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Affirming Sri Lankan identity in anthem(s)

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Why should a country have more than a single version of its national anthem? This is the question that many are asking following President Maithripala Sirisena sanctioning the use of the Tamil version of ‘Sri Lanka Matha’. Those who ask this question by way of supporting the obvious answer to the rhetorical question (‘there’s no reason to have more than one version’) point to India’s case. India is made of many states populated by people speaking several major languages and hundreds of dialects and yet has one national anthem. They also point to the fact that very few countries have more than a single version.

While a general global trend can indicate ‘better way’ it does not mean that all countries should necessarily fall in line. Just because federalism works for India (according to some people) and makes sense in the USA it does not follow that Sri Lanka should also adopt a federal model. Just because the capitalist mode of production and a development model that takes growth (at the cost of almost everything else including the health of the planet) as the driver and objective of the paradigm it does not mean that it is either good or should forbid exploration of alternatives.

What needs to be assessed is whether or not any proposal on anything suits Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans taking into account social, political, economic, environmental and historical factors. It is in this context that the two-language national anthem idea needs to be commented on. 

First of all, this is not about a ‘Tamil’ national anthem that is at odds or even different from ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ in substance or melody. The Tamil version is not something that was dreamed up yesterday. It was written by the famous Tamil poet Pandithar M Nallathamby in 1950. There was no ban on singing it until 2010. The Tamil version in no way ‘unseats’ or subtracts from the Sinhala version’s official status in the Constitution. It must be pointed out that Sinhala is spoken by close to 80% of the population and in effect is the predominant ‘Link Language’ and as such few if any would say it is not logical for the official version to be in that language. It must also be remembered that the Indian anthem is in a minority language (Bengali), as is the Singaporean one (Malay).

The angst that has surfaced perhaps can be attributed to perceptions of the majority community being harangued at every turn by other groups, for example the separatist putsch by certain sections of the Tamil community and in-your-face identity assertion by certain Muslim groups. Be that as it may, it must be remembered that the Sinhalese, historically, were and in a way still are a community that privileges embrace over antagonism. The majority of Sinhalese were not opposed to green and orange strips being stitched to the national flag. It was probably seen less as giving into communalists like Ponnambalam Ramanathan, GG Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam than an acknowledgment of the rights of all Sri Lankans for a place in Sri Lanka on all counts.
Inclusion and embrace has been the signature of the helas or the yakshas as evidenced in legend, chronicle and archeological remains. Some might call it betrayal but if Buddhism is the predominant philosophical idea that marks our overall cultural ethos, in terms of doctrine and practice our ancient decision-makers have shown great wisdom. Well, the best of them, at least.

This is a country that has seen Sinhala kings offering land and refuge to Muslim traders hounded by European invaders. It is a land where kings from South India and the royal line they engendered were accepted as ‘Sinhala’ as any ‘Sinhala’ king. Hindu deities or rather their images were accommodated in Buddhist temples. South Indian kings were invited to rule this country; they were given the equivalent of citizenship and they in turn saw themselves as Sinhalese and Buddhists rather than Vadigas or Hindus.
So yes, just as the history of this island can be written in terms of invasions, it could alternatively be written in terms of embrace. There was and is conflict. There was and is post-conflict. There was and there should be embrace in the ‘after’ of bitterness and anger, suspicion and counter-suspicion, the clash of arms and sorrow, regret and shoulder-shrug.

It takes a lot to move away from all the negatives, to move past that which happened and which was so regrettable. There are commonalities that can help heal all the wounds that difference differently read in such regrettable ways inflicted on all our peoples.

This is a country where people have fought each other over faith and identity and yet have stood together in times of tragedy. This is a country that divided itself and fell again and again. It is a country that can stand up and be proud. Today after thirty years of fighting each other Sinhalese and Tamils have won the right to live without fear of explosions and the bull rush of armies. We destroyed much, together. Our commonality has been reduced, for better or worse, to two things: hope and grief. We can hope together and we can grieve together.

The Tamil version is an affirmation (in a language other than Sinhala) of a single nation, a unitary state and a territory undivided. It affirms what is best among our better and more enlightened citizens. It restores in some small measure a sense of pride among Tamils, I believe, about being a Sri Lankan and being as Sri Lankan as a Sinhalese or any other citizen. It is not and should not be read as an ‘anthem-version’ of the erroneous and much quoted (by communalists) assertion of Colvin R De Silva (‘one language, two nations; two languages, one nation’). Life and politics is not as simple as that.

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