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Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka; Is it an Upshot of Free Education System? – Part II

Many writers have interpreted that the Education sector reforms in independent Sri Lanka have been targeted toward depriving or harassing the Tamil minority.  But it is a gross misinterpretation

13 mins read
File photo of school kids in Sri Lanka [ Photo: Sri Lanka Guardian]

This is the second and last part of this series, click here to read the first part. ~ edits

Rebellion in 1971- A Consequential Impact of Free Education

However, the failure and the delay in resolving the unemployment problem became significant causes of the first youth uprise (JVP movement in 1971) against the newly established United Front government. This insurgency movement was led by the unemployed graduates and educated youths of the Sinhala community, especially the rural youths. No Tamil youths took part in this rebellion. The unemployment problem would not have been a significant issue, or their leaders would have diverted emerging frustration to a different direction to carve out a separate Tamil country.

After defeating the insurgency movement, the government implemented many socio-economic reforms hurriedly based on the lessons learned. Various reforms in the education sector, including standardisation of marks for university entrance, changing the school curriculums, land reforms, nationalisation of foreign investments, employment generation scheme to reduce rural unemployment (Divisional Development Council Projects), agriculture reforms, import restriction to boost the local production were a few of them.

These programs were done in a hurry, but the government and the country needed more resources, capacity, and preparedness to address those issues reasonably, equitably, and sustainably simultaneously. As discussed before, since the 1960s, the Sinhala community, and the educated youth, have been agitating to regain the socio-economic opportunities they had lost during the colonial period (ethnic imbalance in education and public administration).

Discrimination against Tamil Vs. Favouritism for Sinhalese

The policy of standardising university entrance was introduced in 1971. Under this, a quota system, using the language of the university entrance examination as the parameter, was introduced to correct the historically existing ethnic imbalance. The number of allocations for university entrance was proportional to the number of participants who sat for the examination in each language. Also, considering the long-felt grievance of Sinhala stunts (i.e., lack of opportunities for admission to faculties of engineering, medicine, and science), a lower mark system was introduced for Sinhalamedium students for those subjects. The new system discriminated against Tamil medium students and favoured Sinhala medium students. Tamil Medium quota dropped to the bare minimum. While correcting the ethnic imbalance in general, the limited allocation made available to Tamil medium students was mainly enjoyed by students at reputed schools in Jaffna city. The Sinhala language quota was also mainly enjoyed by students at reputable schools in Colombo. It defeated the original policy objective of expanding higher education facilities to low-income families and rural areas. In 1972, a district quota system within each language was added to the parameter to correct this anomaly.

Before the introduction of the language-based standardisation system, the Tamil community enjoyed the lion’s share of opportunities for science subjects in university education. According to 1969 figures,27.5 % of the university entrance to science base faculties such as medicine, engineering, physical science, bioscience, etc., had been enjoyed by the Northern Province, which is predominantly populated by Ceylon Tamils who comprised only11% of the country’s population. Out of the balance, 72.5%, a significant share (67.5 %) had been enjoyed by the Western Province, which is open for elites of all ethnic groups, leaving only 5% for the majority rural Sinhalese and most of the rural/poor Tamils. After adding the district quota system, 1974 figures show the Northern Province’s share of science education was reduced from 27.5% to 7%. Also, the share of Western province declined from 67.5% to 27%, demonstrating a better distribution of science-based higher education opportunities among rural regions and a relatively higher percentage for rural Sinhalese. The system favoured the backward regions for science education and affected urban elites of all communities. But favouring the Sinhala medium students in university entrance and science education adversely affected all Tamil groups regardless of their social status. It caused severe frustration among all Tamils.

Since the independence, Tamil political leaders have fought for a separate Tamil country but could not mobilise mass support from their community. As a result of the above standardisation system, they got a perfect tool to articulate the interest of Tamilyouthsto fight for a separate Tamil country. Moreover, before 1970, Tamil political parties had good bargaining power with successive governments, as none of the ruling parties had a significant majority in the parliament. However, SLFP led United Front in the 1970 general election, and UNP in the 1977 general election got an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Therefore, those two governments could ignore Tamil parties and their demands. As a result, Tamil-dominated areas of the country lost political patronage and bargaining power in government-sponsored development programs. All of these contributed to emerging radical groups, and many started advocating violence to win the Tamil Country of Elam.

