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Saturday March 2nd, 2024

The language of the national anthem

I was in grade seven when I joined the Scout Association of my school. Scouts have a list of tasks to complete. When you complete them successfully, you get various badges and promotions. One of the very first tasks in my school was to sing the national anthem by yourself. The seniors told us we could do it on the first day itself.

Every year, before covering them with brown paper, I had a habit of reading the national anthem printed on the back cover of the right-off-the-press textbooks. I had also sung it aloud many times with fellow schoolmates to the music played by our school band. “How hard can it be?” I thought. So I signed up to perform it, along with a few other novice scouts.

Standing at attention inside an empty after-school classroom, I had to sing the anthem in front of two senior scouts. I had not sung any song alone in front of outsiders, let alone the national anthem. It was my turn. “Sri Lanka Matha Apa Sri Lanka…” I quickly realised that it was difficult to keep to the tune. You don’t have the same confidence that you do when singing with a group, with music.

Sundara siri barini…,” I managed to complete the first verse. More than singing, my mind was now desperately trying to recall the next words. So you forget the words you actually remember. “This song is way too long,” I thought.

Oba ve apa vidya…” Halfway through the second verse, like an unplanned power cut on a midsummer night, my mind just stopped. Everything went silent. I felt all the blood from my lower body gushing to my face. “Oba… Oba.. Apa… Apa…” The words just wouldn’t come. I could see the mocking faces of the seniors through my hazy eyes. “Try again next week.” My head turned down in shame.

That night at home I sang the national anthem over and over ever so loudly until I learned it by heart, mind and soul. I wonder how many ladies and gentleman who brag about the national anthem these days could actually sing it by themselves without the music.

Namo Namo Matha

The national anthem used today was written by the eminent musician Ananda Samarakoon (1911-62). However, it is believed that the song was originally composed by his master the great Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Whichever it may be, there is no doubt that the “Gurudev” must have had some creative influence on his favourite Ceylonese student in composing the song.

The national anthems of India and Bangladesh were also composed by Tagore. It is fascinating that Sri Lanka’s national anthem is connected with the modern West Bengal, the area from which the historical Arya Sinhala people originated, and that it is connected with Bengali and Sinhala, two Indo-Aryan languages that evolved in parallel.

The patriotic song was then called Namo Namo Matha and was first sung by the students of Mahinda College where Samarakoon taught music. It had become a popular song by the late 1940s thanks to the radio. As Ceylon was getting ready to change from a colony of the British empire into a Dominion of the Empire (as opposed to a Free State) there came the need for a national anthem.

The ‘Lanka Gandhrarva Sabha’ had held a contest to select a national anthem for the Dominion. Although Samarakoon’s Namo Namo Matha was also an entry, the winning song was Sri Lanka Matha – Pala Yasa Mahima. But soon the decision was challenged because P B Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisingha, the cowriters of the song, were also members of the jury.

As our good fellows were going at each other, the Dominion Ceylon was formed on 4 February 1948 with the singing of Britain’s national anthem God Save the King and it continued to be the anthem for another four years. People were fighting over songs even back then as they do today. The only difference is that back then both songs were written in the Sinhala language.

Nevertheless, both songs and their Tamil translations were sung as “national songs” in 1949 at the first Independence Commemoration*. (Note that the Sinhala word used for Independence was Nidahas. But the correct word should be Svadheenathva. Nidahasa means ‘freedom’. We became a free, sovereign, independent republic only on 22 May 1972. Even the use of the word ‘Independence’ is debatable as no such status was granted by the British. This is one of the biggest historical scams created by the UNP.

JR’s long con

J R Jayawardane (1906-96) is the most evil politician in our recent history. He cleverly continued the British strategy of separating the Sinhala and Tamil people and escalated it into a full-blown bloody war which would run for another 25 years ignited by his infamous 1983 Black July. An entire book can be written on his Machiavellian strategies; but it scares me to even think about JR’s unscrupulous long cons and diabolical tactics.

In 1950, as the then Finance Minister, JR proposed to pick one official song as the national anthem. He was also the man tasked with the making of the national flag which would lead to another conflict. JR had been meticulously working to manufacture his future political enemy which he thought would be necessary to finally take the throne.

