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.