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Adopting a New,Bi-Lingual National Anthem for Sri Lanka Could Flag More Problems than Solving Any

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

In the heat and dust kicked off by issues such as the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, Sri Lanka missed what could well have emerged as a national discourse on an issue of equal, if not greater import. At the heart of National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakara’s suggestion for a bi-lingual ‘national anthem’, in Sinahala and Tamil, to ensure speedier ethnic harmony in these years after ‘Eelam War IV’. Only then would have been the nation as a whole prepared to address forgotten goals of democracy and development, in turn the mainstay of any modern State.

If accepted, the veteran Left leader’s proposal — emanating from his Ministry, rather — could mean that Sri Lanka would be the only nation with a bi-lingual national anthem. At present, there is provision for the national anthem to be sung in Tamil in the Tamil areas, set to the same tune and music as the Sinhala original. The lyrics too mean the same in the two versions.

Post-war, complaints abound that the tradition is not being followed, and deliberately so. The Tamils add it to an ever-increasing list of contemporary woes, including ‘Sinhala colonisation’ of the North and excessive military presence in their midst, as different from the continued existence of army barracks in their neighbourhoods. The issue came up before the Cabinet months back after action was initiated against a Tamil officer of the Education Department. The discourse remained inconclusive.

Avoidable controversies

With the advent of Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, adopted poet and artist, Ananda Samarakoon’s ‘Namo, Namo, Matha…’ as national anthem. That was in 1951, five years before the ‘Sinhala Only’ law came into being. Naturally, the UNP Government of the day got ‘Pandit’ Nallathamby’s Tamil version adopted, and this came to be sung at all functions in the Tamil areas of the country.

Another five years down the line, the Government got the original Sinhala version modified to start as ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ (‘Mother Sri Lanka…’), though the name-change for the nation would follow only a decade later. There was an avoidable controversy as the Government had not sought and obtained Samarakoon’s permission changing his lyric.

Today, Minister Nanayakara’s initiative — his department has already forwarded a bilingual version to the Government for consideration — has kicked up a minimal controversy. There are few among those who have reacted to the proposal that have supported it. Some politicos and Buddhist-Sinhala monks have opposed any change to the national anthem. The Minister may have expected ready acceptance by the Tamil polity. The latter is maintaining a stoic silence.

Parity for Tamil language was among the early demands of the entire Tamil-speaking community, particularly after the introduction of the ‘Sinhala Only’ law. Yet, it was not an end in itself, as the demand for parity translated into demand for restoring available education and employment opportunities to the Tamil community.

The situation worsened in the early Seventies after the ‘Standardisation scheme’ for university admissions put school pupils of Tamil-majority Jaffna district and the multi-ethnic capital city of Colombo at a disadvantage. The scheme has since been withdrawn, but other controversies could well take its place if a new ‘national anthem’ were to confine itself to parity between languages, without addressing other real issues, like power-devolution.

For long now, power-devolution has been at the centre of the ethnic row in the country. In this, the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) and the Tamil-speaking Muslims had stood together. The situation changed in 1990, when the LTTE shocked the Muslim community by targeting them for killing in the East and mass exodus in the North. Post-war efforts of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have not fully assuaged the hurt sentiments of the Muslim community, which sees more challenges coming its way in the months since.

The separate identity of the Muslim ethnicity has been acknowledged in socio-political terms since, though it had been acknowledged in electoral and administrative practices for long. Any political solution to the ‘ethnic issue’ should thus have to involve a ‘Muslim element’ in solutions though they are not considered a part of the problem from the LTTE past of the SLT community.

Symbolism alone won’t do

Continuing with the existing national anthem without any modification is one thing, but adopting a bi-lingual, new Anthem exclusively on linguistic basis is another. Symbolism apart, it could flag more problems than solving any. First, there could be opposition from the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ elements, which can spread.

Secondly, it would still have left out the Muslims. The Upcountry Tamils, who share the same language with the SLT community but do not feel ‘inclusive’ otherwise, may have other inputs if an ethnic angle is to be introduced to the anthem at this stage. As is known, the Upcountry Tamils are a separate ‘ethnic group’ in practice and under the law.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s symbolic, yet, commendable post-war effort at addressing the Tamil people in their language, while welcome, has not resolved the ethnic issue, per se. The solution lies elsewhere. Symbolisms of his kind would find greater appreciation, particularly among the affected Tamil community, only when those solutions are arrived at.

