Throwing a spanner in the works through the national anthem? (A personal opinion)
Posted on February 3rd, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Singing or not singing Sri Lanka Matha/ apa Sri Lanka…..” in Tamil is not a problem for ordinary Tamils. Neither is it an issue for ordinary Sinhalese or other Tamil speaking Sri Lankan citizens. But, apparently, it is a crucial subject for some foreign NGOs, separatists among expatriate Tamils in the West, and some Tamil politicians and their fellow travellers of the opposition. Ironically, they are the ones who are hellbent on destroying the rapport between the majority and minority communities.The last mentioned are ready to exploit even a trivial matter like this or a really serious crisis like the feared novel coronavirus infection 2019 (2019 n-CoV) epidemic (though not a single new case has been reported by the time of writing, February 2, except the Chinese patient admitted to the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Angoda and now reported to be awaiting discharge after recovery) for political advantage ahead of the forthcoming April general election. They will do anything to win against the SLPP, which, on its part must gain a good parliamentary majority for the president to continue the development work he is determined to do. While that is the real motive of these promoters or purveyors of re-con-silly-ation, the truth remains that Sri Lanka’s national anthem is the last thing they would care about. They demand that it be sung in Tamil in addition to Sinhala on February 4 because they know that, whether their demand is conceded or not, the government’s response will prove a double edged sword for it either way, given the Yahapalanaya-induced division of opinion about the national anthem being sung only in Sinhala in accordance with the the still operative 1978 constitution, which gave it constitutional recognition. Since the country is in safe hands back again, we need not worry on this score. It is hardly likely that the government under the current president and prime minister duo will be bamboozled into doing something that it can’t later defend.

Composer and musician Ananda Samarakoon (1911-1962) wrote the lyrics and composed the music for the song Namo Namo Matha in1940, while he was a teacher at Mahinda College, Galle. He had returned to the island after following classes for only six months at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan in West Bengal, India. But he had been profoundly inspired by the great man. He served as music teacher at Mahinda College from 1938 to 1942. Samarakoon was a Christian by birth, but embraced Buddhism as an adult. He wanted to create an authentically local music tradition instead of the foreign dependent Sinhala music of the time, and composed a number of songs which later became still well known classics. He composed the song ‘Namo Namo Mata’ to inculcate patriotism in the young students he taught at Mahinda, who were the first to sing it. It was at the beginning of the next decade that the then minister of finance J.R. Jayawardane (to become president many years later) who requested the government (led by UNP’s D.S. Senanayake) to recognize this song as the national anthem. A committee was appointed to study the merit of the minister’s proposal. It listened to several other songs as well. After much deliberation, they selected Samarakoon’s song. But they added the part ‘nitina apa pubudu karan Mata’ to its 10th line ‘nava jeevane demine’, before officially adopting it as the national anthem on November 22, 1951. The national anthem was officially sung for the first time on the independence day of 1952. Almost ten years later, in 1961, the first line of the song ‘Namo Namo Mata…..’ was judged to be inauspicious by astrologers, and ‘Sri Lanka Mata …’ was added to the beginning. These changes were introduced despite Samarakoon’s strong disapproval. His disappointment at the ‘mutilation’ of his song led him to commit suicide on April 5, 1962, according to a note he had left before killing himself by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. That shows the patriotic musician’s passionate devotion to his enduring gift to the nation. 

A Tamil translation of the national anthem was made – with the same lyrics and music – by a popular patriotic Tamil poet of the day M. Nallathambi (1896-1951). Nallathambi won the first prize for his poetry collection titled ‘Maniththai Nadum  Marathon Oddadum’ ‘Mother Lanka and the Marathon Relay’ at a poetry competition organized by the government in 1950 to commemorate the 1948 independence. Whether the Tamil version was simultaneously accorded the same official recognition in 1951 along with the Sinhala original is not clear, but it is claimed that it continued to be sung generally in the predominantly Tamil north and east provinces and Tamil medium schools in other parts of the country. However, it is strongly doubtful whether the above mentioned current agitators for the Tamil version to be sung at state functions along with the Sinhala original are eager to have all Tamils identify with the Sinhalese majority as children of the one and only Mother Lanka. The innocent school children who had been trained to sing it at independence ceremonies between 2016 and 2019 sang it with enthusiasm; they were untouched by the duplicity of the politicians. We were not surprised to see this, because we had already observed how school children from the north visited the south in the years immediately after the humanitarian operation ended separatist terrorism (i.e., the period 2009-2014) on government sponsored awareness raising tours and established perfect rapport with their counterparts there, and bade tearful goodbyes when they had to part company at the end of the tour duration. Those children experienced genuine mutual camaraderie and shared deep love for Mother Lanka because the authorities had created the circumstances necessary to generate such feelings in those young children. Yahapalanaya came and destroyed the surging national consciousness among the ideologically unspoilt youth of the country.

