Swansong of Unity: The National Anthem of Sri Lanka

Swansong of Unity: The National Anthem of Sri Lanka

It is hard to be irreverent about any national anthem. A national anthem is arguably one of the most important signposts of a country’s independent status. Anthems have truly only one purpose – to instil patriotism and nationalism in citizens during a time of need. This time of need can range anywhere from a cricket match to a rallying cry to support troops fighting for the territorial integrity of a country (which in Sri Lanka has rarely coincided with the former). In Sri Lanka, the flip side of a national lethargy (deadlines are passé, and are only upheld by social pariahs who value time) is the militant fervour with which we protect our symbols of Sinhala hegemony that populate the State – the flag, the national anthem, the constitutionally enshrined status of Buddhism – all three inextricably entwined in a complex dynamic that has influenced polity and society since independence in 1948. This has led to tragi-comic situations, where even the seemingly benign news of an official re-recording of the national anthem can result in Presidential decrees and political acrimony, but more on this later.

Breaking away from the shackles of colonial rule, the people of Sri Lanka were kindled with patriotic fervour in the late ‘40s. Of course, the first step of any new nation-state in the post-colonial world was to find a lyric expression of its new status of independence. After a competition to select a national anthem, Mr. Ananda Samarakoon’s composition “Namo Namo Matha” was chosen as the National Anthem of Sri Lanka on 22nd November 1951. The first rendering of the National Anthem was made on Independence Day February 4th, 1952 by a group of 500 students from Museus College, Colombo and was broadcast over the radio. History does not record how many people listened.

A national anthem is predicated on the existence of one pivotal element, the nation. A nation is commonly considered to be a group of people bound together by language, culture, or some other common heritage and is usually recognized as a political entity. Ordinarily the word nation is used synonymously with country or state, however, it does imply more than just the existence of boundaries. A nation could also signify a group consciousness of a shared history, race, language or system of values. Sri Lanka thinks not – its history has been coloured by the systematic and calculated repression of the aspirations of minority communities and groups. This is our national forte – a prowess only matched by the amnesia of rabid chauvinists who tend to forget this basic reality.

State symbols often celebrate and commemorate a history of cruelty, injustice, and exclusion. Strangely missing from the history of the national anthem in Sri Lanka is any recognition of a shared destiny. Although a national anthem should ideally stand for national unity, in Sri Lanka, it embodies the perverse tragedies of the past – every time it is sung it is an inadvertent recognition of the politics that have plagued this island nation for over half a century. This profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering and discrimination is couched in lyrics which stand aloof from the need to find unity in diversity – a key element of the pluralistic society that Sri Lanka has not been able to find. The national anthem more than amnesia in verse, it is a harmonious perpetuation of partisan politics that has left the country grappling with the after-effects of a protracted civil war.
Also hiding in seeming innocuous national ardour of the anthem is the pernicious evil of majoritarianism – a singular plague which in the guise of democracy has ravaged this nation’s polity and society after independence in 1948. This is an anthem that only exists in Sinhala, the language of the majority. This is an anthem which sings hosannas about the bounty of Sri Lanka, its beauty, its rich harvests et al, but not about its peoples. There is not a single reference to the complex interweaving of ethnicity in the island. No reference to the centuries of shared history, the complex socio-political matrix that has coloured communal relations, the richness of religions or the multiplicity languages other than Sinhala. Listening to the ‘national’ anthem, you could be forgiven if you believed that Sri Lanka was a mono-ethnic, Sinhala Buddhist nation-state.

However, one must also place the National Anthem in the context of post-independence politics in Sri Lanka. As they did throughout their empire, the British ruled Ceylon by creating an English-speaking elite from amongst the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Their favouritism engendered an opposition which took racial and religious overtones. The majority of those who had been left out of the elite spoke Sinhalese and were Buddhists, and they began to promote a racist notion of Sinhalese superiority as an ‘Aryan race’. After independence it was this Sinhalese-speaking group that gained control of the new state of Sri Lanka, and began to exclude Tamils from higher education, jobs and land mainly by making Sinhala the only official language. Not surprisingly, Tamils resented this discrimination. As the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has argued, the island’s violence is a late-twentieth-century response to colonial and postcolonial policies that relied on a hardened and artificial notion of ethnic boundaries.

