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Public Administration Minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon Gets Angry and Terminates Telephone Conversation when Journalist asks him Whether Govt May be Dividing Communities by Banning National Anthem being Sung in Tamil at Independence day Event

By Sandun Jayawardana

The national anthem’s Tamil version – sung at Independence Day celebration since 2016 – will be dropped again from February 4 next year.

The national anthem’s Tamil version was sung at Independence Day celebrations since 2016

The Public Administration Ministry, the event organiser, has resolved that the national anthem must only be sung in Sinhala. “The country has only one national anthem,” Public Administration Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon said, adding that it was a government decision.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said, however, that the issue had not been discussed in Cabinet. He also did not believe the government had taken a policy decision to scrap the Tamil translation of the national anthem altogether.

Minister Tennakoon chaired a meeting earlier this week regarding arrangements for the Independence Day function. He said the government would do away with the previous administration’s practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil at the end of the event.

“We only have one national anthem,” he told the Sunday Times. “There is no reason to sing it in two languages. This creates unnecessary divisions among communities.”

It has been pointed out that a version of the national anthem was sung in Sinhala and Tamil under “national songs” even at the inauguration of the Independence Memorial Building at Torrington Square on February 4, 1949.

Minister Tennakoon said he knew nothing of this, and it did not mean the national anthem should be sung in two languages, he maintained.

The minister became angry at the suggestion that the government might be dividing communities by shelving the verbatim translation of the national anthem at a key state event such as Independence Day. He disagreed and rang off.

Subsequent attempts to contact him to determine who authorised scrapping the Tamil anthem proved futile.

After it was sung in 1949, the Tamil version of the national anthem was used again for the first time on February 4, 2016, under former president Maithripala Sirisena. The practice since then has been to sing the anthem in Sinhala at the beginning of the Independence Day ceremony and in Tamil at its conclusion.

But even in 2016, the introduction of the Tamil version generated controversy. Three persons filed a fundamental rights petition before the Supreme Court on February 26 that year challenging the decision. And, on November 16, after considering submissions by the Attorney General and the intervenient petitioners, a three-judge bench comprising then chief justice Priyasad Dep, Justice K.T. Chitrasiri and the late justice Prasanna Jayawardena refused leave to proceed and dismissed the petition, upholding the right to sing the national anthem in Tamil.

The Attorney-General argued that Articles 18 and 19 of the constitution recognises both Sinhala and Tamil as the official languages and national languages of Sri Lanka and that singing the national anthem in Tamil did not violate the constitution.

It is now uncertain whether the decision to stop the Tamil anthem on Independence Day will be broadened to other functions throughout the year. Opposition parliamentarians and even some ministers have expressed dismay about the move.

The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) strongly disapproved. “They (the government) will only be dividing communities if they do this,” its leader, MP Mavai Senathirajah, said. “They should commit to singing the anthem in both languages as has been the practice over the last few years.”

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had boycotted the Independence Day event for some years, started attending again only in 2016. Mr Senathirajah hinted that ITAK and other TNA constituent parties may now choose again not to attend the celebration.

“If we are invited in such a situation, how can we go?” he asked, fearing, too, that there could now be a fresh unofficial “ban” on singing the national anthem in Tamil as had happened during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

This move will “weaken national unity”, said Mano Ganesan, UNP MP and leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA). He has already written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, expressing protest and requesting that the decision be reversed.

Mr. Ganesan was at the forefront of the push to reintroduce the Tamil translation of the national anthem at state functions in his capacity as minister of national integration in the last administration.

Hearing it sung in their own language gave non-Sinhala speakers a feeling of being Sri Lankan and of belonging, he said.

The “lyrics of our national anthem reminding us that ‘we, the people of Sri Lanka are the children of one mother’, was translated verbatim into Tamil by poet Nallathamby with the same music score”, Mr. Ganesan wrote to President Rajapaksa.

While he understood that the President had differences of opinion on the 13th Amendment related to power-sharing, “language rights were enlisted in our constitution through the 16th amendment”, he points out.

“Sinhala and Tamil being national and official languages and English being the link language are the outcomes of the 16th Amendment of the Constitution, he states in his letter. “We have national consensus on the subjects of languages as per the 4th chapter of the constitution dedicated to language rights.”

Mr. Ganesan warned that some people were trying to mislead the nation by saying no country in the world had a national anthem in more than one language. In some countries, lyrics in different languages were found in the same song.

In India, he said, the anthem was not in Hindi but in Bengali, “a minority tongue”, “and written by none other than Rabindranath Tagore, the teacher of our poet Ananda Samarakoon”.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara, State Minister of Water Supply Facilities, while not a cabinet member, said he would “definitely” raise this matter with senior government figures. He saw nothing wrong in continuing the practice adopted by the previous regime.

“Doing so gives a sense of inclusiveness among all communities and we, as the government, lose nothing by it,” he remarked. “Why rob the Tamil people of their happiness?”

“We haven’t discussed the issue yet,” TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran said.
“We previously never attended (Independence Day event) but started doing so in 2016 because of the change in approach to reconciliation.

Even then we didn’t know till we heard it that the anthem would be sung in Tamil.”

The trajectory now is very different, he observed – “Not just about singing the anthem in Tamil but the general trajectory towards reconciliation”.

Nevertheless, he said, if the government mandated that the anthem should not be sung in Tamil and at other functions, even in the north and east, the TNA had no problem with stand.

“If the rulers of the country don’t want us to sing the national anthem, we have no objection to not singing,” Mr. Sumanthiran said.

“For, if they tell us not to sing it in Tamil, they are telling us not to sing it at all. How can we sing it in Sinhala? We can’t sing it in a language we don’t understand.”

“It’s their decision, not ours,” he continued. “And we are being excluded from national life in many ways. Singing the anthem alone won’t make everything all right in this country.”

Mr. Senathirajah said he and other TNA MPs hope to raise the matter with Minister Tennakoon, the Prime Minister and, if possible, the President when parliament reconvenes on January 3.

Mr. Sumanthiran blamed the Public Administration Ministry’s decision on ignorance. The national anthem was in the constitution in Tamil when the Tamil version of the law was passed.

“The objections arise from ignorance,” he said. “Even when they are told it’s in the constitution in Tamil, they don’t believe it. They think it is only in Sinhala because they only read the Sinhala translation of the Constitution.”

Courtesy:Sunday Times