Why not sing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil at the Independence Day celebration?

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A national anthem of a country is a source of pride and cultural significance for its citizens and creates allegiance and loyalty to their country irrespective of where they are domiciled. For this to happen, the anthem needs to be inclusive and all its citizens must have a sense of ownership of the anthem 

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


There is debate whether the National Anthem of Sri Lanka should be sung only in Sinhala or in Tamil as well. Hopefully, this debate and the discussions that are going on will contexualise this issue to what is relevant and best for Sri Lanka, and not what is practiced in other countries. 

The issues, including historical, cultural, linguistic and societal, are different in each country although the intention of a national anthem is, or should be, fundamentally the same; to have a symbolic verbal expression of what a citizen feels in his or her heart that reflects the history, struggles, and traditions of a free nation and its people which serves as an expression of its national identity.  

Sri Lanka unfortunately has not been entirely successful in forging an inclusive nationhood since independence from Britain in 1948. Reasons are many, and it is not the intention of this article to critique such reasons. Suffice to say that the politicians, religious leaders and civil society leaders have collectively failed to lead the country towards such an inclusive nationhood where all its citizens would feel they are owners of the country and could proudly demonstrate this ownership and feeling for the country when singing its national anthem.

Sri Lanka, a multiethnic country that has two major languages, with a historic inability for its citizens to come to terms with its multi-ethnicity and language duality, has struggled to forge a common Sri Lankan identity within its diversity. In this context, one could argue that singing the national anthem only in Sinhala during independence celebrations would not advance the forging of such a common identity.

In regard to the constitutionality, it is true that the National Anthem titled Sri Lanka Matha has been included in the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka, with a specified musical score and lyrics. This itself has been a counterproductive move which has only widened the chasm between its major communities who speak two languages. 

Commemorating inclusive nationhood

The Independence Day celebration, leaving aside how independent Sri Lanka truly is, is the day when it commemorates its inclusive nationhood, or should. It is the most important day to demonstrate its goal of inclusive nationhood. Instead, the rules for singing the National Anthem as enshrined in the constitution has left the possibility of an interpretation that what is stated in the Constitution also refers to the Anthem that should be played and sung on State occasions when either or both the president and/or the prime minister of the country are present considering that specific mention has been made as to which of the verses are to be sung in their presence. 

Its prescription therefore appears limited to such occasions so that singing a version with mixed verses during non-State occasions, when neither the president or the prime minister are present could be considered constitutional. This is a ridiculous anomalous situation that the country’s lawmakers have not been able to address and rectify after 70 years of independence! 

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first Head of State of Sri Lanka to learn Tamil while in office and speak at least a few sentences in Tamil on State occasions, and who spoke in Tamil at the United Nations General Assembly, when the Tamil language was heard in that august assembly for the first time. 

It has been reported that in 2010, President Rajapaksa had attempted to clarify the protocols in regard to the National Anthem and the hoisting of the National flag during State functions. He probably thought that a clearer procedure was needed as the document referred to as the third schedule in the 1978 Constitution and which provides the words and the music of the National Anthem is a scanned copy of a handwritten document which is hardly legible. Incidentally, this document contains the Sinhala words of the Anthem written in English.

The Cabinet discussion however had reportedly been hijacked by some ministers and for some unknown reason; the discussion had turned from protocol to language as they had argued that the Anthem should be sung only in Sinhala during State functions, whereas this seemed to be an unnecessary diversion seeing the 1978 Constitution in fact explicitly embodies Sinhala as the language to be used. 

Prior to 1978, the National Anthem was in fact sung both in Sinhala and Tamil, especially in the north and the east during official functions in the presence of past prime ministers of the country, including in the presence of two Prime Ministers accused of being Sinhala extremists, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Some have expressed an opinion that Sri Lanka would be setting a unique tradition that is not found in other countries. This is not so, as there are several countries such as Canada, the Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland, South Africa, and New Zealand where the National Anthem is sung in two or more languages in full or in parts. 


History of the National Anthem

In recalling the history of the Sri Lankan National Anthem, the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s association with it is reported in The Hindu (see link) “Sri Lanka’s National Anthem was also penned by Tagore: Apa Sri Lanka, Nama Nama Nama Nama Mata, Sundar Sri Boroni was originally Nama Nama Sri Lanka Mata in Bangla, written and set to its tune by Tagore. He did it at the request of his favourite Sri Lankan student at Santiniketan, Ananda Samarkun, in 1938. In 1940, Ananda returned to his native land and translated the song into Sinhalese and recorded it in Tagore’s tune.”

It was written when Sri Lanka was still a British colony and was initially written as a tribute to Sri Lanka, expressing sentiments of freedom, unity and independence, and not for the purpose of serving as a National Anthem. 

