Swansong of Unity: The National Anthem
of Sri Lanka NEXT>
Anthems have truly only one purpose - to instil patriotism
and nationalism in citizens at a time of need. This time
of need can range 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
where for instance, deadlines are passé and only upheld
by social pariahs who value time, is the militant fervour
with which symbols of Sinhala hegemony are protected. The
flag, the national anthem, and the constitution wherein
the status of Buddhism is enshrined - all three are inextricably
entwined in a complex dynamic that has influenced polity
and society since independence in 1948. This has led to
tragicomic situations, where even the seemingly benign news
of an official re-recording of the national anthem can result
in presidential decrees and political acrimony.
Breaking away from colonial rule in the late 1940s, the
people of Sri Lanka were kindled with patriotic fervour.
Of course, one of the first steps of any new nation-state
in the postcolonial world was to find a lyric expression
of its status of independence. After a competition, Ananda
Samarakoon's composition Namo Namo Matha was chosen as the
national anthem on 22 November 1951. The first public rendering
of the national anthem was on Independence Day, 4 February
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 recognised
as a political entity. Ordinarily the word nation is used
synonymously with country or state; however, it does imply
more than just a territory delineated by 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, something that rabid chauvinists neglect to remember.
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 the country 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 a pluralistic
society that Sri Lanka has not been able to establish. More
than amnesia in verse, Namo Namo Matha 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 the seemingly 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.
It is in Sinhala, the language of the majority. It sings
hosannas about the bounty of Sri Lanka, its beauty, its
rich harvests and a host of other peripheral and idealised
qualities, but not about its peoples.
Sri Lanka Matha,
Apa Sri Lanka
Namo Namo Namo Namo Matha.
Sundara siri bharini,
Surandi athi sobhamana Lanka
Dhanya dhanaya neka mal pala thuru piri jaya bhoomiya ramya
Apa hata sapa siri setha sadhana,
Jee vanaye Matha!
And so on… In the second stanza, the prayer to the mother
nation is (in translation):
In wisdom and strength renewed,
Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended,
In love enfolded, a mighty nation,
Marching onward, all as children of one mother,
Leads us, Mother, to fullest freedom.
There is not a single reference to the multiple ethnicities
in the island. No hint of the complex socio-political matrix
that has coloured communal relations, the richness of religions
or the multiplicity languages, a shared past. 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 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 Sinhala 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 Sinhala and were
Buddhists, and they began to promote a racist notion of
Sinhala superiority as an 'Aryan race'. After independence
it was this Sinhala-speaking group that gained control of
the new state, 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-20th 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
Sinhala, 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 Sinhala
It must be remembered that Sinhala Buddhists strongly believe
that they have a duty to protect and uphold their faith
in Sri Lanka. From the political leaders who, in the name
of preserving the supremacy of Buddhism in Sri Lanka have
deferred to the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy, that seemingly
benevolent institution so much a part of politics in Sri
Lanka) and much as they have manipulated it, to the attitude
of the Buddhist clergy, the primacy given to Buddhism has
proved inimical to the interests 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 ethno-political conflict.
Sri Lanka's national anthem is a lens for this history of
complex socio-political interactions. In 2003, the farce
continues. News of a formal re-recording of the national
anthem in December 2002 raised the heckles 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 was wondering what on earth the fuss
The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 1999,
reporting on complex humanitarian emergencies, cited 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 have experienced civil war, in those that
have, such as Sri Lanka, inequality corresponding to ethnicity
proves an especially potent destabilising force.
This observation holds 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. State institutions should reflect
it and 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.
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 Liberation Tigers
of Tamil 'Eelam' 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 differences
is crucial to the federal idea and to its realisation. 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 lasting legitimacy. A truly national anthem of Sri
Lanka must recognise this fundamental reality.
-Sanjana Hattutowa, Research Associate at the Centre for
Policy Alternatives, Colombo NEXT>