Under this scenario, Tamil youths may have thought winning a separate country for Tamils would resolve their unemployment and other economic problems. Perhaps, their traditional political leaders may have planned to use these groups (educated unemployed and lower strata of the society) as a cat’s paw to carve out a separate Tamil country and enjoy the feudal socio-political power and enjoy the Tamil Vellala Cast supremacy.

The language-based standardising system for university entrance was abolished in 1977 and introduced a new approach based on merits and district quotas for less developed districts. It ensured the fair distribution of opportunities among all districts. Jaffna and Colombo benefitted from the merits system, while Tamil and Sinhala Communities in remote areas benefited from district quotas. Though the mistake was corrected later, the distrust between the two communities remained unresolved.

Is Tamil A Recognized Language In Sri Lanka?

With the introduction of the Free Education bill in the State Council in 1943, teaching in vernacular (Sinhala or Tamil) in government schools became compulsory. The government had legally accepted Vernacular education since the Colebrook commission’s recommendation in 1841 and has given equal status to both Sinhala and Tamil languages in education. As discussed, a small percentage of government grants were available to vernacular schools. Any person to be fully qualified in the national examination of the ‘General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level),’ a credit pass in the mother tongue is compulsory. Sinhala and Tamil languages are contemporaries as mediums of instruction in Sri Lankan universities.  Also, according to a circular issued by the Department of Education in the year 2000, the Tamil language is a compulsory subject for all Sinhala medium schools from grade 1 to grade 9.

Tamil Nadu is predominantly a Tamil State in India, and apparently, it is the motherland or original homeland for the Tamil people and the Language. According to the 2001 Census, Tamil is spoken as the first language by 88.59% of the Tamil Nadu population. However, Tamil Nadu Tamil Learning Act was passed very recently in 2006. According to this Act, State Board and Matriculation Schools had to teach Tamil as a compulsory subject from Class 1 in a phased manner, gradually scaling up to Class 10.  However, it was not fully implemented due to various objections, and now it is rescheduled to be completed by 2025. But Sri Lanka has been given equal opportunity for Sinhala and Tamil languages in education since the establishment of formal education under the recommendation of the Colebrook Commission in 1841.

Tamil Nadu Official Language Act -1956, which is an Act to provide for the adoption of Tamil as the language to be used for the official purposes of the State of Tamil Nadu, became effective in July 1958.  It is not a national language that can be used all over India for official purposes. But according to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, both Tami and Sinhala are official National languages with equal status all over the country since 1987. Even without a constitutional provision, the government used Sinhala and Tamil to communicate with people and judicial matters before 1987. Today any Tamil-speaking person who lives in any part of the country has the legal right to communicate with the government in the Tamil Language. According to the language policy since 2000, all public servants must be competent in the second language within five years of joining the service. Under these circumstances, as an official language, Tamil has better recognition in Sri Lanka than in Tamil Nadu, India.

 Free Education And Terrorism Contributed ToDenude Educated From the North

Long before bearing the fruits of the free education system in the country, the Jaffna peninsula was inundated with professionals in all fields (doctors, engineers, accountants, scientists, mathematicians, etc.). Sometimes, government institutions in Jaffna were overstaffed with those specialities or had more than required due to various socio-political reasons. After retirement, most professionals who worked in Colombo or other parts of the country and abroad went back to Jaffna to spend their retirement life. Consequently, some local government institutions, community-based organisations, farmer organisations, and co-operative societies were handled by highly educated retired professionals, and those institutions became very successful. Jaffna became the hub of knowledge in then Ceylon. However, Due to the terrorist movement, the process started reversing. Educated/rich People who had the capacity and resources migrated to other countries, and others settled in and around Colombo. In contrast to the situation before the 1980s, today, many Tamils do not wish to settle down in Jaffna after their retirement but want to stay in Colombo and its sub-urban areas. 

After the 1980s, those who achieved success through free education did not wish to go to their hometowns in the north due to terrorism and the existing social stratifications.  Even today, the professionals of low strata of society, who are nationally and internationally recognised, can’t receive due recognition and respect in their hometowns. Therefore, they prefer to work and stay in Colombo or other main cities or leave the country. Under these circumstances, free education helped some poor people succeed in their personal lives, but not many benefits to the community. Free education has induced denuding educated intellectuals from Tamil-dominated areas. The trend and the process that existed during the golden era of Jaffna have now been reversed.

