National Anthem and National Identity

by Shanie

"A nation needs identities that are broad, inclusive and that support its essential requirements of democracy, secularity, equality, rights to the institutions of welfare and to social justice."

(December 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) That was from the concluding remarks of Professor Romila Thapar when she delivered this year’s Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture on ‘Of Histories and Identitiies’. Her comment seems so appropriate to us when a Sunday newspaper last week reported that the Cabinet under President Mahinda Rajapakse’s chairmanship had made a decision that the Sri Lanka National Anthem will hereafter remain only in Sinhala and that the Tamil language version will no longer be sung at any state or official function. This reverses the practice since the National Anthem was adopted in 1952 where the Sinhala or Tamil version was sung depending on the occasion and the circumstances. The new cabinet decision means that at the Convocation of the Jaffna University, the National Anthem can be sung only in Sinhala. Similarly, if a branch of the People’s Bank is being opened in Point Pedro, then the National Anthem can again be sung only in Sinhala.

After the news item appeared, there was a sense of shock and outrage among not only the Tamil-speaking communities but liberal-minded persons of all ethnic communities. The concern was that the cabinet decision was unnecessarily provocative when the need of the hour was the healing of ethnic divisions and the forging of national unity and reconciliation. Two government ministers have said that even though there was a lengthy discussion in the cabinet, there was no finality about retaining the use of the Tamil language. Significantly, there has been no denial of the news report from the official spokesperson of the cabinet or from the cabinet office. It seems that Ministers Fowzie and John Seneviratne were only engaging in damage control. A third minister has said that the singing of the National Anthem was a joke. Of course, like most of Weerawansa’s other utterances, he does not give any reasons as to what humour he finds in the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil.

The experience of other countries

The news report goes on to say that this was the first cabinet meeting after President Rajapaksa’s recent crisis-ridden visit to England, suggesting that the decision may have been out of pique. But whatever it was, President Rajapaksa is reported to have told the ministers that no other country used more than one language in their National Anthem. Sad to say but this is not a factual statement. There are several countries where the National Anthem is officially in more than one language and used in state and official functions. South Africa, New Zealand and Canada are at least three of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations that have their official National Anthem in more than one language. President Rajapakse and some of his cabinet ministers would surely have attended official functions of these three Commonwealth countries and heard the National Anthem being sung in more than one language. It is therefore beyond belief that President Rajapaksa’s statement was made out of ignorance.

The New Zealand Anthem has five stanzas and officially there are the English and Maori versions. On most occasions, like our own National Anthem where normally only the first eight lines are sung, only the first stanza is sung, usually first in Maori and then in English. In Canada too, there are the French and English versions and both have equal status and are used in official and state functions. The South African National Anthem is unique. It was adopted in 1994 by the Nelson Mandela Government. It has four stanzas and each stanza is in a different language. The first two lines of the first stanza are in Xhosa, the third and fourth lines of that stanza are in Zulu, the second stanza is in Sesotho, the third in Afrikaaner and the fourth in English. All South Africans sing their National Anthem using all five of the official languages. It was a creative innovation by the Mandela Government to promote a national identity for the South Africans.

In the same breath as saying that the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil was a joke, Weerawansa is reported to have stated that neighbouring India has its national anthem only in Hindi. Unlike others in the cabinet, Weerawansa can be excused for his ignorance. It might interest the Weerawansas of this world to know that the Indian national anthem is in Bengali and was composed by Rabindranath Tagore as a Bengali patriotic song in the colonial era. The enlightened post-independence political leadership of India under Jawaharlal Nehru decided to adopt that Bengali song as the National Anthem. To date, all Indians sing Jana Mana Gana proudly in Bengali, even though it is the first language only to a small minority of less than 10%. Another multi-lingual Commonwealth country that uses a minority language for its National Anthem is Singapore. Even though Mandarin is the first language of the majority of Singaporeans, they sing their National Anthem in the Malay language. In both these Commonwealth countries, the political leadership was drawn from the linguistic majority, Hindi-speakers in India And Mandarin-speakers in Singapore, yet they decided on a minority language for the National Anthem because they felt it would promote national unity and reconciliation, and forge a national identity that would, as Romila Thapar said, be broad and inclusive.

Towards a National Identity

President Rajapaksa is also reported in the same news item to have told his ministers that Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike had once walked out of a function in the North when the National Anthem was played in Tamil. This columnist finds it difficult to accept this statement. Mrs Bandaranaike was a person of dignity and integrity. It is unthinkable that she would have walked out when the National Anthem was being played, merely because it was being played in Tamil. Some of the political decisions of her governments may justifiably have irked the Tamil-speaking people of the country, but she was a person without a trace of ethnic chauvinism. Both in her personal and political life, she respected the Tamil language and the Tamil-speaking people, some of whom were her close personal friends. If President Rajapaksa is aware of an incident where she walked out of a function, it most certainly was not because the National Anthem was being played in Tamil. President Rajapaksa might remember that when the J R Jayewardene government undemocratically deprived Mrs Bandaranaike of her civic rights, the first public function she attended was a mammoth reception in Jaffna as an act of solidarity with her. An emotionally moved Mrs Bandaranaike was later to say that it was an act that would always remain etched in her memory.

Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian political philosopher, whose writings are a handbook for deceitful tyrants, had however some home truths to say in his The Prince written in the fifteenth century. He wrote: "What doctors say of consumption (tuberculosis) applies here. At the beginning, the disease is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose. But in course of time, when it was not diagnosed at first and treated, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Thus it happens in the affairs of state." In politics, history has taught us to be prudent enough to detect the early warning danger signs and deal with them before they become a monster.

We trust the government will therefore re-think their short-sighted move and not make any changes in the use of the National Anthem in both languages throughout the country. The members of the Tamil Mandram at Royal College, for instance, should be able to sing the national anthem in Tamil at any official function; similarly at the Royal College Prize Giving, the students should stand to attention and sing the National Anthem each in his own language to the same tune. If any change is to done, we could think, as one writer has suggested of using the South African model in having the National Anthem sung partly in Tamil and partly in Sinhala so that all citizens get used to the idea of a bi-lingual national identity.
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