By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, January 27: The controversy over whether the Sri Lankan national anthem should be sung only in Sinhala or in both Sinhala and Tamil, is raging in the island nation, bringing out the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide again.
But such controversies are not peculiar to Sri Lanka. A perusal of the history of national anthems and national symbols across South Asia will show that similar controversies have existed in other countries of the region.
These controversies tell us about the challenges which ‘nation-building’ faces in countries which were bequeathed to the locals by European rulers. The British, French and other colonial powers had ruled territories which were carved by conquest or guile or the rulers’ convenience or a combination of these. These territories were ruled and kept united by various methods of subjugation, by the force of arms at the end of the day.
When decolonization took place after World War II, rulers in these newly independent “countries” had to make a “nation” out of the diverse peoples the Colonial powers had left in their charge. This was, and still is, a challenging task for those in power and those aspiring to get power.
What is notable is that the question of defining the Sri Lankan, Indian or Pakistani “nation” has remained. It has generated issues, some extremely divisive and some only mildly so. Governments have defined the term ‘nation’ in various ways, some of which have been accepted by all the stakeholders while others have not been. In some cases, the issue has been settled and some others it is not settled. But the overall assessment is: nation-building in South Asia is still a challenge 70 years after the British masters left, and is today at best, “work-in-progress”.
National emblems and symbols like flags and anthems are meant to reflect national unity in the midst of diversity. They signify the nation as a whole. Therefore, they are expected to reflect or represent the whole and not only some part of the nation. When a section of the people feel that a symbol does not represent the nation as a whole but only a part, there is despair and protest.
In Sri Lanka, the national flag and the anthem have been subjects of acrimony. The minority Tamils fighting for regional autonomy have been unhappy with the preeminent place given in the Lankan flag to the sword wielding lion, which is an emblem of Sinhala majority’s power. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R.Sampanthan was mauled by fellow Tamils for waving the “Lion Flag” on stage on Independence Day, as the Leader of the Opposition. After the fall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in a demonstration in support of his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the latter’s supporters waved the Lion Flag without the orange and green stripes representing the Tamils and Muslims, signifying that Sri Lanka’s national identity is Sinhala-Buddhist.
The Sri Lankan national anthem “Sri Lanka Matha” was sung both in Sinhalese and Tamil from the time of independence till the hardline President Mahinda Rajapaksa unofficially banned it. But when a minorities-backed government was formed in 2015, the ban was lifted and the Tamil version was also sung on Independence Day in 2016.
However, a month into office in December 2019, the exclusively Sinhala majority-backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa government indicated a desire to drop the official status given to the Tamil version of the anthem through Minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon. This has triggered the ire of the minority Tamils. But Sinhala nationalists point out that the Tamil version of “Sri Lanka Matha” (Sri Lanka Thaaye) has no constitutional status as per Art 7 of the constitution. Art 7 says that the national anthem of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Matha”, and that the words and music of which are set out in the Third Schedule.
But in an intervention petition in the Supreme Court filed on March 4 2016, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had argued that singing the national anthem in Tamil was constitutional. The CPA pointed to Art. 18 and 19 of the constitution to say that Sinhala and Tamil are both official and national languages of Sri Lanka. Further, the constitution contains no provision which stipulates that the Sinhala text shall prevail over the Tamil text. As such, the words and music of the national anthem in the Tamil language are constitutionally recognized by Article 7 read with the Third Schedule of the Tamil version of the constitution of Sri Lanka, the CPA said.
With media now writing for and against on the issue, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that no decision has been taken on the matter. But he hinted that in national functions in Sinhala majority areas, only the Sinhala version will be used, but in the Tamil majority areas the anthem could be sung in Tamil as was the case from 1948 till it was banned. This way, Mahinda Rajapaksa is hoping to portray himself both as a Sinhala nationalist as well as a leader tolerant of the Tamil minority.
In India, the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya Hey”, written by Rabindranath Tagore, faced controversy. Some nationalists said that Tagore had written in praise of King George V during the Delhi Durbar in 1911. But Tagore refuted the charge, saying: “Neither the Fifth nor the Sixth nor any George could be the maker of human destiny through the ages.”
Hindu nationalists wanted “Vande Mataram” by Bankim Chandra Chatterji should be the national anthem as it portrayed India a mother to be worshipped. But the secular post-independence government led by Jawaharlal Nehru felt that it could face resistance from Muslims who worship none but one God. However a compromise was struck: Tagore’s song in praise of unity in diversity was made the national anthem and “Vande Mataram” was designated as the national song singing of which was optional.
In Pakistan after independence, Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis’ demanded the inclusion of a Bengali stanza in the national anthem. But this was turned down. This was one reason for the rise of the “language movement”, which culminated in the secession of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Due to such controversies, Pakistan could finalize its anthem only in 1954, six years after independence. And at the end of it all, for the sake of neutrality, the language adopted was Persian, a non-Pakistani language.
Bangladesh adopted Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s “Amar Sonar Bangla” as its national anthem, though in the struggle for Pakistan from 1906 to 1947, Muslim Bengalis had branded Tagore as a Hindu poet with little or no interest in the life of Bengali Muslims. Furthermore, Amar Sonar Bangla” was written in 1905 in opposition to the partition of Bengal into Hindu and Muslim regions. While the Muslims wanted partition, the Hindus opposed it tooth and nail.
However, the liberation movement in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s rehabilitated Tagore among Bengalis in East Pakistan. Tagore is now one of the icons of East Bengali Muslim renaissance.
However, an anti-liberation section led by the Jamaat-e-Islami kept opposing “Amar Sonar Bangla” both on political and religious grounds. The song identifies Bengal with the Mother, and uses the term “Maa” to denote Bengal, thus indirectly alluding to the Mother Goddess and transgressing Islamic injunctions. But these objections were over-ruled since the song is mostly about the bounties and beauteousness of the Bengal countryside.
(The featured image at the top shows the one occasion on which the Tamil version of the Lankan national anthem was also sung)