 Young and middle-aged people who live in the North today have been influenced by terrorist ideology and have experienced the sufferings of war for 30 years(dying in cold blood, the shock of bombs, firing and fighting, abduction of children to be trained as terrorists, living with fear, hard life). During this period, they have seen only the armed soldiers as “Sinhala people” and have not seen Sinhala civilians. Terrorists and non-governmental organisations who occupied the area during the war taught the children that ‘Sinhalese is a dangerous group of invaders who have come from somewhere to destroy Tamil country. For them, the word ‘Sinhala’ has a connotation of the enemy to be got rid of.

As discussed so far, the free education system introduced in 1945 has been followed by a series of subsequent reforms, which resulted in changes in the entire social fabric within 2 to 3 decades with many positive and negative results.

Positive Impacts

  • The adult literacy level of the country increased to 97% as of 2019, which is above the regional and world average
  • All parents realised the value of education, and children’s education became the highest priority of almost all families in the country.
  • Students qualified in secondary education (GCE- O/L and A/L) and University graduates are found in many rural areas, especially from low-income families, regardless of their caste, class, or ethnicity.
  • Inherent intelligence became the most important factor for acquiring knowledge and upward mobility in society and the economy, instead of ethnicity, caste, class, and wealth. Even a child of the lowest strata of society can now climb up to the top of professionalism.
  • The presence of Sinhala students in universities and public service increased rapidly. The Sinhala community progressively started acquiring the due share of opportunities they had lost during the colonial period. But the thirty-year war has brought disproportionate benefits to Sinhalese and lost the expected share of Tamils. While addressing the long-standing grievances of Sinhalese, it created a new set of problems leading to frustration and dissatisfaction among the Tamil community.
  • Rural youths found new avenues for more remunerative jobs outside the village without confining themselves to their parents’ low profitable traditional livelihoods. That contributed immensely to poverty alleviation.
  • With the Sinhala-speaking people in the public service and Sinhala being the official language, the Sinhala community felt more comfortable dealing with the bureaucracy, but Tamils found it challenging.
  • The transfer of technology at the local level became more convenient due to improved literacy and knowledge.

Negative Impacts

  1.  Even today, most secondary schools still need facilities and resources for science and technical education. Most educated youths, including university graduates, were qualified in humanities without employment-oriented knowledge and skills. Their expectation is white-collar jobs. But such opportunities are limited in the job market and create a high rate of educated youth unemployment. Every child and parent trusts that education is the only way to find decent employment. Unfortunately, what they have learned for many years does not help them to find such jobs.
  2. Since the late 1960s, educated youths’ unemployment has become a recurring social and political issue. This contributed significantly to the 1971 and 1987 Sinhala youth uprisings and fuelling the LTTE terrorism in the North of the country.
  3. Under this scenario, inter and intra-community completion has emerged for the limited job opportunities in the public sector and free university education. Elites observed an intense competition for their children from the educated youths of low-income families to enter public sector jobs. Also, sometimes, in competitive examinations, children of low-income families perform better, depriving the elites. The intra-community conflict was more prominent among Tamils, as elites were reluctant to compete with the oppressed segment of the society. Instead, they prefer to study in the USA or Europe.
  4. In addition to the competition within the community, the Tamil community, in general, faced extreme competition from the Sinhala Communitysincethe 1960s. When English was the medium of education and the official language, the Tamil community enjoyed a higher percentage of higher education, professions such as medicine, engineering, accounting, science, mathematics, and public service in general. Being less than 11 % of the total population, they were over-represented in many fields and played a dominant role in almost every aspect of governance. Under the reform agendas, the Sinhala community’s participation in all fields increased rapidly, resulting in the loss of opportunities that the Tamils had enjoyed for decades.
  5. Today, the Tamil community in the North and East has become less competitive and less represented in higher education and public service due to the 30-year prolonged terrorist movement.
  6.  Many Tamil students who performed very well In GCE (A/L) had been deprived of science-based university studies due to the language-based standardisation of marks for university entrance, introduced in the early 1970s. Though this short-sighted discriminatory policy was corrected within four years, the hostile attitude created against the Sinhala community is yet to be reconciled.
  7. After 1956, Sinhala became the official language, and public servants were compelled to be conversant in the Sinhala language. Some public servants from all communities who did not want to learn Sinhala started leaving public service. The vacuums created in such events were also filled by the Sinhala community resulting in a further reduction of Tamil presence in the public service.

