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Hulftsdorp Hill

21st March 1999

The rise of Sinhala in our courts Part II

By Mudliyar
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Contd. from last week

Of the present-day genera-tion of lawyers and a few judges who joined the profession after the introduction of the Administration of Justice Law, some have done well in the profession though they have not mastered the Oxford accent but have developed an accent of their own. They were looked down upon as 'haramanis' at the Law College. Pronunciation of the queen's language by 'haramanises' seemed to cause ripples of laughter to those who slavishly imitate and ape the West. Still with all the odds against them they would persist in pronouncing English the way which was natural to them. 

A Law student who bravely participated in the contest for the Hector Jayawardene Memorial Prize for oratory in English, made a speech which was grammatically perfect but pronounced in the way most natural to him. When he made his speech he was virtually laughed down by the others. Courageously he pursued his law studies and ended up as a Minister of the present Government, whilst some of those who laughed at him are now working for the Government in inferior positions. 

One of the basic tools for interpreting the law is a good legal dictionary. A comprehensive dictionary of the language is a sine-qua-non. The tragedy of Sri Lankan society is that we produce hordes and hordes of graduates who have followed their main subject in the Sinhala language. There are specialists who have earned doctorates taking Sinhala as a subject. Still I could think of only a few persons of the hundreds and thousands of graduates in Sinhala who have made a significant contribution to the development of the Sinhala language. 

It was unbelievable that the biggest contribution towards the development of the Sinhala language came from occidental scholars. William Geiger and Carter are two names that come to my mind. It was Geiger who translated the Mahawansa into English. The early dictionaries of the Sinhala language were by these scholars and others who had travelled abroad and studied the Sinhala language in English universities. 

Dr. A.P. de Zoysa and Dr. G.P. Malalasekera were the Sri Lankans who had made substantial contributions in trying to build a Sinhala dictionary. What amazes me is that though universities are churning out factory loads of graduates and post-graduates and scholars and doctors none of them had ever thought of compiling a modern Sinhala dictionary. 

Even S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike or the other leaders of successive Governments never thought of compiling a Sinhala-Sinhala, Sinhala-English and English-Sinhala dictionary with state funds. The most popular English-Sinhala dictionary was compiled by Dr. Malalasekera. It was published in 1948 and was revised in 1992. 

This dictionary has a large number of unimportant and rarely used words like 'Bain-Marie', 'Aleatory', 'Argy-Bargy', 'Beaujolais' etc and has omitted words like Buddha, Christ and Mohammed. 

In Carter's Sinhala-English dictionary, published in 1924 most modern Sinhala words are not used at all, like 'hediya' for nurse. Therefore, the most modern technical terms used in the teaching of any science or art are not found anywhere. 

To complement this awkward situation, the government through the Department of Official Languages had published glossaries of law and invented thousands of new words. Even a present day lawyer with a rudimentary knowledge of English, would find it much easier to understand the meaning of the English word by referring to an English dictionary than by trying to understand the meaning of the Sinhala word given in the glossaries, as no dictionary would contain these words. 

The words are so artificial and alien to spoken Sinhala that they would rarely stick in the mind. This is a pathetic situation. Large amounts of tax-payers' money has been and are being used to make the two official languages work smoothly in the administration of the government. No government department or ministry has thought of compiling a modern Sinhala dictionary, which would be the first preference to a Sinhala Encyclopedia, for which a separate branch under a ministry had been set up. 

This demonstrates the apathy, the lethargy and unpracticality and sheer stupidity of the Sinhala people. The Tamils on the other hand love their language so much that they are able to teach any subject without much difficulty as text books and books of research are printed here and in India for a larger market.

Be that as it may, most of those who use the Sinhala language in courts and tried to use words found in the legal glossaries, were paradoxically educated in the English stream from the main educational institutions in the country. 

Parinda Ranasinghe, former Chief Justice a Royalist, used the Sinhala language wherever necessary, in a way that enhanced its poetic beauty. When he took oaths as the Chief Justice of this country, he broke tradition and addressed the ceremonial sitting in Sinhala and quoted from the Dhammapada.

Asoka Wijetunga was another judge of the Supreme Court, who as a magistrate spoke in Sinhala on ceremonial occasions. He too went to Royal College. The late Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene, Chief Magistrate, Colombo and Mr. Wickramasekera as magistrates used Sinhala effectively and their judgements had an abundance of the correct technical terminology as found in the Sinhala legal glossary they were both Thomians.

