in Puttalam for instance. One of the biggest grievances of the Muslim community there is the fact that they have great difficulties accessing services and accessing state institutions because of the lack of language. That is a huge problem for Muslims as well and I think it is a little sad that there is no activism by Muslims around the question because it is a national question. When you talk to the displaced community they articulate it as a local question which it is not; so more work needs to be done between the Muslim community and other communities to address that issue at the national level.

  • Lakshman Gunesekara said,

    I am half Burgher and one of my memories of childhood is going to the Colombo port and waving goodbye to my mother’s family, all leaving on a ship to Austraila. Ironically, they were taking advantage of the white Australian migration policy, in which they claimed white descent as Dutch Burghers. I don’t have any Burgher family at all here in Sri Lanka now. That was entirely due to the highly discriminatory nature of the ethnic revivalism in post-Independence Sri Lanka. And it was a discriminatory ethnic revivalism by the Sinhalas.

  • Kumar Silva said,

    Tamil nationalism started before 1956. It was the distinguished civil servant, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who invented the concept of ‘Tamil Eelam’ in 1922. Please read the following:


    In 1949, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (Lanka Tamil Nation Party) was formed. It was falsely termed ‘the Federal Party’ in English. Clearly, Tamil nationalism was independant of Sinhala nationalism and started before. It was based on the premise that there was a historical Tamil Homeland in the North-East. That is why those who allege discrimination and grievances demand Tamil Eelam, and not demand the correction of such discrimination and grievances. One may argue that the historical Tamil Homeland in the North-East is true; others may argue otherwise.

  • To pick up on the comment left by Kumar Silva on the evolution of the ‘Tamil Eelam’ concept, I think perhaps there is a need to distinguish between early articulation of the concept and when it received significant support. This excerpt from D.B.S. Jeyaraj in his article ‘The Historical Quest to Restore Tamil Rights’, published in Tamil Week and the Sunday Leader (March 18, 2001), makes the important point that although the concept of ‘Eelam’ or ‘Eylom’ had been articulated as early as 1918, it received no popular support. Even Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s reference to Tamil Eelam in 1924 (which Kumar Silva refers to as 1922), according to Jeyaraj “struck no responsive chord in the Tamil heart”.

    “When the cry for a separate Tamil state was first proposed by a little known man called Visvalingam in 1918 there were absolutely no takers for it. Even the explicit reference to Tamil Eelam by the intellectual giant Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam in 1924 struck no responsive chord in the Tamil heart. … In the latter days of British rule the Tamil political leadership made no demand for a separate state or even federalism. When the brilliant Tamil intellectual C. Sundaralingam articulated a clear-cut political demand for Eelam, which he spelled out as ‘Eylom’, he was scorned as an “eccentric”, and his demand rejected by the Tamil politicians. The “Suyaatchi” or autonomy demand put forward by him was simply an euphemism for a separate Tamil state. He and his party were routed. But when the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front contested the 1977 polls on a separatist platform it swept to victory winning 18 of the 19 Tamil majority electorates in the Northeast.”

    Further support for this point comes from S. Sivanayagam’s book, Witness to History: A Journalist’s Memoirs (1930- 2004), (2005):

    “[The resolution] came as a marked departure in Tamil thinking. Thoughts on the idea of separation [had] of course been aired by individuals now and then, but those came to nothing. That maverick politician C. Suntharalingam who represented in parliament the frontier Tamil electorate in Vavuniya could be considered the father of the Tamil Eelam concept (he spelled it ‘Eylom’), but as a mere general without an army, the Tamils never took him seriously. Professor A.J. Wilson in his political autobiography of S.J.V Chelvanayakam refers to an instance years earlier – in 1936 – when two Tamils, Dr S. Ponniah, a mayor in the Ceylon defence force and a notary of Vadamarachchy named Vallipurunathan had sent a petition to Britain requesting a separate state for the Tamils. They had shown Chelvanayakam (who was not an active politician then) the draft of the petition to elicit his views.”

    See also the interesting commentary from Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan on why it is important to examine Sri Lanka’s colonial past when looking at the roots of conflict in Sri Lanka.

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