According to a recent newspaper report, Sri Lankan national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala during the 72nd Independence Day celebrations. This news created an emotional stir not only among Tamils in the North but also among right-minded citizens in the South.
Speaking at a media briefing recently, Parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila said the singing of the national anthem in Tamil at state events is a violation of the Constitution. He added that Article 7 of the Constitution clearly states that the national anthem must be sung in Sinhala only.
In February 2016, three people filed a Petition in the Supreme Court challenging the decision to sing the National Anthem of Sri Lanka in Tamil at the official Independence Day celebrations in 2016. They argued that singing the Anthem in Tamil was contradictory to Articles 7 and 12 of the Sri Lankan Constitution.
The Supreme Court took up the case in November 2016 and during the discussions the Deputy Solicitor General referred to Articles 18 and 19 of the Constitution recognizing both Sinhala and Tamil as the official and national languages of Sri Lanka, and therefore the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil was not in violation of the Constitution. The Court therefore decided that the Petitioners had not disclosed a case to be considered, and their petition was dismissed.
In such a circumstance, why this issue had to resurface all of a sudden three years after Supreme Court decision is anybody’s guess. In my personal opinion, this is another classic example of how ill-advised and misguided Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism threatens the national unity, harmony and reconciliation.
Hegel once wrote: “History teaches that history teaches men nothing.” His statement is quite applicable to Sri Lanka. Despite 30 years of vicious ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka’s political, civic, and religious leaders have failed (or refused) to understand that some of their uttering and actions have engendered our national harmony and reconciliation. We still could not realise that the cancer which had polluted Sri Lanka’s political life since mid-1950s is nothing but “ethno-religious outbidding.” It was the auction-like process whereby both Southern and Northern politicians strive to outdo one another by playing on their majority community’s racial and religious fears and ambitions.
By some blessings, we still manage to maintain the rule of law, free and fair elections; and the freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. These are the essentials of true constitutional liberalism. In Sri Lanka, however, misguided or malicious leaders have used these democratic mainstays to perpetrate ethnic and religious conflict and gain political advantage.
As Arend Lajpat, Dutch political scientist specializing in comparative politics has said: “In most deeply divided poly-ethnic and poly-religious societies, majority rule spells majority dictatorship and civil strife rather than democracy. Consequently, what such societies need is a democratic regime that emphasizes consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather than excludes.”
"With the dawn of Independence, Buddhist priests wanted Buddhism and Sinhala language to be given their “due” places in the constitution. They openly entered the political arena and allied themselves with parties that had substantial promise of securing, political authority"
Is there any possibility, even at this late stage, for us to create a democratic regime minus ethno-religious nationalism? To seek the answer let us go back and search for the root causes of such nationalism.
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is not a new experience. It is as old as over 2100 years, when Dutugemunu reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC.This king is treated as the most potent symbol of Sinhalese historical power. For the writer of Mahavamsa,Dutugemunu was the hero-king of Sinhala Buddhism. The Mahavamsa had devoted six chapters out of 35 to write about the activities of king Dutugemunu and his battles and his religious zeal.
He fought against aged King Elara. Even Mahavamsa says Elara was a wise and just monarch. But he was a member of the Tamil Chola dynasty. Dutugemunu defeated him and unified the whole country as a centralised Sinhala Buddhist kingdom, with the support of the Maha Sangha.
Dutugemunu’s accomplishment, according to Mahavamsa, is the eviction of a hostile foreign power and the unification of the island’s sole nation – the Sinhala Buddhist nation. With that historical event, the concept of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was born. Throughout the history, the same spirit continued. Buddhist priests became the kingmakers.
Emergence of Bhikkhu groups
With the dawn of Independence, Buddhist priests wanted Buddhism and Sinhala language to be given their “due” places in the constitution. They openly entered the political arena and allied themselves with parties that had substantial promise of securing, political authority. They were backed by a large number of lay supporters.
As time went by, powerful monk groups emerged who were concerned with protecting their own agenda and civic and political rights, as well as ensuring the furtherance of Sinhala and Buddhism. Behind them were certain political leaders.
However, their utopia did not synchronise with the actual demographics of the country resulting in continued internal and external conflicts. The country paid a very high price for this ignorance, including 30-year
disastrous civil war.
This type of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is self-aggrandizing. It pits itself against reason, logic and truth. It conceives of Sri Lanka as a quintessentially traditional society belonging to Sinhala Buddhists.
It demands total, blind, loyalty to the concept of a “Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka”.”Others” can be accommodated on its fringes. But that is because Sinhala Buddhists are tolerant, but not because Sri Lanka is plural.The “others”are the successors of invaders or migrants.
This is precisely the kind of nationalism that Rabindranath Tagore described as a “great menace”. Talking about India’s racial and religious confrontations, he said: “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles”. It is evident in India, even today.
There is no point in arguing who are responsible in the continuation of ethno-religious nationalism or who should be blamed most. We know the answers. However, few characters drop into the mind: irresponsible religious leaders and their organisations, opportunistic politicians, print and TV media, social media and many others. There is no possibility to say one is better than the other. All types of nationalism are detrimental to a country’s peace and progress. The only exception can be the fact that numerically minority communities do have more disadvantages than a majority community in general because of the numbers and political power. This has to be recognized.
When talking about extremist nationalism, one cannot avoid the famous quotation by George Orwell, journalist and critic, who said that nationalism -whatever form - is ‘the worst enemy of peace’. According to him, nationalism is a feeling that one’s race or religion is superior to another in all respects, while patriotism is the quality of being devoted to, and vigorous support for one’s country no matter whatever religions or races it consist of.
Emmanuel Macron, the French President speaking at World War I memorial, claimed the rise of ultra-nationalism in whatever form anywhere was “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death. Instead, patriotism, he claims, is a defence of “moral values” that will help uphold the peace of a country and the world. Many global observers seemed to side with Macron.
The question, however, is how to forge patriotism in the future among the citizens while recognizing ethnic identities and their separate interests which are not detrimental to national unity. There is no possibility of de-ethicizing people whether they belong to the majority community or minority communities. There is no need for that either.
Patriotism is the overarching glue for national unity of our country. Of course, it cannot be forged instantly, but most of the needed elements are available in (1) all four religious’ teachings (2) principles of liberalism and socialism and (3) discourse of human rights and responsibilities.
"By some blessings, we still manage to maintain the rule of law, free and fair elections; and the freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. These are the essentials of true constitutional liberalism"
As to how to solve the undeniable problem of the general erosion of patriotic sentiment in our country, how to inculcate patriotism in rising generations of Sri Lankans, how to reconcile a vigorous conception of assimilation with the pluralism to which we are so deeply committed - those are the matters we need to give priority in our agendas, whether social or political.
In addressing these concerns, two things must be kept in mind. First, it must be acknowledged that these tasks are well worth pursuing. In fact, they are essential. The kind of patriotism that Sri Lanka has brought into being during the pre-independence period is one of the bright lights of our history, and we should not allow it be extinguished by mere inattention or a perverse hatred against minorities, born of our colossal ignorance of history. Second, we must remember that the answers to these problems will involve culture as much as, if not more than, they will involve creed.
We are not lacking in an awareness that all people in this country have equal rights and must be treated equally. Where we are lacking is in remembering it and teaching others to remember it. True patriotism isn’t simply about waving the Sri Lankan flag. It’s about coming together for the common good. True patriots don’t pander to divisiveness. They don’t fuel racist or religious or ethnic divisions. On the contrary, they seek to confirm and strengthen and celebrate the “we” in “we the people of Sri Lanka”.