Colombo, Identity, Language, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

O country, Thy National Anthem…

It was reported lately that an interesting issue came up at a recent cabinet meeting, namely, the National Anthem of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. It was also reported that the cabinet has established that the National Anthem will hereafter be sung exclusively in Sinhala.

According to news reports published in the local and international media, several cabinet ministers opposed this measure, while others supported it.

A brief news report published in a blog managed by an expatriate Sri Lankan journalist noted that despite press reports saying the contrary, a final decision on this issue is yet to be taken.

What follows is an attempt at contributing to the ongoing debates/interactions on the National Anthem. Reading through the multitude of articles and reports on the issue, this writer was struck by a comment, apparently made by a cabinet minister. It was a point raised by the said minister to justify the fact that our National Anthem should only be in Sinhala. The argument was simple: why should we in tiny Sri Lanka have two versions of our National Anthem (in Sinhala and Tamil), while in neighbouring India, despite its plethora of different languages, the National Anthem is only in ‘Hindi’. It is once again reiterated that this is mere transcription, and that this statement was made not by this writer, but a prominent cabinet minister.

One point worth highlighting is that this comparison is not so sustainable. India’s National Anthem was written by Rabindranath Tagore, an iconic and essentially prolific figure in the world of music, the arts and letters. The very persona of Tagore and the impact of his work on the Indian sociocultural psyche are such that they possess a tremendous capacity to command the respect and admiration of Indians as a people, despite ethnic, religious or any other boundaries. Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana is indeed more Bengali than Hindi, and let’s not forget that it is the same Tagore who wrote Amar shonar bangla, the National Anthem of Bangladesh.

Coming back to Our Land, Sri Lanka matha was written by Ananda Samarakoon, who represents an era of musicians and lyrics composers who were substantially influenced by Rabindra Sangeet. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Samarakoon stands nowhere near Tagore in our sociocultural psyche, and does not represent a persona who commands the admiration of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or any other divisions thereof.

Sri Lanka’s dominant cultural and sociolinguistic discourse is a Sinhala nationalist one. This is indeed undeniable. In this perspective, having the National Anthem only in Sinhalese may sound logical, as supporters of the above-mentioned cabinet decision have reiterated.

What a considerable proportion of ethnic Sinhala legislators are comfortably ignoring is the reality that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country, which requires a national anthem that all Sri Lankan citizens can relate to and identify themselves with, and sing with a sincere sense of national pride and belonging. In this respect, Jana gana mana certainly represents the quintessential National Anthem. Despite being much shorter than Sri Lanka matha, it celebrates the diversity of the Indian community. Consider the following lines for instance:

Panjaba Sindhu Gujarata Marata

Dravida Utkhala Vanga

The reality that Jana gana mana is a national anthem that brings Indians together is amply demonstrated in maestro A.R. Rahman’s fantastic rendering of the National Anthem (video widely available on Youtube), where the country’s most prominent singers and musicians (of all ethnic/linguistic origins) join together to sing it. Jana gana mana is therefore not comparable to Sri Lanka matha. Contrary to Tagore’s Jana gana mana, and despite its lengthy nature, Samarakoon’s Sri Lanka matha never mentions a single word about the ethnonational, religious or any other aspect of the sheer “diversity” of Sri Lankan society. What is even more flagrant is that it simply never refers to the virtues of the Sri Lankan people. It personifies the island of Sri Lanka as a mother, and drifts in to a eulogy, on the island’s natural beauty and how the island (i.e. the geographical entity) is significant to Sri Lankans.

However, the last two lines of the national anthem affirm that we (i.e. Sri Lankans) are children of one mother (eka mavakagé daru kela bevina). Secondly, and even better, it says that we should cultivate love among ourselves, and give up all divisions (prema vada sema bheda durera da). This could indeed be read as a hint at the ethnic diversity of the island and a subtle call for ethnic unity and coexistence. If this really is the case, one could still argue that despite this statement, Samarakoon’s National Anthem does not sufficiently celebrate the ethnic diversity of Lanka. On the other side of the divide, Sinhalese nationalist ideologues could develop the point that in a country with a massive Sinhala majority, the very fact that a call for ethnic harmony is mentioned at the end of the National Anthem demonstrates the ‘magnanimity’ of the Sinhala people.

Despite a mere call for unity, it is simply undeniable that Sri Lanka matha does not celebrate the diversity of our people, the biggest collective strength we possess as Sri Lankans. We cannot envisage an exclusively Sinhalese Sri Lanka without the Tamils of the North and East, the Muslims, the Tamils of central Sri Lanka, the Malays, the Burghers, and all other minority groups. Our National Anthem should therefore be one that appeals to all the ethnic groups with equal intensity. This is indeed a tough task, hence the option of having Sinhalese, Tamil and English versions of the National Anthem. Allowing Sri Lankans to sing their National Anthem in the national language they are most comfortable with does not make one group deshapreemi and another deshadrohi, a highly flawed logic that hinders our progress as a nation.

