Sri Lankan National Anthem: can it be used to narrow the gap?

Published : 11:34 am  March 30, 2015 | No comments so far |  | 


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A National Anthem is a generally patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions and struggles of all its citizen, recognized either by a nation’s government as the official national song or by convention through use by people.

The singing of the National Anthem is a custom in every function from the Olympics to a normal gathering. The recent proposal by President Sirisena which allows singing of the National Anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages has raised many concerns over certain groups. Therefore, the Daily Mirror spoke to a few individuals to consult their opinions with regard to this ‘controversial’ proposal while taking a look at its history and other countries with multiple official languages and their National Anthems.

The history of ‘Namo Namo Matha’

The Sri Lankan National Anthem composed by Ananda Samarakoon was originally written by Rabindranath Tagore who was his teacher. The song which was written in Bengali language was then translated to Sinhala. In 1950, the then Minister of Finance, J.R. Jayawardene appointed a committee to choose a new National Anthem. After listening to several songs the committee picked ‘Namo Namo Matha’ and the committee’s decision was endorsed by the government on November 22, 1951. The anthem was translated into Tamil language by M. Nallathamby and was sung for the first time at the Independence Day in 1952.

Countries with translated National Anthems

National Anthems are usually written in the most common language of the state, whether de facto or official. For example, India’s anthem “Jana Gana Mana” is written in Sanskrit version of Bengali, where Sanskrit and Bengali are both official languages of India. States with multiple official languages may offer several versions of their anthem. Following are a list of countries with the different languages they sing their National Anthem.

  • Switzerland – French,   German, Italian and Romansch
  • Cameroon – French and   English
  • New Zealand – English and Māori version
  • South Africa – Xhosa, Zulu,   Sesotho, Afrikaans and English
  • Canada – French and   English
  • Ireland – English and   Irish

The National Anthem is a song that is sung with pride; irrespective of language, it highlights a patriotic meaning that is unique to every country. Lifting an unofficial ban which existed during the Rajapaksa regime, President Maithripala Sirisena announced his decision to lift the language bar when singing the National Anthem. However, several organizations, politicians and the general public hold certain views with regard to this decision.

We should not force the Tamil population to sing the anthem in Sinhala
Suhada Gamalath

“I don’t know why this should be an issue, as far as I am concerned, there are a lot of countries where their National Anthem is sung in different languages,” said Solicitor General Suhada Gamalath when Daily Mirror asked about his views about the issue.
“A good example is Switzerland. It is a very peaceful and a well developed country, and as an emerging democracy we can learn a lot from them. In the areas where more German population live, the National Anthem is sung in Deutsche, while in the provinces there are predominantly French, it is sung in French. Where there is Dutch community they sing in Dutch, and Italians sing it in Italian, and in areas where there are predominantly Swiss, they sing it in their Suisse.
So there are four versions sung in different languages. That is one great way of keeping the unity and every community feel that they belong to that land. That is exactly what we should do in this country. If Swiss can do, why shouldn’t we allow the Tamil community to sing it in their own language? Because what they are singing is the exact translation of the Sinhala version that you find in the Constitution. They sing it in Tamil and the melody too is exactly the same. It is the same song but they sing it in the language they understand.
There is a large community of Tamils in this country who don’t speak a single word in Sinhala. Are we going to force them to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala? And if so, it is a terrible thing to do. In the meantime, if you want this community to feel that they belong to this land, you must allow them to sing it in their own language. We should not allow this kind of nonsense to go on,”.
In South Africa, there are six predominant tribes and each tribe sings their National Anthem in their own vernacular. This is the same language but exact translation into six different tribal languages. That is how they keep the country together and that is how they make the people feel that they belong to that land. If you are going against separation, you must make the Tamil community feel that they too belong to Sri Lanka.
So, I would like to quote the Swiss as an example, and to find out how they do it during national events in Zurich or elsewhere in Switzerland. Then what they do is, they don’t play the National Anthem with vocals but only the melody, where the spectators and participants make their choice to sing it in their own language. So there are no issues and we too can adopt the similar way.  When the Daily Mirror asked Mr. Gamalath about the argument that a constitutional change with a referendum is required for the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil, he said that we should not make a big fuss about an issue like this.  Whether you should go for a referendum for a matter like this, it is quite simple. These are not big or serious issues. If you want to make a big hue and cry over something that has less importance, we are going backwards.
The Entire Indians don’t sing their National Anthem in Hindi. They sing it in a different language. Pandit Rabindranath Tagore composed it in Bengali, but they never made it an issue. If you want the Tamils to integrate themselves to this country, and to make a country very much that belongs to them, you must allow them to sing the National Anthem in Tamil.
We, as a Buddhist country, must read Vasettha Sutta in Middle-length Discourse, Middle discourse or Majjhima Nikaya as preached by the Buddha to young intellectual student Vasettha who visited him. That has all the clues to this question. What is implicit in that fact that it should not be sung in Tamil is a terrible racism.
On the other hand, having a National Anthem in one language was introduced by the British. The British National Anthem can be sung in English but as the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English -  all use English as their common language.
Disregarding the fact that there was a large Tamil community around the country who speak only Tamil, the anthem was made in Sinhala.  This is entirely a colonial influence and we have to get rid of this practice.
Besides ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ is written by one of the greatest Sinhala scholars with a beautiful classical Sinhala language. But, I bet there are many Sinhalese who do not understand some words in our National Anthem. Would all Sri Lankans understand “Obawe Anuprane” and a number of other words we come across in the anthem. At this backdrop, is it fair to ask Tamils to sing the National Anthem with all these classical Sinhala?
I think this government has done a wonderful thing to allow the Tamils to sing the anthem in their own language, and the whole nation must fall line with this, if we want to make this a multiracial society.


