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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 74

ICC World Cup: Sri Lankan Cricketers can unify the Nation by singing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The game of cricket has been the greatest unifying symbol for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities, before, during and after the armed conflict with the LTTE. It is played in every nook and corner of the country and there are no barriers as to who plays with whom in whatever nook it is played.

However, in Australia and other countries with a large population of Sri Lankan Tamils, the periodic attacks against the Tamils in Sri Lanka culminating in the despicable pogrom in 1983, witnessed the unfortunate polarisation of the Australian Sinhala and Tamil communities with hardly any community level contacts between them except at personal levels.

Many in Australia feel that a spark is needed to bring the two communities closer so that they can have a dialogue about each other’s problems and points of view, and through a better understanding of these, end whatever enmity and mistrust between them and jointly advocate a mutually acceptable solution to the national question in Sri Lanka.

As it is well known, the power of the Diaspora, whether it is the Sinhala Diaspora or the Tamil Diaspora or the Muslim Diaspora is, and has been significant. This power, should it be galvanised to become the voice of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, rather than the voices of groups divided on ethnic lines, and can be far more powerful and has the potential to influence a solution to the Sri Lankan national question.

A community advocacy organisation in Sydney, the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum, Sydney, (SLRF), has initiated a spark that could well be the catalyst to bring the Australian Sinhala and Tamil communities closer through the great unifier, Cricket.

The Reconciliation Forum has advocated the recognition of the Tamil language in the National Anthem, by singing alternate verses in Sinhala and Tamil during the ICC World Cup matches. They have urged the national cricket team to take the lead in doing this, so that all cricket enthusiasts can follow their lead and rally more meaningfully round a national symbol like the National Anthem.

No one underestimates the divisions and issues that separate the two communities and no one expects this symbolic act to erase the divisions that exist, certainly not overnight. However, many in both communities consider that a symbolic step as advocated by the SLRF might go a long way to break the ice, so to speak, and open the way for a dialogue between the two communities and end the polarisation amongst people of Sri Lankan origin in Australia.

The difficulties of such a move cannot be underestimated as it will not be an easy one to take, for the Cricket team. There is no doubt they will have to contend with those who have genuine concerns arising from the constitutionality of the issue, and precedents, and also contend with detractors who feel the Anthem has to be sung in Sinhala only as it is the language of the majority.

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.

It may however be interpreted 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.

The 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.

The Sri Lankan cricketers therefore would not be doing anything unconstitutional and would be taking the leadership in renewing a tradition for the sake of unity and reconciliation. Sri Lankan cricket legends like Muttiah Muralidaran, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena, Russel Arnold, just to name a few, have already begun projects like the Foundation for Goodness to bring about greater unity amongst different ethnicities in Sri Lanka. Taking the leadership to rally as many as possible around a bilingual National Anthem would only be a natural evolution of their efforts towards ushering greater unity amongst all Sri Lankans.

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.
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 below) “the 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. DBS Jeyaraj traces the evolution of the present day Anthem in his article National Anthem: From “Namo Namo” to “Sri Lanka Matha” (31st December 2010- see link below). 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 JR 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 EAP 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.

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 -17th 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.

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.

Hopefully the Sri Lankan cricket team participating in the ICC World Cup will do something magical by taking the lead in singing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil on their way to winning the cup for the second time, an equally magical experience for them and the entire Nation.

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. It is in this context that the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum, Sydney, had decided to take a lead in making the National Anthem a bilingual one, and making it more representative of all citizens of Sri Lanka who either speak Sinhala or Tamil or both.

Bilingual version of the Sri Lankan National Anthem
National Anthem: From “Namo Namo” to “Sri Lanka Matha” – DBS Jeyaraj (31st December 2010) The Hindu – 18th May 2011

- Asian Tribune -

ICC World Cup: Sri Lankan Cricketers can unify the Nation by singing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil
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