Summary and Conclusion

Most National and International writers have interpreted that the Education sector reforms in independent Sri Lanka have been targeted toward depriving or harassing the Tamil minority.  But it is a gross misinterpretation of the good works done by successive governments to mainstream the country’s hitherto isolated and oppressed majority. Education in vernacular and changing the official language from English to Sinhala was resented by the affluent class of all ethnic groups (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay, Catholic, etc.) because they wanted to enjoy the benefit of independence by themselves without passing it to the poor and the oppressed majority of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, and Catholics. They wanted only to transfer the power from White Westerners to Westernised Browns. Westernised Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim Elites wanted to use Sinhala/Tamil Speaking un-educated or less-educated majority to maintain a feudal system. According to the elites, the vernacular-educated orvernacular-speakinglot is not cultured (Godayas or Biyas). Vernaculars are to communicate with domestic servants. The voting against Act No. 5 of 1960 for the nationalisation of private schools by the then United National Party and Federal party is clear evidence.  Unfortunately, international writers do not hear the voice of the oppressed groups who have benefitted from the education sector reforms. They hear only the voice of the loser elites. 

The free education system and the government’s taking over private schools greatly benefited non-English-speaking, poor Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims, and Catholics, who accounted for 90% of the country’s population.

Changing the official language from English to Sinhala did not negatively affect poor and ordinary Tamils because they did understand either Sinhala or English. As the medium of instruction had been changed from English to vernacular, changing the official language from English to vernacular was the need of the day. However, in 1956, Sinhala made the official language, ignoring Tamil, which is a severe mistake. But, compared to Tamil Nadu State in India, Sri Lanka has accorded higher recognition for Tamil as an official language and medium of education.

Early implementation of the Free Education Ordinance- of 1943 has done social justice to the poor of all communities and added immense value to their lives. However, accepting the vernacular as the medium of instruction has done irreparable damage to the education system and socioeconomic advancement of educated individuals and the country. Instead of changing to vernacular, priority should have been given to producing teachers who could teach in English at the inception. The vernacular should have been introduced as a subject.

Language-based standardisation was done purposely to increase the Sinhala student population in universities, especially for science-based studies, since most Sinhala schools did not have facilities for science education. However, it was implemented only for four years. Except that, all other reforms were targeted towards benefiting the country’s deprived majority (90%), regardless of ethnicity or religion. Number wise increased presence of the Sinhala community in higher education and public service is inevitable when equal opportunities are provided, as they are much of the country. It should have been understood as regaining rights by Sinhalese, which they had lost during the colonial period, and acquiring their due share as per the population size.

During the colonial period, schools were established based on religion, race, or language. The expansion of the number of secondary schools in 1960 was also preceded by the same line, paving the way for nurturing racialist ideologies since childhood. This is detrimental to national integration and nation-building. According to the above discussions, it is evident that the conflict was not much among ethnic groups but mainly between the privileged minority and the oppressed majority.

The Marxist political and economic ideology penetrated the Sinhala society in the 1930s and became more visible after the 1956 political change. Therefore, Sinhala elites could not openly resist/react against the reforms as social awakening had created solid political pressure. But well-educated and knowledgeable Tamil elites did not accept the defeat and gave an ethnic interpretation to all the above reforms. Tamil leaders mobilised oppressed and suppressed groups against the Sinhala-dominated governments. Interestingly, the problem of educated youth unemployment has been perceived/ interpreted in two extremely different ways by the two communities. While Sinhala Community understood it as a national economic problem, the Tamil community understood or wanted to understand it as a specific political problem related only to the Tamil ethnicity.

As a result of half a century-long struggle for an unwarranted issue, infused by traditional Tamil leaders (to regularise and continue disproportionate privileges enjoyed during the colonial period), the present generation of Sri Lankan Tamils has inherited numerous social and political, administrative, and economic problems. In contrast to the golden era of Tamils, they are now less competitive and under-represented in many aspects. According to several discussions I had with Jaffna, Kilinochchi, and Vavuniya in 20019, correcting these evils is the ‘reconciliation and accountability expected by the ordinary Tamils.

Concluded

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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