Two anthems, one author

The larger question involves if the national anthem, in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, has to reflect ground realities, which keep changing decade after decade, or should it reflect the realities of the times when it was adopted, reflecting in the process the strong historical, geographical and cultural moorings of the land and its people. While there could be exceptions, depending on the circumstances, any change of the kind brings with it emerging expectations of the kind from a future generation with it.

Neighbouring India, which obtained Independence (August 1947) only months before Sri Lanka got its Independence (February 1948), from the common British colonial ruler, the nation adopted Nobel Literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s’Jana Gana Mana…’ as the national anthem, along with a Constitution, in January 1950, only months before Sri Lanka adopted its national anthem.

The anthem, in Sanskritised Bengali of Tagore, was first sung as far back as 1911 with a heavy Bengali accent at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress, which was fighting for the nation’s Independence. It still refers to regions like Punjab, Sindh(u) and Bengal that had been bifurcated between India and Pakistan, three years before the Constituent Assembly adopted the same.

Thereby may hang a tale of what has made India and Sri Lanka so different in achieving national unity and harmony, despite inherent diversities, which in the case of the former are mind-boggling for any nation at any time. Incidentally, partitioned Bengal that formed part of Pakistan has since become Bangladesh. Tagore has a unique distinction, as the new nation, born in 1971, adopted another of his poems as its national anthem.

One ‘Dravida’ land to four States, yet…

Parts of the ‘Dravida’ land, in the national anthem, more of less comprised the Madras Presidency of the British days, and became ‘Part-A’ Composite Madras State in the post-Independence Indian Union. Yet, five years down the line, when in 1956, Sri Lanka took to the ‘Sinhala Only’ law India was adopting the ‘Linguistic Reorganisation’ of States.

The ‘Dravida’ land thus became four different States of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but none of them finds any mention in the national anthem. So have most of central India, much of which was under their princely rulers when Tagore wrote his poem. None of them have found any specific mention in the national anthem, unlike Maharashtra and Gujarat, which were linguistically and culturally separate all along but were politically united as a single unit after the post-Independence ‘Integration of Indian States’ before becoming two separate States in 1960 – and, not in 1956.

More States have since been added to the Union with the bifurcation of the existing ones, particularly in North and Central India. Like in the case of others, there is a decades-old demand and protest in the South, for the creation of a separate ‘Telangana State’, carved out of Andhra Pradesh. Yet, no one is talking about re-writing, or modifying the national anthem, to reflect their separate political, linguistic or cultural existence – or, any other reality of the times, or of the times immemorial.

It did not stop there. The ‘separatist’ pan-Tamil Dravidian groups in India at that time of Independence have not found any cause for demanding any modification to the national anthem, even after their giving up that agenda and joining the national mainstream. Nor has the ‘Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’ (DMK), founded in 1949, months before the Constitution was adopted, or any of its breakaway off-shoots found any need to rechristen themselves.

Double-talk, duplicity?

As coincidence would have it, the late S J V Chelvanayagam founded the ‘Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi’ (ITAK) around the same time as the DMK’s founding in 1949, but chose to have an English version of the name and title as the ‘Federal Party’. It has remained a controversial name for a political party in the sub-continent ever since, representing what it critics have dubbed the ‘double-talk’ or duplicity of the Sri Lankan Tamil polity – a charge that the latter have been happy to throw at the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ camp all along.

The comparison does not end there. Starting off in the Madras Presidency of the yore, first as the ‘Justice Party’ in the first decade of the twentieth century, and later as the ‘Self-Respect Movement’ and the ‘Dravidar Kazhagam’ (DK), in its second and third avtars, the DMK narrowed down its reach and agenda to the linguistic Madras State, when formed in 1956, and got its name changed to ‘Tamil Nadu’ after coming to elected power in 1967.

Against this, the ITAK/FP, with its start-off base still in Northern Province of Sri Lanka, over-reached itself to include the culturally-divergent East, at birth. There is hardly any instance of an ITAK-favoured Tamil politician from the East winning an election in the North, or vice versa, even at the height of the ‘pan-Tamil movement’ in the country. The LTTE would pay a heavier price still, when the monolith military-terror outfit got split on regional lines, and never to recover from that shock.

The fallacy of it all stands out even more if one were to recall that at ITAK’s birth, Chelvanayagam would declare Trincomallee as the capital of a unified Tamil Province. It would be so when a merged North-East Province was created under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. Post-war, no leader of the TNA, a party with dominant leadership from the North, is talking about it, even while mentioning the re-merger of the North and the East, as if in the passing.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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