There is no need to reiterate the tremendously negative effects that ‘language politics’ have had on Sri Lanka and her people. The cabinet decision on the National Anthem seems to suggest that the ramifications of language issues have continued to accompany us into the 21st century. ‘Language matters’ are a tricky terrain, where policymakers ought to exercise the utmost caution. The two main languages spoken in the country, Sinhala and Tamil, emanate from two different traditions, the former Indo-Aryan, and the latter Dravidian. The considerable differences between the two languages have been at the heart of Lanka’s turbulent language politics-related antagonisms. Learning Tamil and reaching a high level of competence remains a challenge for many Sinhalese (this is also the case for many non-Tamil scholars in South Asia Studies, Indology and related disciplines who study South Asian languages. While a Western European may learn Hindi without major difficulties, this writer’s numerous conversations with students of Tamil in Western seats of learning have revealed that many of them find Tamil extremely challenging to master). Back home in the Sri Lankan context, members of ethnic minority groups have always been more successful in being able to communicate in the three working languages of the Sri Lankan state (i.e. Sinhala, Tamil and English).

Today’s Sri Lankan politics is a sphere where opposed (but scarily similar) discourses of nationalism operate, in far-right-wing style. While the Sinhala side of such discourses have their place within the island, in Colombo and in the wider Sinhalese south, influencing all levels of government right up to the Cabinet of Ministers, the Tamil side of the same coin operates outside Sri Lanka, and catches wide media attention from time to time, such as during the recent presidential visit to Britain.

Given the aftermath of war, and the challenge of reworking Sri Lanka’s international relations, and strengthening our diplomacy around the globe, it is neither advisable nor strategic to give in to either of the two far-right-wing nationalist discourses mentioned above. If we are to sail through tough times and reach better levels of socioeconomic stability (not only by tourism but by opening up our markets, promoting investments, developing a world-class university system, promoting the export economy, and transforming Sri Lanka into a ‘modern and upwardly mobile state’ in the truest sense of the term), the state needs to take tacit but effective measures to curb the tremendous sphere of influence of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalist discourses.

If this objective is not gradually consolidated, measures like the recent cabinet decision on the National Anthem would only provide fine fodder for both Sinhalese and Tamil far-right nationalist discourses to thrive.

  • If Sinhalese think in a wise manner, they will realize the wrong path they are taking in issues like national flag and national anthem. Suppose, in a Sinhalese dominated audience, if we hoist a tiger flag (it is not a Tamil’s flag, but of LTTE’s) and sing tiger song and ask them to stand up and respect, are they going to obey it? No! In the same way, how can they expect Tamils to respect a flag with strong representation of Sinhalese Budhists authoritatism with an animal pointing towards inside, to those two colours (said to be added later to represent other communities)? If they say the Tamils to go back to India, I advise them to go back and read their own Mahawamsa.

    • Padda

      @ Shanthi – You sound like a bitter Tamil separetist. Let’s analyze your arguments one by one.

      “If Sinhalese think in a wise manner, they will realize the wrong path they are taking in issues like national flag and national anthem. Suppose, in a Sinhalese dominated audience, if we hoist a tiger flag (it is not a Tamil’s flag, but of LTTE’s) and sing tiger song and ask them to stand up and respect, are they going to obey it?”

      There’s no national flag for LTTE. That is only a terrorist flag. No one from any country will stand up to that crap, because it symbolises human bombs and slaying of the innocent civillians.

      “No! In the same way, how can they expect Tamils to respect a flag with strong representation of Sinhalese Budhists authoritatism with an animal pointing towards inside, to those two colours (said to be added later to represent other communities)?

      Be happy that at least minorities are represented in the flag. In India it does not, In USA it does not as well as Aussieland and in Kiwiland. Now if the coloured stripes were behind the lion, that separatists / terrorist sympathisers like you’d tell that lion is farting towards minorities. If it was above the lion you’ll still say lion is pointing the sword at them, and if it was below, you’d say lion is trampling them. Simply people like you whine, and whine and whine continuously until you get your dream land Peelam. You’ll never want to stand under a Sri Lankan flag what ever that flag contains. Instead you keep whining petty things as above to find a cause to not stand under it.

      If they say the Tamils to go back to India, I advise them to go back and read their own Mahawamsa

      No one asks the Tamils to go back to India. But people who cannot think themselves as Sri Lankans can certainly leave the country and go whereever they like. And BTW, Mahavansa is not regarded as the Bible of SL history. It’s beyond doubt that Sinhalese is a Dravidian race which speaks an Indo-Aryan language and writes using a Dravidian script. Some times Sinhalese may be one of the oldest Dravidian races, and we are seeing some artefacts of 5 – 7BC in A’pura with Sinhalese written in Southern Brahmi Script.

      • wijayapala

        Dear Padda,

        Be happy that at least minorities are represented in the flag. In India it does not,

        The orange and green on the SL flag do NOT represent minorities, despite what you’ll find on the internet. They were borrowed from the Indian flag as a show of solidarity after independence.

