Tamil National Anthem – Defending a symbol of reconciliation

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. I would say that the same notion exists when one sings. A person would hardly get any emotional value from singing a song, let alone a National Anthem, that is written in a language that he does not fully connect with. Therefore, with this reasoning it would make sense in having a version of the National Anthem in the language of a significant national minority group.

This seemed to have been the Government’s idea when it decided to close the Independence Day Celebration of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on the 4th of February 2016 with the singing of the National Anthem in the Tamil language. This was an unprecedented even, which envisioned to show the Government’s desire to travel further on the path towards reconciliation.

Historically a Tamil version of the national anthem has always existed but its usage was limited to the Tamil speaking regions in the North and East. However, with the advent of the LTTE the Tamil version of the National Anthem went into disuse, and after 25 years of war everyone, including many of the Tamil speakers, seemed to have forgotten that a Tamil version had existed in the first place. Therefore, it would have been logical to think that following the Government’s victory in 2009, the Tamil version would have been quick to resurface. However this was not the case, on the contrary there was great effort from the ultra-nationalist Sinhalese within Government to ensure that only the Sinhalese version was used across the country resulting in a de facto ban. Thus singing the Tamil version last week also symbolised the lifting of this ban.

When I heard of this news, I was overjoyed because at last our National Anthem was also sung in Tamil at an Independence Day Celebration. Both versions were even played at the Independence Day Celebration at the Sri Lankan Embassy in the Netherlands, which I attended. Also, the President’s, Prime Minister’s and the Foreign Minister’s messages were delivered in Sinhalese, Tamil and English respectively. This symbolic gesture provided the Tamil-speaking minority of Sri Lanka to be able to sing about their motherland in their mother tongue. I believe that equal representation of all ethnic, religious and linguistic groups is of vital importance for a truly pluralistic society, and having our National Anthem sung in Sinhalese and Tamil is a good step towards this. National and International media were quick to pick up this story, and the Government was applauded for this important symbolic step.

However, this action has also brought about numerous objections to having a Tamil version. Some criticisms are absolutely silly and stem from complete ignorance. One such argument is – “if the Tamils are allowed to sing in Tamil, then pretty soon the Muslims would want to sing the Anthem in Arabic”. This shows the clear ignorance of the fact that none of the Sri Lankan Muslims use Arabic as their first language. Tamil or Sinhala is the first language of the majority of Muslims, and English is the first language of a minority, with Arabic solely used for religious purposes. Furthermore, if we follow this logic, Sri Lanka’s National Anthem should be sung in Pali since Sri Lanka’s predominant religion is Buddhism.

I believe that it is not even worth wasting time to try to shows why many of the arguments brought forwards are outright foolish. However it is important to address the very much valid critiques that have been brought up. The first objection is of a legal nature. According to Article 7, Article 83 and the Third Schedule of the current Constitution only “Sri Lanka Matha” (i.e. the Sinhala version) is the official National Anthem. Therefore having had the National Anthem sung in Tamil on the 4th of February was a violation of the Constitution. The only legal solution to this issue is to have a national referendum. As a result it would be commendable if the Government takes steps to address this legal constraint.

Another critique is that it is inappropriate to have multiple National Anthems for a single sovereign nation. If we follow this logic then we would have to argue that having the New Testament in English and in Spanish makes them religious books of two different religions. What these critiques do not realise is that the meaning of the two version remains the same, thus resulting in only one national anthem. After all the fundamental purpose of any National Anthem is to deliver the message of how great the nation is, and the languages that the Anthem is delivered in does not change the meaning of the message.

A final critique is that by allowing two version of the National Anthem, it would lead to further separation and fractionalisation of our society. Indeed this can result in increased fractionalisation, but only if people actually use this issue as a tool to further fractionalise our society. If people begin to think that two versions are causing society to break up, then it truly will. Yet currently, Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Ireland and Switzerland have version of their National Anthems in multiple languages, and the Peoples of these countries are not fighting amongst each other. Therefore, the Government and the more rational part of our society should create awareness among the masses that having two versions only strengthens our multicultural society. However, if people are still insistent on having only one version of the national anthem, them maybe it might be wise to follow the footsteps of New Zeeland and South Africa that have verses in multiple languages within the same National Anthem. While I think that true symbolic unity can be achieve if the Sri Lankan National Anthem has verses in both Sinhalese and Tamil, such a proposal may create an even greater uproar amongst the Sinhalese nationalists. Therefore, for the time being having the two versions side by side would be the best option.

Yet, everyone must understand that, though important, having a multilingual National Anthem is just a symbolic step towards national reconciliation. More real ground level reconciliation is needed, such as addressing the issue of missing persons, allowing Internally Displaced Persons in the North and East to return to their ancestral homelands, and redesigning the education curriculum to reflect the traditions and histories of all ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Let us hope that this symbolic step is just the first one taken by the Government towards true national reconciliation on all level – symbolic and otherwise.

Don’t forget to check our earlier article on the matter of the Tamil language National Anthem by Thamara Kandabada.

Is Pluralism a Myth? 68th I-Day & the Tamil National Anthem

Mother Lanka commemorated her 68th Anniversary of National Independence on the February 4th. The usual arrangements were made – the celebration, the parades, the complete package. Except for one unusual element – the National Anthem was sung in Sinhala AND Tamil. As one would have expected, the internet exploded within seconds.


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