February 1999
Cover Story

‘Teaching pluralism to Tamils, chauvinism to Sinhalese’

The most striking fact that emerges from the analysis made in the previous chapters is the divergence in content and purpose between different groups of text-books, in so far as they affect communal relations. This divergence is greatest between the Sinhala and Tamil readers, and this is a very significant phenomenon for our purpose. 

These readers are language-specific, produced for Sinhala–speaking and Tamil–speaking children respectively, while the English language books are produced for children of all ethnic groups and the social studies texts, and some of the texts on religion have a common content in both Sinhala and Tamil. This chapter will, therefore, begin by setting out those general conclusions which are suggested by a comparison between the Sinhala and Tamil readers.

In general the Sinhala and Tamil readers seem to have been planned and written independently of each other, with no correspondence either in the content of particular lessons or in the broad principles guiding the selection of material. There is an exception, however, in the case of the Sinhala Mul Potha and the corresponding Tamil kindergarten reader (pre– primer). It is not necessary to make an elaborate comparison between these two books here because the comparison has already been made in an article published in the Lanka Guardian of 1.5.79. 

As the Lanka Guardian article points out, although both readers have been ‘designed on the same general pattern’ and contain some material in common and even share some illustrations, there is a sharp contrast in the thirtieth page at the end of the two books. Where the Tamil book has a picture of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim families in ‘attitudes of mutual cordiality’, and a text with the message that we are all ‘people of this country’, and ‘friends’, the corresponding page in the Sinhala reader has a piece telling the Sinhala child that this is his land. As the Lanka Guardian comments: ‘... it is clear from a comparison of the two readers that the Department thinks it important to preach inter–racial and inter–communal amity to Tamil and Muslim children from their first year of school, but inappropriate (or dangerous or demoralising?) to bring the same message to the Sinhala child.’

The point that the Lanka Guardian makes here comes out even more clearly in relation to the later readers. From the analysis of these Sinhala and Tamil readers, it will be evident why no common plan for these later books would have been possible, since their aims are so fundamentally divergent. In the Grade 1 and Grade 2 Tamil readers, no Sinhala characters or aspects of Sinhala life are introduced (and this is a shortcoming), but these books do include themes relevant not only to Hindus but also to the Christian and Muslim minorities, so that the experiences and culture of all groups of Tamil–speaking children reading the books find some reflection in them. In contrast, the Grade 1 and 2 Sinhala readers ignore completely the way of life, festivals and practices of the Christian minority, of whom an appreciable number of children will use these readers in school. Unlike the corresponding Tamil books, Sinhala 1 and Sinhala 2 maintain a solely mono–cultural context — Sinhala Buddhist.

The divergence between Sinhala and Tamil readers is still sharper in Grades 3 to 9. Not only do the Sinhala readers continue to maintain their mono–cultural character in these grades; they also project an image of a Sinhala–Buddhist identity which is defined fundamentally through opposition to and struggle against Tamil invaders in past history, and the existence of a multi–ethnic and multi–religious society in contemporary Sri Lanka is not merely ignored but denied, by representing even the Independence won in 1948 as freedom for the Sinhalese. 

In contrast, the corresponding Tamil readers contain material presenting relations of friendship between Tamil children on the one hand and both Sinhala and Muslim children on the other; they use story material drawn not only from Hindu, but also from non-Hindu, including Buddhist, cultures; they portray festivals of all four major religions of the island; they represent the major secular festival of the country — the indigenous New Year — as the Sinhala and Tamil New Year (while the Sinhala readers keep the  awareness of this shared character of the festival from the consciousness of the Sinhala child); and they depict both Keppetipola and Pandara Vanniyan as national heroes martyred in the cause of freedom.

It is not suggested here that everything in the Tamil readers which has a bearing on communal relations has been effectively handled towards the end of successfully communicating to the child the sense of a broader national identity. It may be questioned, for instance, whether the didactic song in the kindergarten reader, which says that people of different linguistic and religious groups in this country are ‘all friends’, is the best way of communicating such a message to children, particularly at so early an age; children are much more likely to apprehend and respond to such a conception if it is conveyed through a concrete situation — say, through a story involving particular people — rather than through abstract moralising. However, this is a question of the degree of understanding of the child-mind and of skill in writing of the authors of the text books — not a question of the purposes to which the books have been directed.

As far as the Sinhala and Tamil readers are concerned, therefore, the three questions formulated at the beginning of the study have to be answered as follows: the Tamil readers (with whatever degree of success) do seek to create an understanding of and respect for the way of life and culture of non–Tamil and non–Hindu linguistic and religious groups, and do attempt to project the sense of a common national identity, while the Sinhala books not only fail to do this (except in a solitary lesson in the whole series of ten readers) but contain an abundance of material which will strengthen communal attitudes and reinforce communal antagonisms. 

(Excerpted from School Text Books and Communal Relations in Sri Lanka, published by the Council for Communal Harmony Through the Media; authored by Reggie Siriwardena, K. Indrapala, Sunil Bastian & Sepali Kottegoda).

(These excerpts from text–books prescribed in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been compiled by KHOJ — South Asia studies project).

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