        The green on the Indian flag represents the Muslim minority. Together with the orange, the tricolor represents Hindu-Muslim coexistence and secularism.

  • ram

    India’s Anthem is in Minority Bengali language, not majority Hindi. So as per comparison, its common sense for people with logic and sense to conclude.

    • Citizen

      is there available Hindi or Tamil translation of Indian national anthem?
      or are tamils permitted to sing any tamil version of indian national anthem in tamil nadu?

    • Padda

      Ram will not reply, because the answer is a big “NO”.

  • Punitham

    If the political and economic oppression of Tamils stops, who cares about the language of the National anthem?

    When the various states have devolution of power to develop their own socio-economic-environmental fabric, the Indians don’t care about the language of the anthem. Thankfully it happens to be the sweetest piece of music that the whole world enjoys.

  • veedhur

    And lest you forget there was a call for submission from all key languages by the Indian constitutional council to select the national anthem. There were also a submissions from Tamil (by Subramanya Bharathi) and Hindi. Tagore’s one was selected out of several in a transparent manner based on pre-identified criteria.

    • Chaminda Weerawardhana


      Thanks very much for the comment – valuable addition.

    • Neon

      So what you’re saying is that Sri Lanka should call for submissions for a national anthem, get Tamil submissions, and then just pick the Sinhala one?

    • Citizen

      some says Tagore’s song originally written to praise King George V. 😀
      so it was transparently selected right?

      • Padda

        Yes, Mr. Weerawardhana, could you care to explain what “Adhinayaka” means in Bengali?

      • cssuntherrao .

        …” It was falsely propagated by colonial authorities that the song was written and first sung to praise and felicitate King George V and Queen Mary on their visit to India in 1911. The rumors gave way when Tagore wrote a letter to the Emperor, stating the mentor and creator of Bharath(India) mentioned in the song is not King George V but God himself. The copy of the letter can be found in his autobiography and Jana Gana Mana (hymn) ……” – Wikipedia

  • Ravi Shankar

    Pada said “Be happy that at least minorities are represented in the flag. In India it does not, In USA it does not as well as Aussieland and in Kiwiland.”

    In fact, the Indian flag has nothing to do with any ethnicity. See the official explanation below:

    The Indian flag is a horizontal tricolour in equal proportion of deep saffron on the top, white in the middle and dark green at the bottom. The ratio of the width to the length of the flag is two is to three. In the centre of the white band, there is a wheel in navy blue to indicate the Dharma Chakra, the wheel of law in the Sarnath Lion Capital. This center symbol or the ‘CHAKRA’, is a Buddhist symbol dating back to 200th century BC.

  • It is a pathetic situation to find excuses to justify and promote a racist flag as a country’s national flag. A flag should not have anything to represent a particular race or religion and all the colours should be equal in size. If you want to continue to have that Sinhala Buddhist flag, you are free to use it for yourself, but leave us alone.
    For your information, freedom fighters are always called the ‘terrorists’ by the relevant governments and the government killing its own citizens is also a licensed terrorist in the eyes of those people affected.

  • Paradiselost

    I am a Sri Lankan Tamil; and I remember as a child growing up in Jaffna in the 70’s I was standing up to the national anthem in the cinema theaters as they played this before the movie with the news clip. I do not remember if it was in Tamil or Sinhalese but I did it dutifully and I knew the Tamil version too. But now I ask myself if I happen to win an international award in sports or a Nobel prize, would I be happy to listen to the SL national anthem at this event; my answer is NO; why? because I am not feeling that I am being treated as a Srilankan (or at least as a second class citizen of this country), not from the politics and not from the majority of Sinhalese, and it is tragic.
    Nobody was asking the Sinhalese to sing the national anthem in Tamil. And for the Tamils it is easy to sing it in Tamil than in Sinhalese, And actually everybody should be happy about it, isn’t it? And what disturbs the Politicians like MR and WW in this simple matter; they try to impose something on the Tamils to show that they dictate the terms like the “Sinhalese only” rule in the 50’s and we see now what we have from it. If the Tamils want to sing the anthem in Tamil to identify themselves with the country there is no better way to do it than allowing them to do it. And if we try to impose the Sinhalese version on the Tamils and they refuse to sing along because they do not master the language then the Sinhalese majority is going to shout at them that they are nationalistic and separatist not want to sing the national anthem. So isn’t it wise to get them into the boot than pushing them into the water for just to be able to say they could have asked for our help. The attempt to ban the Tamil version of national anthem is motivated by nationalistic and political ideas and to show the Tamils the predominance of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and to punish them for something and the same time to impress the Sinhalese voters. And you can ask yourself who is nationalistic (fascistic)? The Tamils who deny to or cannot sing the national anthem, because they do not speak Sinhalese? or the Sinhalese who removed the Tamil version and force the Tamils to sing it and only in Sinhalese?
    By the way in Spain, there are Spanish, Catalans and Corsicans, the national anthem has no text only a musical composition. May be this would resolve the problem of having more languages and a single national anthem. But the question is would the big ego of the majority would allow it?