So a committee was appointed again to select an anthem. Out of several songs, Samarakoon’s Namo Namo Matha was chosen with JR’s influence. The Tamil translation of the song was previously done by an award-winning Tamil poet M Nallathambi (1896 – 1951) who had worked at Zahira College as a teacher.

Both Samarakoon and Nallathambi being teachers, Samarakoon being a baptised Christian who later converted as a follower of Buddha Dharma, and Nallathambi being a teacher at a Muslim school are all humbling coincidences.

Thus Namo Namo Matha was sung as the official national anthem of the Dominion of Ceylon for the first time in 1952. I could not find any information whether the Tamil translation was also sung at the state ceremony. If JR’s scheme was in motion, then they would not have sung it.

Sri Lanka Matha

That same year, then Prime Minister D S Senanayake died after falling from his horse at the Galle Face Green. From the beginning, S W R D Bandaranaike was the scapegoat used by DS and JR in their political power play. Bandaranaike was the “snowball” to JR the “Napoleon”. After branding him the icon of Sinhala nationalism, driving him to bring the 1956 Official Language Act (for which the UNP voted), and then violently objecting to Bandaranaike’s attempt to rectify his mistake through the Banda-Chelva Pact, JR and R Premadasa successfully created the first Sinhala-Tamil riots.

V Prabhakaran, who was to become the leader of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisations, as a young boy had experienced the 1958 riots against Tamils. An experience that would shape his future political ideology. The repercussions of our actions can only be seen in the future, and they return a million times stronger. Like today, there were loudmouthed bozos whose stupid actions led to the destruction of an entire generation of the republic.

In 1959, a monk named Talduve Somarama assassinated Prime Minister Bandaranaike by shooting him point-blank repeatedly with a revolver screaming “country, nation, religion”. As the Dominion Ceylon was failing miserably, some pundits claimed that the cause for this misfortune was the unlucky composition of the national anthem.

So the first couple of words “Namo Namo Matha” was officially changed to “Sri Lanka Matha” in 1961. Ananda Samarakoon protested against the mutilation of his beloved creation. But he had no authority because all rights of the song had already been bought for Rs 2,500 by the Government. As a result, Samarakoon killed himself in 1962 by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Such is the tragic history of our current national anthem. It is really one of the political power tools created by the United National Party. Any rational human being who has an understanding of these facts would never support the UNP nor continue to fall prey to the national anthem’s divisive purpose.

The first birth of the republic

Anyhow, after 24 years of failed experiments of nation-building since the making of the Dominion, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, along with the only true progressive leftists of this land, finally created the Republic of Sri Lanka on 22 May 1972, by constitutionally conferring and equally sharing the Sovereignty of the State among the citizens of all nationalities, amid protests by JR and his UNP. But it was 25 years too late.

If only they had constitutionalised both Sinhala and Tamil languages as official languages at the same time, the history of Sri Lanka would be written very differently. I don’t know why they passed on that wonderful opportunity. When the Republic was just starting to crawl on its knees, the citizens wanted to eat Moon rice and gave a five sixth dictatorial power to JR and kicked Sirimavo out. The republic was overtaken by JR’s National State.

JR’s “National” State

JR constitutionalised the national anthem in his 1978 constitution. It’s etched in the 7th article (and 3rd schedule). It’s a brilliant tactic — because articles 1 to 11, (except the 4th and 5th) can only be changed through a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament and through a referendum, as restricted by article 83 and the connected.

(The 4th article defines the basic structure of State through the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, while the 5th article defines the geographical territory of the republic. Both of which do not need a referendum to change — JR’s dangerous genius.)

Both Sinhala and Tamil were constitutionalised as “national languages” by JR. But he cleverly kept Sinhala as the Official Language. What he did there was, constitutionally establish the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities based on language, and raise Sinhala nationality higher than the Tamil nationality. That’s the outrageous action when racism (or nationalism) which was unwritten until then was constitutionalised. It was JR who systematically and deliberately pushed the Tamil citizens to separatism.

JR finally received his much-needed political enemy in 1983 with his operation Black July. The poison he was fermenting for decades finally was overflowing the cauldron. It spilled over the republic, burning everything it touched. JR and the UNP destroyed the childhood and youth of the millennials born in the ’80s and ’90s, including mine.

