Identity, Jaffna, Language, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Is the Tamil version of our national anthem a joke?

Recent media coverage in Sri Lanka has focussed on the confusion over the ban of the Tamil version of Sri Lanka’s national anthem. In media reports that need to be read in the context of the ignominy suffered by the President in England recently, it was suggested that the President had,

“reportedly argued that no one of the other countries in the World had national anthem ‘in more than one language’. He also told the cabinet that the Tamil anthem is a limitation which undermines the unity amongst people in Sri Lanka.”

This of course is blatantly wrong, as Indran Amirthanayagam noted on Groundviews. Sutirtho Patranobis from the Hindustan Times captures it well,

“At a time when Rajapaksa’s been talking about a trilingual society — Sinhala, Tamil and English — the move could be interpreted as regressive. The lessons of history seemed to have been forgotten here; discrimination over language was one reason behind the civil war. If one nation, one anthem was the logic then it didn’t do anything to make the Tamils feel secure about their present or the future. There are several countries where the Anthem is sung in more than one language. This controversy revealed how rightist politicians here make use of India’s example when they require. Minister Wimal Weerawansa claimed India’s anthem was in Hindi though it had 300 languages. Yes, the same Weerawansa who went on two-day fast unto death in July against the UN. Yes, the same Weerawansa who spews periodical anti-India speeches. And yes, he got it wrong: the Indian anthem is in heavily Sanskritised Bengali, not spoken by the majority in India.”

Indian television was also quick to highlight the error.

As the BBC reports, Public Administration Minister John Seneviratne was first quoted in the media as supporting the ban of the Tamil version, but went on to deny it. The Presidential Secretariat also denied these media reports.

However, there is no media coverage as to what Wimal Weerawansa’s response was to the fact that he was, as ever, wrong. Particularly telling is the lack of any distancing of Government from the comments of Weerawansa, who unequivocally claimed the Tamil version of the national anthem was a joke in an telephone interview with Ada Derana.


What the Minister says in Sinhala is,

“No other country in the world translates a national anthem to another language and sings it in the country. If for example you take India, although you have a large number of languages, the national anthem is only in Hindi. All those who speak in other languages sing the national anthem in Hindi. This is why it is called a national anthem. A national anthem is one that all nationalities accept. Now only in Sri Lanka we find, since the 1978 constitution, a national anthem translated into Tamil. This is a joke. This is in the 1978 constitution. After this the Education Ministry’s textbooks featured the translations of the Tamil national anthem. This mistake needed to be corrected. No country in the world translates the national anthem into different languages. Therefore, it is a correction of this mistake that it happening here. Instead of this, to support the continuation of this mistake is inappropriate.”

In not condemning this statement (and the more disturbing mindset that gives rise to it), we can only believe that the government condones it. The very creation of Sri Lanka’s national anthem has a violence associated with it. In 2003, the then government decided that the formal recording of it was somehow not dignified enough, and decided to do a re-recording of it. It is unclear whether this re-recording actually occurred, and whether even today, the incredibly discordant versions played in many cinemas and theatres are not suitably dignified. But it is a question of dignity that fuels the controversy and Weerawansa’s comments. One can certainly debate the need for a multi-lingual anthem, but to denigrate an existing translation, sung in the country for decades, is to clearly bring out the callous mentality of senior figures in government. Dignity comes with seeing oneself in the fabric of a country. If the Tamil version of our national anthem is a joke, then it follows that Tamil peoples who sing it in their mother-tongue are also a joke.

Ignorance mixed with chutzpah is an incendiary coupling in post-war Sri Lanka, yet how many decry it?