The national anthem should be sung in Sinhala at all national festivals
Champika Ranawaka


Speaking about this issue, Minister of Power and Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka said, “Nobody can change the National Anthem. It is an item in the constitution which can only be changed through a referendum. Therefore, in every national festival, the National Anthem should be sung in Sinhala. But if it is a region where the majority of people don’t understand Sinhala, there is no problem in singing in Tamil after it was sung in Sinhala. For example, if we take the National flag, it is also included in the constitution and is being hoisted first. At district level there is no major issue if the National Anthem is sung in Tamil because its meaning should be conveyed.”

There needs to be one song for unity:
Vasudeva Nanayakkara


Former Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakkara said, “We all should have one song that could be sung. The constitution states that the National Anthem should be sung in Sinhala. I made a proposal to include a Tamil version to the original Anthem but it went unheard. The early kingdoms in ancient Ceylon didn’t have different Anthems. It was only after we gained Independence we did sing National Anthem.”

Views of the academic
Prof. Swaminathan Vimal


Acknowledging the Daily Mirror, the Senior Sinhala lecturer in Jaffna University, Prof. Swaminathan Vimal said that it was not a recent decision that was made by the government to sing the National Anthem in Tamil, already there is the translated version in Tamil and it was done by the author Nallathambi. He said that earlier people had sung the National Anthem in Tamil, during state occasions, but as result of the war, the government had to halt it for a while. But now our country is free from war. He noted that during the past, the National Anthem that was translated into Tamil was incorporated into school text books as well.
He said that singing the National Anthem in Tamil could benefit the Tamil people to understand the Sinahala meaning, and it is not important to sing in Tamil. If people want, they could sing it in Sinahala as usual. Now the government is going to remove the ban that was imposed years ago because of the war and this decision is not an ethnic issue.
He said that singing the National Anthem in Tamil is not a problem but it is a problem for the people who are trying to spread racism within the country. He voiced that now the government would lift that ban and again people could sing the National Anthem in Tamil if they wished to.


Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa

The senior lecturer in the Colombo University, Dr. Sandagomi Coperahewa said that National Anthem is a national symbol and it is not an ethnic symbol, and most of the countries have the National Anthem in its common language. For example, the Indian National Anthem was written by the highly Sanskrit Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore and until now their National Anthem is in Bengali, where there are more than sixteen official languages in India.
He voiced that in Sri Lanka, already there is a Tamil translated version of the National Anthem but official National Anthem should be in Sinhala. Only in 1987, the Tamil language became national language after the 13th amendment, but before that we sang the National Anthem only in Sinhala, he added. He questioned that whether there are more national symbols such as the national flag, national bird, national flower, but we could not change those, as they are national values that belong to everyone.
He uttered that there is no harm having a Tamil translated version of the National Anthem to learn the Sinhala meaning, but during official and State occasions, the National Anthem should be sing in Sinhala.
He said in the 1978 constitution, the official lyrics are in Sinhala and constitutionally it is recognized as “Sri Lanka Matha”, so official National Anthem should be in Sinhala. He uttered that the National Anthem should be a national symbol not an ethnic symbol.