Since we are talking about songs, the famous lyrics by Daughtry “be careful what you wish for, ‘cos you just might get it all and then some you don’t want” comes to mind. JR’s war became unmanageable. In a desperate attempt at damage control, in 1987, he brought in the 13th amendment under the instructions of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Republic was divided into nine quasi-federal states. Ironically, it was JR who finally brought the inevitable solution to the root cause of the issue. He made Tamil an official language in Sri Lanka. Surely he must’ve done it with reservation. But with that single move, he yet again managed to emerge as the good guy.

It should’ve been done in 1948; it should’ve been done in 1956; it should’ve been done in 1958; it should’ve been done in 1972; it should’ve been done in 1978. It’s a cruel sport of destiny that it had to be JR, the man who vehemently opposed it, finally had to do it. But it was still 38 years too late. JR’s war burned for another 25 years.

One must think a thousand times before starting something evil. Those who are shouting these days to win the racist (a.k.a. nationalist) votes just to get into Parliament are no different from JR.

Anthems in the constitution

In the Sinhala version of the 7th constitution, it is written that “The national anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be ‘Sri Lanka Matha’, the words and music of which are set out in the third schedule.” And in the third schedule, you find the handwritten musical composition along with the Sinhala version of the anthem.

In the Tamil version of the 7th constitution, it is written that “The national anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be ‘Sri Lanka Thaye’, the words and music of which are set out in the third schedule.” And in the third schedule, you find the same musical composition along with the Tamil translation of the anthem.

Since Sinhala and Tamil languages are both constitutionally “national” languages, and since they are both constitutionally “official” languages, and since they are synonymous in lyrical meaning, and since they are sung in the identical musical composition there is absolutely no rational reason to not sing the Tamil translation of the anthem at official events of the State. And because the anthem is only meaningful when the singer understands the words, it should be allowed to be sung in their preferred language.

But then you have the racists (aka nationalists) who cannot stand the Tamil speaking citizens of the Republic singing the constitutional National anthem in Tamil language. Although they conveniently call themselves “nationalists”, they are more like JR’s kids. They make various arguments to cover their bigotry. And I will debunk their main arguments below:

– India’s national anthem

JR’s kids argue that although Indians speak many languages they all sing only one national anthem. It’s a half-truth. In modern-day India, there is an official national anthem and an official national song. The anthem Jana Gana Mana was written by Tagore in Sanskrit-Bangali. Their national song is the more popular Vande Matharam. It too was originally written in Bengali but is now sung in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu etc.

But more importantly, the comparison to India is a false equivalence fallacy. Sri Lanka should be compared to the Bharatha before it was separated into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bharatha, after its surgical separation from the British Empire, did not remain as a unitary state the way Sri Lanka did. The Muslims who spoke Urdu separated through a river of blood and created Pakistan. If that did not happen, then Indians too would be singing the national anthem in both Bengali and Urdu.

– Language of the majority

JR’s kids also argue that the anthem should be sung in the language spoken by the majority of citizens. But then to use their Indian example, the Bengali language in which Jana Gana Mana is written and sung is spoken only by 8% of the Indians. The Malay language in which the anthem of Singapore is sung is spoken only by 10% of Singaporeans. JR’s kids contradict themselves.

Thus their argument fails to stand. It is really a majoritarian attempt to subjugate others. If we accept their claim then, in the near future, if not already, the language spoken by a majority of citizens will be English, as all Sri Lankan children, be they Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, are becoming increasingly fluent in English. Does that mean we should sing the anthem in the English language?

Besides, different states of India have their own official songs. For example, Thamil Thaye Valudu is the song of the state of Tamil Nadu. They sing it at the start of every state function and end with the Jana Gana Mana anthem.

Are JR’s kids agreeable to singing different official songs in each of our provinces? Are they happy to make a national song which will be sung in Tamil as well? The Indian anthem recognises their historical kingdoms “Panjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Marat, Dravida, Uthkal, Bengal” in its lyrics itself. They celebrate their diversity. That’s why India is able to sing one national anthem.

– Anthems for other states

No state (country) can be compared with another state. Each state has been shaped by their unique history. Their status quo and future aspirations vastly differ from each other. New Zealand and Denmark have dual national anthems. Finland, Switzerland and many other states sing their anthem in more than one language. The Canadian anthem has two languages in one. South Africans sing verses of five different languages in their anthem. Spain’s anthem has no words at all but only the music.

