More than three decades after Sri Lanka recognised Tamil as an official language like Sinhala, you would expect a debate on singing the national anthem in Tamil to be redundant. However, a controversy erupted recently after local media reported the Public Administration Ministry’s decision to drop the Tamil version of the country’s national anthem from its Independence Day celebration.
This would effectively reverse a practice that former President Maithripala Sirisena re-introduced a year after he was elected to the country’s top post on the promise of good governance and reconciliation with the Tamil minority. On February 4, 2016, the Tamil national anthem was sung at the Independence Day celebrations for the first time since 1949, when it was last sung on the occasion, a year after the erstwhile-Ceylon gained Independence.
Several Tamils saw it as an important symbolic gesture, signalling a possible departure in state policy towards minority Tamils. There was opposition too, including from former President Mahimda Rajapaksa and an angry citizen, who filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the move.
And now, in the first Independence Day celebration since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s big election win, made possible by a decisive mandate from the southern Sinhala Buddhist majority, the decision to drop the Tamil anthem has drawn much attention.
There are different shades of opinion on the issue, from varied political standpoints. “We have only one national anthem, there is no reason to sing it in two languages,” Ramesh Pathirana, a Cabinet spokesman told local media.
Some Tamils argued that the decision made little material difference to the lives of Tamils, who have been denied their rights for decades. In their view, even when the anthem was sung in Tamil, it was at best symbolic in the absence of concrete action or progress on their political demands since the war ended in 2009.
No sign of resistance
Tweeting on the development, K. Guruparan, lawyer and senior lecturer at the University of Jaffna said: “I have no interest in singing the national anthem in Tamil, but while the Citizenship Amendment Act led to mass protests in India, in Sri Lanka the ‘6.9 million want to sing the national anthem in Sinhala’ argument is met with silence on the streets.”
Mr. Guruparan was referring to the figure quoted by Cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardena, who had said the decision to have the national anthem sung in Sinhala alone had the consent of 6.9 million Sri Lankans.
The Tamil political leadership has also weighed in. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran said he saw the move as being part of a plan to make Tamils “second-class citizens”. He said the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration was taking steps to widen the gap among people belonging to the two communities, instead of taking steps to promote unity and reconciliation. “If the government wants the Tamils not to sing the national anthem, we will be glad not to sing it,” he said.
Another popular argument referenced India and its own national anthem. Despite many languages, if India could sing the national anthem in one language, why must Sri Lanka have two versions, some asked. The context is very different, others rebutted, pointing to the history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, in which the Tamil language or the refusal to recognise it has figured repeatedly. ‘Sri Lanka Thaaye’, the Tamil version of the anthem, is a translation by poet Nallathambi of Vaddukoddai. It sounds exactly like the Sinhala original ‘Sri Lanka Maatha’ composed by Ananda Samarakoon, a disciple of Rabindranath Tagore. It has a familiar ring of Rabindra Sangeet. For citizens however, a national anthem is more than just a song.
In a recent intervention in Parliament, TNA leader R. Sampanthan observed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled nearly seven million votes of the country. “85% of the Tamil people, on our call, voted against him; he could not capture their vote. You cannot capture their vote with henchmen; you cannot capture their vote with stooges. You will only capture their vote with the support of people who understand the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people, their civilisation, their traditions, their language, their culture, their dignity and their self-respect. Those are fundamental.”
Allowing the national anthem to be sung in both official languages of the country could be merely symbolic. But symbolic actions often bear more significance in their deliberate omission than in their inclusion.