Nallathambi was a patriot. He translated ‘Namo Namo Matha’ to express his genuine love for Mother Lanka and his sense of solidarity with the Sinhalese majority. But these feelings were not shared by the leading Tamil politicians of the time, who probably did not share Nallathambi’s enthusiasm. They were a privileged lot under the ruling British who were ill disposed towards the Sinhalese generally whose ancient homeland they were despoiling. When the Donoughmore Commissioners recommended and the government granted universal franchise to all Ceylonese above 21, this casteist Tamil elite vehemently opposed it because the non-vellalas also were given the vote, and the concerned conservatives feared ‘mob rule’ and they, in addition, didn’t want the vote to be given to women (something on which Muslim politicians  agreed with them). Some Sinhalese leaders also had different misgivings about universal franchise, but obviously, they were not so passionate objectors after all. They accepted universal suffrage on condition that communal representation (which favoured the racist Tamils) be abolished in favour of territorial representation (which was fair by all communities). The Tamil leaders were worried when the Westminster parliamentary system was offered by the Soulbury Commissioners that the Sinhalese majority (75% of the population) were going to dominate the legislature causing a disadvantage to Tamils (15%). Catholic Christian lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam (whose non-vellala caste origin was compensated for by his religion and his English), leader of the Tamil Congress, argued for a 50-50 allocation of seats in the legislature for the two communities before the Soulbury Commissioners, only to be countered and rejected by them with contempt. Separatism has deep roots, and it has persisted to this day. The communalist and casteist minority have dominated Tamil politics for too long. Ordinary Tamils, like ordinary Sinhalese and Muslims, are reasonable sensible people. But like minorities anywhere, they tend to yield to a siege mentality vis-a-vis the majority when misled by unscrupulous politicians. Elite Tamil politicians have managed to induce Tamil voters to look upon the Sinhalese as unreasonable rivals, not as equal partners. 

Tamils and Muslims have generally taken part in every post-independence government, with the exception of the UNP government of JRJ, when the opposition was led by the TULF; it observed a boycott of parliament for some of its term. But no government has ever totally neglected the Tamils or the Muslims. Often, they have been in kingmaking positions because of divisions among Sinhala politicians. During the Yahapalanaya, Sampanthan and Sumanthiran, while nominally being in the opposition, led some UNP ministers by the nose to the great detriment of the country. It was clear from the beginning that they were focusing on bringing in a system of confederation for Sri Lanka, with  eventual separation in view. 

While the government they controlled  initiated some development programs in the north and supplied funds,  the NPC returned those funds unutilised, as a UNP member was heard complaining recently. Even during the LTTE reign of terror, government servants of the north and east were paid by the state. The Rajapaksas started developing the north and east destroyed by the LTTE, even before the war came to a proper end. But Tamil politicians in power in the north ignored this. Basil Rajapaksa once said that a hall that had been constructed in the north by his ministry was not made use of by the Tamil authorities, deliberately depriving the Tamil public of benefits of development offered by the then central government.  The TULF leaders were at the beck and call of the terrorists. They were terrorised by Prabhakaran. It was thanks to the Rajapaksas, against whom they now show such hostility, at least publicly, that they were finally freed from that terror. Will these racist Tamil politicians and their innocent dupes give up their visceral hatred of the Sinhalese by having some school children sing the national anthem in Tamil version occasionally?

This call to sing the national anthem in Tamil is, to all intents and purposes, a hoax. The Indian national anthem in Bengali language ‘Jana gana mana adhinayaka jayahe bharata bhagya bidhata’, adapted from a poem written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911 and set to music by him was adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India on January 24, 1950. It is written in a highly Sanskritised Bengali which sounds familiar and intelligible to Sinhala speakers. The Sinhala national anthem that his pupil Samarakoon composed also uses many Sanskrit words, which, however, belong to the common vocabulary of the Sinhala language. Bengali is very close to Hindi, the most widely used language in myriad-tongued India. The 80 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu sing ‘Jana mana gana’ in their Tamil accent without any complaint. Why can’t the 3 million Tamils living so close together with the Sinhalese in little Sri Lanka sing the national anthem in Sinhala, if they have no reason to particularly dislike the Sinhalese?  The Sanskrit shlokas heard from kovils sound familiar to Buddhist ears because of the closeness between Pali and Sanskrit and Sinhala. Why can’t Tamil leaders look kindly upon ordinary Sinhalese, as ordinary Tamils always do in everyday life? In a national religious context, Hindu Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists are natural allies. This does not mean that either should spurn the friendship of others. Solidarity between these two communities is indispensable for overall national unity.  

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