Sri Lanka should decide our national anthem and how we sing it based on Sri Lanka’s history, status quo and future aspirations, and not based on what some other country is doing or not doing. Sri Lanka is a state where two nationalities are having a centuries-old conflict. That’s a fact. The only people who want to take that conflict into the future are those arrogant JR’s kids and the separatists they spawn.

– Singing in Arabic

JR’s kids then argue that if we “allow” (notice the superiority complex) to sing the anthem in Tamil language, soon we will have to allow it to be sung in Arabic too because of the Muslims. This is a slippery slope fallacy that is mostly driven by their Islamophobia.

In the republic, there is no official or national language other than Sinhala or Tamil. If the state actually comes to the stage where the anthem will have to be sung in Arabic, then we will have far worse political issues to worry about than the anthem. Therefore it is fallacious to prohibit the singing of constitutional national anthem in Tamil language based on hypothetical scenarios.

Calling to sing the anthem only in Sinhala is fodder to the Sampanthans, the Sumanthirans, the Wigneswarans and Sivajilingams. It is evidence for them to claim that the Sinhala people are subjugating the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. That’s why they actually like the UNP and those kids of JR. They need those loud-mouthed racists (a.k.a. nationalists) for their survival. That’s why the Tamil political elites still crawl back to the UNP’s lap after every time the UNP betrays the Tamil people.

The scout

A few years back, I was invited to host a conference in Colombo. There were a minister, some foreign delegates and many entrepreneurs in the audience. I asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.

The usual practice is to wait for the recorded anthem to start playing. Almost always, there is a technical delay. But this time the delay was unusually long. For close to one minute I could see the AV technicians struggling to play the song. The audience was getting anxious. That minister and the front row delegates were staring at me.

I could not bear it any longer. I got on to the podium and said, “The national anthem is supposed to be sung. So please join me, everybody,” and started singing. There I was, 20 years later, once again in front of an audience singing the anthem, without the music, by myself. That, too, in front of a microphone! But that day I did not forget the lyrics. The words which I learned by heart, two decades ago flowed so proudly. The audience sang the entire anthem with me.

Language of the national anthem

My mother language is Sinhala. I love the Sinhala language. Sinhala is the language I use to understand the world, and to make the world understand me. I think in Sinhala. I cry in Sinhala, I love in Sinhala. Sinhala language forms the socio-cultural, national identity which I have acquired from birth. Similarly, Tamil language is special to the Tamil person. It forms their social-cultural national identity which they have acquired from their birth. Which is why they are called national languages.

I don’t sing the anthem merely because it is the “national” anthem. I’m anyway indifferent to the non-existent, unreasonable, artificial “nation(al) state”. I sing the anthem because its words have beautiful meaning. When those meaningful words are sung loudly my heart is filled with pride. I don’t sing it for others. I sing it for myself. The deep inspiration I gain by singing it is very personal to me.

But if I didn’t know the meaning of the words, I would not experience any of the above. It’s like how some devotees chant Pali sutras without knowing the meaning of the words; empty. Forcing the Tamil or Muslim citizens who do not speak Sinhala to sing in Sinhala is the same; empty. When they sing it in a language they understand, they will experience everything I experience. They will feel the same sense of pride. They will feel the same inspiration. Thus the purpose of the anthem will be fulfilled.

Factually, there are no two national anthems anyway. It’s only one song. It was probably originally written in Sanskrit-Bangali, then translated into Sinhala and then into Tamil. ‘The Mother’ by Gorky is still ‘The Mother’ irrespective of the language you read it in. The colour red is still the same in any language. The message in the Bible is still the same no matter which translation you read.

An anthem is meant to be sung. Not to just listen and move your lips as another group sings or while a recorded version is played. Therefore let us all actually “sing” the anthem. Play the music only and let the citizens sing their anthem in their preferred language. Then you will wonder if you actually know the words. And if you don’t, you will at least make an effort to learn it. Then you will understand the meaning of the words. And perhaps then, at least some of you will realise that there is no language to any song.


Editor’s note: The above is an opinion piece penned by author and public speaker Eranda Ginige, with some light copy-editing. The views expressed are his own.

Originally published on the author’s blog, available at this link.

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