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.