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Sinhala Only Act

The Sinhala Only Act, formally the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, was an act passed in the Parliament of Ceylon in 1956.[1] The act replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhalese.[1] The act failed to give official recognition to Tamil, which had not received official recognition before.

Sinhalese is the language of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese people, who accounted for around 70% of the country's population at that time.[2] Tamil is the first language of Ceylon's three largest minority ethnic groups, the Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils and Moors, who together accounted for around 29% of the country's population.[2]

The act was controversial as supporters of the act saw it as an attempt by a community that had just gained independence to distance themselves from their colonial masters, while its opponents viewed it as an attempt by the linguistic majority to oppress and assert dominance on minorities. The Act symbolizes the post independent majority Sinhalese to assert its Sri Lanka's identity as a nation state, and for Tamils, it became a symbol of minority oppression and a justification for them to demand a separate nation-state, Tamil Eelam, which was a factor in the emergence of the decades-long Sri Lankan Civil War.


  • British rule 1
  • Ceylon after independence 2
  • Enactment 3
  • Tamil and Sinhalese opposition to the Act 4
  • Partial reversal in 1958 5
  • Effect 6
  • Languages today 7
  • Further reading 8
  • References 9

British rule

Under the British Empire, English was the language of rule in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Until the passage of the Free Education Bill in 1944, education in the English language was the preserve of the subaltern elite and the ordinary people had little knowledge of it. A disproportionate number of English-language schools were located in the mostly Tamil-speaking north. Thus, English-speaking Tamils held a higher percentage of coveted Ceylon Civil Service jobs, which required English fluency, than their share of the island's population.

After their election to the State Council of Ceylon in 1936, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) members N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil. In November 1936, a motion that "in the Municipal and Police Courts of the Island the proceedings should be in the vernacular" and that "entries in police stations should be recorded in the language in which they are originally stated" were passed by the State Council and referred to the legal secretary.

In 1944, J. R. Jayewardene moved a motion in the State Council that Sinhala should replace English as the official language.[3]

However, nothing was done about these matters and English continued to be the language of rule until 1956.

Ceylon after independence

Ceylon gained dominion status in 1948 with a peaceful struggle, the passage to sovereignty from the British to the Sri Lankan subaltern elite being a peaceful one. For the first years of independence there was an attempt to balance the interests of the elites of the main communities: the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Most Sinhalese did, however, harbour the view that the Tamils had enjoyed a privileged position under the British. Some have described this being mainly due to the British policy of "divide and rule".[4] In 1949, at the behest of the foreign plantation owners, the government disenfranchised the Indian Tamil plantation workers, who accounted for 12% of the population.[5][6]

In 1951, the ambitious Solomon Bandaranaike broke with his party, the conservative United National Party (UNP), and created a new centrist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). In 1955, the SLFP decided to break ranks with the general consensus on the left to have both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages to campaign on the slogan "Sinhala Only".


In the 1956 parliamentary elections, the SLFP campaigned on largely nationalist policies, and made the one of their key election promises. The result was electoral victory for the SLFP, and The Ceylon (Constitution) Order in Council or Sinhala Only Bill was quickly enacted after the election. The bill was passed with the SLFP and the UNP supporting it, with the leftist LSSP and Communist Party of Sri Lanka as well as the Tamil nationalist parties (Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi and All Ceylon Tamil Congress) opposing it.[7]

Tamil and Sinhalese opposition to the Act

The Left bitterly opposed it, with Dr N. M. Perera, leader of the LSSP, moving a motion in Parliament that the Act "should be amended forthwith to provide for the Sinhalese and Tamil languages to be state languages of Ceylon with parity of status throughout the Island."

Dr Colvin R. de Silva of the LSSP responded, in what some regard as famous last words: "Do we... want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue."[8]

The passage of the act was met with demonstrations from Tamils, which were repressed, the most prominent by Tamil MPs on Galle Face Green in the centre of Colombo.

Partial reversal in 1958

Parts of the act was reversed in 1958, after the so-called "Sinhala Only, Tamil Also" compromise made by the Tamil leaders. On 3 September 1958 the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act - which provided for the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction, as a medium of examination for admission to the Public Service, for use in state correspondence and for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern provinces - was passed.[9] The Left parties continued to demand parity of status until after the Tamil electorate voted overwhelmingly in the 1960 elections for the same leaders who had agreed to the compromise.


The act had its intended effect. In 1955 the civil service had been largely Tamil; by 1970 it was almost entirely Sinhalese, with thousands of Tamil civil servants forced to resign due to lack of fluency in Sinhala.[10] For much of the 1960s government forms and services were virtually unavailable to Tamils, and this situation only partly improved with later relaxations of the law.[11]

Languages today

According to Chapter IV of the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Sinhala and Tamil languages are both official and national languages of the country. This constitution was amended in 1987.[12][13]

According to the Chapter 4: Language of Legislation of the Sri Lanka constitution, previously written act is to be interpreted in Sinhala to avoid mis-interpretation. In the case of a new act the parliament, at the stage of enactment has the authority to determine which version of the legislation prevails in the event of inconsistencies.[13]

Further reading

  • Sandagomi Coperahewa, Bhashanuragaye Desapalanya (Colombo: Godage, 1999)


  1. ^ a b Sri Lanka Consolidated Acts
  2. ^ a b "Population by ethnic group, census years" (PDF). Statistical Abstract 2010. Department of Census & Statistics. 
  3. ^ "Mr.J.R.Jayawardene on 'Sinhala Only and Tamil Also' in the Ceylon State Council". 
  4. ^ Mihlar, Farah (1 September 2006). "Britain is failing Sri Lanka's Muslims". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 23 May 2010. 
  5. ^ "Missed Opportunities and the Loss of Democracy". 
  6. ^ "Plantation Tamils deprived of vote and citizenship, 1948/50". 
  7. ^ De Silva, K. M., & Wriggins, W. H. (1988). J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: a political biography.
  8. ^ "Broken Promises". 
  9. ^ P. A. Ghosh, 'Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and role of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)', APH Publishing, 1999; ISBN 81-7648-107-6, ISBN 978-81-7648-107-6
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Terminate Genocide
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