Sri Lankan National Anthem: Symbolism, Nationalism, Racism and Other Stories

Photo by REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte via Channel 4

To write a piece of this nature while holding an academic position in a state university is quite a controversial move. Those who read this piece purely for the sake of critiquing it might find ample fuel in it to provoke the fires. Some may perceive this to be a nationalistic piece. Hence, I feel the need to explain a few basics before I delve into the topic at hand. Yes, I am a nationalist. But what is nationalism? For me, I am a Sri Lankan. Not a Sinhalese. If one’s sense of nationalism comes from hinging on to his / her race, such person will no longer be a nationalist but a racist. All those who are citizens of Sri Lanka are Sri Lankans irrespective of their respective races. To be a nationalist is to have a unified sense that one pledges allegiance to one’s own country although liberatarians may not agree to pledge allegiance to anything. Maximizing the freedom of choice, even as a liberatarian, does not negate one’s ability to choose to pledge allegiance to one’s own state. Some may consider me a traitor after reading the piece. However, my only hope is that Sri Lankans will be able to live in peace and that one day, I and my mixed group of friends will be able to bring forth our children into a country which is no longer divided along meaningless racial lines.

In the debate on the national anthem, the population is divided roughly into four categories. Some who are extremely angry that there is a Tamil version of the national anthem, some who are extremely happy that the national anthem is sung in a language they finally do understand, some who are thrilled that this is a reconciliatory attempt and argue that the attempt of the government to bring about harmony should be praised and the final category of people who argue that symbolic reconciliatory mechanisms are useless when structural changes are not adopted. I will be responding to each of these categories in this opinion piece as I fall into a slightly different category on this divisive issue.

Firstly, I am happy that one segment of the population of my country who are considered to be historically persecuted finally get to sing the national anthem in their own mother tongue. From my own experiences, I know the feeling that one gets when one actually feels and understands the words that one sings. I further do believe that symbolic attempts at reconciliation are important as it might very well be the stepping stone to structural changes.

Some refer to many ‘facts’ pertaining to national anthems not only of Sri Lanka but also of other countries like India. It amazes me that people can make statements without engaging in the activity of actually checking the veracity of the statements that they make. While India has several National ‘Songs’, it has ONE national anthem which is ‘Jana Gana Mana’ written by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. I had several conversations with my Indian colleagues who had many things to say about the distinction between the National Songs sung in several languages and the National Anthem of India… The fact remains that the Indian National Anthem is not sung in the majority language which is generally considered to be Hindi with about 41% of the Indian population speaking the same. The National Anthem, however, is in ‘Sanskritised Bengali’ which is roughly spoken by about 8% of the population. The Indian scholars with whom I had the privilege of conversing of the matter reaffirm that the acceptance of Jana Gana Mana as the National Anthem had nothing to do with the language in which it was written as what was more important is the symbolic aspect of the Anthem. Nonetheless, what I was told by such colleagues is that the purest form of the words used in the national anthem of India are words to which a larger portion of the population can relate as there are many similarities between the languages. (This similarity is somewhat similar to the connections that one observes in Latin based languages.) I was specifically told that the pronunciation of the national anthem of India remains neutral meaning that people speaking languages other than Bengali may pronounce it in accordance with their respective language – accents.

There is also a constitutional basis for the National Anthem of India. Section 51 A of Part IV A of the Indian Constitution concerning the fundamental duties of every citizen of India makes it a duty ‘to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national flag and THE national anthem’ (emphasis is mine). India goes to the extent of protecting THE National Anthem by Section 3 of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act 1971 (Act No 69 of 1971) by providing measures to penalize anyone insulting / preventing the singing of the National Anthem. Such provisions are, however, not available with regard to the ceremonial versions of the anthem or the songs which are considered national songs. This essentially creates a distinction between the National Songs which are in other languages and the National Anthem of India.

Another country with a famous example of the national anthem in two languages is Canada. It has both English and French versions of the national anthem and its bilingual version remains unofficial. In fact, its original version was French and remains unaltered up to date although the English version has undergone several changes. Once again, we have an instance in which the most original form of the National Anthem was in the minority language – French. As at present the French – speaking population of Canada is roughly 22% whereas the English – speaking population is about 58%.

In this whole debate, one of the aspects that puzzles me is the fact that most of the Sri Lankans seem to have forgotten the primary idea that underlies the national anthem in the first place. Its symbolic value is much greater to be undermined by language wars between two communities. Irrespective of the language that it is sung in, it still remains the SRI LANKAN National Anthem. Anyone who sees it otherwise might very well be a racist who does not have community interests at heart. However, I do personally believe that the country should not be doing any ‘tinkering’ work with the official version of the national anthem that is currently recognized by the Constitution. I do see a distinction between the official version and the ceremonial versions that India has. As most of the people point out, India is an apt example in this debate. However, it is not for the reason that India has ‘many’ national anthems, which is a factually erroneous argument. India is an apt example as it is a multilingual country which has its official national anthem while having several recognized national songs and also one version (though not THE official version) in sign language.

That said, I have no opposition to the National Songs being sung in Tamil or any other language for that matter. After all, the tune remains the same. The idea remains the same. The symbolic value remains the same. Both versions pledge allegiance to mother Lanka which is home to all Sri Lankan citizens irrespective of their races. And for those who are confused, I would like to remind that, by singing the national anthem, you are pledging allegiance to the country and not the government of the country. In other words, you can dislike the government of the country while loving the country. Do I believe that this initiative is reconciliatory? I do. As the very famous saying goes, ‘not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done’. Having said that, I understand that, much remains to be done on the reconciliatory front. Merely showing that justice is being done is insufficient for a nation which is still attempting to reconstruct a divided society. Do I believe that structural changes which are required for the betterment have to end up in federalism (as certain people have argued in connection to the debate on the national anthem)? Not necessarily so. I do believe, with uncorrupted political practices, Sri Lanka can reconcile any differences and do away with historical persecution against the minorities within a unitary structure, although, I truly am skeptic as to when we will, as a nation be lucky to experience uncorrupted political practices. As of now, I further believe that as Sri Lankans, we must together build the society without engaging in arguments about the language of the national anthem. We honestly should have much greater things to work on rather than wasting time on the language of the anthem. Issues of this nature (which are not really issues), take one’s focus away from the real issues that require more attention.

After all, the best solution might be to adopt the practice of Spain to not have any words in the national anthem. Spain being a multilingual nation, has effectively had its national anthem ‘La Marcha Real’ without lyrics since 1978. Do not be misled by the versions that you find on the internet with lyrics which are essentially merely entries that were submitted to a 2007 Spanish competition which sought to find lyrics for the national anthem or the earlier fascist version of the Spanish national anthem with lyrics.

As I have pointed out above, it is not uncommon to have an official version of the national anthem and several ceremonial versions of it. There is also precedent to have two official versions (although not necessarily a bilingual remix) when the country is multilingual. Furthermore, it is also not uncommon in multilingual societies to have a national anthem which has no words. Not only Spain, but also states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of San Marino and Kosovo (leaving aside the recognition issues pertaining to Kosovo’s statehood) do not have official lyrics in their respective national anthems. Considering the fact that the national anthem is expected to play a symbolic function, one official national anthem with several ceremonial versions or one national anthem without words might serve the purpose. My purpose would have been served if this helps you have a good night’s sleep.

May there be lasting peace in Sri Lanka!