Ninian Jayasuriya, was a master of the English and Sinhala languages. A Mudliyar, when Mr. Jayasuriya was officiating in the High Court told me this interesting story. 

Once two lawyers, one a President's Counsel and the other a leading criminal lawyer, appeared before Mr. Jayasuriya for the first time to defend two accused in a bribery case. As Mr. Jayasuriya got on to the Bench he questioned the two lawyers whether they had anything to say about the indictment that had been framed. Both of them later confessed to the Mudliyar that they never had the occasion to study the indictment but were trying their best to master the facts. Mr. Jayasuriya then turned to the State Counsel and asked a few questions in Sinhala. The poor State Counsel could only cringe and smile. He exhibited his ignorance like the other two counsel much senior to him. 

Then Mr. Jayasuriya started dictating a lengthy order in Sinhala using every word in the legal glossary. After the order he said something in Sinhala and closed the file. The Mudliyar, the three counsel and the accused were nonplussed and stood still. 

Then Mr. Jayasuriya said in English that the accused were discharged. Both accused were government servants who had studied in the Sinhala medium. Before the Mudliyar could translate the word "discharge" both accused having understood the word 'discharge' which emanated from Mr. Jayasuriya's mouth ran out of the dock with a smile. Mr. Jayasuriya in his inimitable style had made an indepth study of the pure Sinhala equivalents to the English words. And he was able to deliver the judgement without even referring to a glossary. Justice Jayasuriuya was a Josephian. 

But I am yet to come across any judgement reported or unreported which ventures to interpret the law according to the Sinhala Act. As I have stated earlier in this column the much applauded Bail Act has caused severe problems and in some courts it has been interpreted to result in the reverse. 

The jail authorities are complaining of a severe over-crowding of the prison cells. This does not mean the police have suddenly become clever and detected a large number of unsolved crimes during the time of the dooshanaya and beeshanaya. Now no beeshanaya and dooshanaya in the UNP style and the present day dooshanaya and beeshanaya has taken a completely different turn and is called "Padooshanaya & Pabeeshanaya". 

The crime rate has soared according to Justice Minister G.L. Pieirs. Rape and incest have increased in geometric progression. The main cause is that criminals are protected by the Padooshanaya and Pabeehsanaya crowd. On the other hand very few magistrates had delegated their power to the police to remand suspects, on bailable offences after the maximum period of remand permitted under the old and well tested Criminal Procedure Act. Others remand on the basis that they have no power to grant bail. 

A classic case is where a magistrate grants bail to a suspect alleged to be 'a Sea Tiger' by the Crimes Detective Bureau on the basis that he has been kept in remand for three months under the Emergency Regulations which permits the Magistrate to grant bail unless the Attorney-General direct otherwise, but refuses bail to a suspect who has allegedly possessed a locally manufactured revolver even after 28 days in remand. His excuse was neither the Firearms Ordinance or the Bail Act permits the Magistrate to release the suspect on bail. 

One of the most important judgements in my opinion is a judgement by Gamini Abeyratne, High Court Judge of Negombo. To my mind this is the first time certain clauses of the Sinhala Act were interpreted fully. He compared and contrasted the Bail Act and clearly postulated the arguments which decided that certain clauses in the Sinhala Act differ substantially from the English Act, and the Sinhala Act prevails over the English Act. 

Section 28 of the Bail Act states "in the event of any inconsistency between the Sinhala and Tamil text of this Act, the Sinhala text shall prevail". 

One of the clauses Mr. Abeyratne did not consider is Section 5 of the Bail Act which states "subject to the provisions of Section 13, a person suspected or accused of having been concerned in committing or having committed a non-bailable offence may at any time be released on bail". But in the Sinhala Act which is the Act in force in Section 5, out of the words "released on bail" the words "on bail" are absent, which would mean that if a person is not suspected or accused of having committed murder or an offence punishable by death, Courts could in effect release such person without bail. 

As I have said earlier, such hasty legislations presented to Parliament, even by a jurist with a distinguished academic record like Professor Pieris, makes the law look an ass. Confusion worse confounded is the only apt way to describe the predicament that has fallen upon the judges, the lawyers and the suspects who are brought before a court to be released under the Bail Act. (More next week on the Sinhala judgement.)


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