Interestingly, the genesis of the Sri Lankan National Anthem is shrouded in controversy. D.B.S. Jeyaraj traces the evolution of the present day Anthem in his article National Anthem: From “Namo Namo” to “Sri Lanka Matha” (31 December 2010 – see link). The many trials and tribulations that were experienced and the labour pains undergone in arriving at a popularly accepted National Anthem are traced by Jeyaraj. It is sad to note that the Sri Lankan author of the present day Anthem, Ananda Samarakoon, had died an unhappy man because some changes had been made to his original version with the words Namo Namo Matha being replaced by Sri Lanka Matha without his consent. 

Jeyaraj states that the National Anthem proposed by the government of the time, ‘Yasa Mahima’ was in fact rejected by the people of Ceylon who preferred Ananda Samarakoon’s ‘Namo Namo Matha’ and consistently sang the latter rather than the former, ‘Yasa Mahima’ the official Anthem. ‘Namo Namo Matha’ though without official recognition became popular as a “de-facto” national anthem.

In 1950 the then Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular “Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. The committee appointed, headed by Sir E.A.P. Wijeratne considered “Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song should be the national anthem, the following year.

In 1951 Tamil scholar Pundit M. Nallathamby translated the Sinhala version to Tamil and this became the official Tamil version. 

This development, of ‘listening to the people’ personifies the level of Democracy in Ceylon in the post-independence era, which could benefit a Sri Lanka in the 21st century.


India and Singapore

Those opposed to the National Anthem being sung in two languages often erroneously mention that the Indian National Anthem’s lyrics are in Hindi and sung in Hindi, the majority language of the country when in fact its lyrics are Sanskritised Bengali. The Indian National Anthem “Jana Gana Mana” was written in Bengali by the illustrious Rabindranath Tagore a Bengali himself. As D B J Jeyaraj says in his article (The language controversy over Sri Lankan National Anthem – 17 December 2010), Tagore had written the Anthem in “Tatsama” and not colloquial Bengali.  Tatsama Bengali is somewhat classical and has an extensive vocabulary of words “loaned” from the ancient Sanskrit language. About 70% of words used in Tatsama Bengali is of Sanskrit origin while only about 40% words in colloquial Bengali is Sanskrit. Incidentally another of Tagore’s compositions “Sonar Bangla” or “golden Bengal” is the National Anthem of Bangladesh, and for Tagore, it has been a kind of a reverse poetic triumvirate where one person had influenced and been responsible for three epoch making events in three countries.  Further, in India where there are more than 20 official languages at State level, the official languages of the Government of India is Hindi and English, and used for important official purposes such as parliamentary proceedings, judiciary, communications between the Central Government and a State Government. The question of singing in one or more of these State official languages at national level does not arise, as the official National Anthem is written and sung in Bengali in spite of the fact that it is not a national official language. 

Another misinterpretation is about the Singapore National Anthem where the lyrics are in Malay spoken by less than 13% of the country and not in Mandarin although the Chinese are the majority, 75% of population. The national anthem written by Zubir Said is titled “Majulah Singapura” or “Onwards Singapore”.

In Singapore, English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are recognized as official languages but Malay is regarded as the National language. Thus it is considered appropriate that the National Anthem be in Malay. Translations are available in English, Mandarin and Tamil but only Malay could be used to sing the national anthem in official functions.

The Sri Lankan situation is different as it has only two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil and as the YouTube version below shows (see link), the Anthem can be sung beautifully in both languages in one version.


Consider what is best for Sri Lanka

An important factor for all Sri Lankans to consider is what is best for Sri Lanka and not what is done in another country. Sri Lankans must emulate their own heritage, their values, their cultures and their languages, not any other, in their National Anthem.

In this context, being inclusive, and respecting and regarding all Sri Lankans as, to quote the Sinhala version, ‘Eka mavakuge daru kela bavina’, the many children of one mother, must surely be the ideal to be strived towards by rallying around an Anthem that all can identify with and be proud of.

A national anthem of a country is a source of pride and cultural significance for its citizens and creates allegiance and loyalty to their country irrespective of where they are domiciled. For this to happen, the anthem needs to be inclusive and all its citizens must have a sense of ownership of the anthem. In Sri Lanka, and in other countries where Sri Lankans are domiciled, the Sinhala and Tamil community disquiet and discord has distanced some citizens from each other and the National Anthem.  It is incumbent upon all those who wish this situation to change and for all citizens to identify with the ideals enshrined in the Anthem, to do whatever they can to rally everyone around the National Anthem. 

The answer to advance the goal of an inclusive nationhood would be to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil languages in one version, rather than only a Sinhala version or a version where it is sung separately in Sinhala and Tamil. The latter defeats the very idea of inclusiveness as it divides rather than unites the people while the former will demonstrate unity where everyone sings it in Sinhala and Tamil languages. 

A Sinhala only version completely isolates the Tamil community and is fodder to all those who are promoting Tamil nationhood. Unless steps are taken to demonstrate inclusivity and equality in a Sri Lankan nation, Tamil nationhood advocates cannot be blamed for what they are doing.


Bilingual version of the Sri Lankan National Anthem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ovIgUONFQU

National Anthem: From “Namo Namo” to “Sri Lanka Matha” – D.B.S. Jeyaraj (31 December 2010)


The Hindu – 18 May 2011


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