In the 30 years from the mid-1940s, successive governments took measures to reduce the number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. These measures interacted in diverse and complex ways with a potent Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism which gradually became the animating ideology of the Sri Lankan state. Particularly among the arriviste, lower caste Sinhalese, the spread of anti-Tamil chauvinism was soon perceived as a promising means of increasing economic opportunity. As time passed, the electoral promise of pandering to this chauvinism tempted even the most cosmopolitan of Sinhalese politicians.

It must be remembered, however, that Sinhala Buddhists strongly believe that they have a duty to protect and uphold their faith in Sri Lanka. From the tinnitus of political leaders who, in the name of preserving the hegemony of Buddhism in Sri Lanka have deferred to the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy, that seeming benevolent institution so much a part of politics in Sri Lanka) and much as they have manipulated them, to the attitude of the Buddhist clergy, the primacy given to Buddhism has proved inimical to the interests and aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This Sinhala-Buddhist mentality, which has informed and shaped post-independence politics in Sri Lanka, has engendered intolerance in polity and society and carries a large burden of responsibility for the current ethno-politic conflict.

Sri Lanka’s national anthem is a result of these complex socio-political interactions. In 2003, the farce continues. News that a formal re-recording of the national anthem in December 2002 raised the heckles and moral indignation of the ancienne regime – after all, how on earth could Sri Lanka even contemplate a re-recording without expecting a political imbroglio? The Minister in charge pleaded ignorance, the President warned the Prime Minister against hasty decisions, the singers said they had faithfully kept to the original tune and lyrics and the general public were wondering what on earth the fuss was about. To ignore the perverse nature of polity and society in Sri Lanka is to miss out on much of the tragi-comic events that collectively govern our great nation.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reporting on complex humanitarian emergencies, cites a study by the United Nations University that found a positive relationship between war and inequality among domestic social groups. More than simple poverty, it is this inequality, which the weak state is unable or unwilling to manage, that breeds conflict. Although not all poor states with high levels of inequality experience civil war, in those that have, inequality corresponding to ethnicity proves an especially potent destabilizing force.

This observation hold valuable lessons for Sri Lanka, for it is a country of multiple identities and multiple ethnicities. This ethnic diversity is something to be celebrated, not shunned or repressed. A celebration of diversity is a harbinger of national unity. State Institutions should reflect this diversity, encourage it along with the need to cohabit peacefully and to appreciate the concerns and aspirations of each community. Sri Lanka has much to lose if the present peace process breaks down. An indifference to historical antecedents, the international context and the legitimate aspirations of all communities could irrevocably plunge Sri Lanka into a vortex of bitterness, mistrust, mutual acrimony and violence from which there could very well be no return. We must also remember that a negotiated agreement or a peace process that addresses the symptoms of violent conflict must include provisions for future processes towards institution-building and societal transformation if they are to be sustainable. A true expression of the volksgeist of a nation not only depends on a celebration of its linguistic diversity, but also an acknowledgement of its multi-ethnic fabric.

A commitment by both the Government and the LTTE to the creation of a federal Sri Lanka was welcomed amidst great fanfare late last year. A culture of rights, respect and the honourable accommodation of difference is crucial to the federal idea and to its realization. Indeed, they constitute the source of its coherence and the seminal elements of its success. It has to be a new social contract, a covenant – the Latin word from which the term federalism is coined – if it is to have the legitimacy necessary for liberation and longevity. The vision for a truly national anthem of Sri Lanka must recognise this fundamental reality, for without it there can never be any hope of a sustainable peace to this war ravaged nation.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
Research Associate
Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)

– ENDS –

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