- 1956 parliamentary polls a watershed in SL’s political history
- Tamils persisted with agitation cum negotiation strategy to restore rights
- Independence from the British only resulted in bondage under Sinhalese
2020 has dawned! Greetings for the new year to all readers. My article in this column last week about moves being contemplated to forbid the singing of Sri Lanka’s national anthem in Tamil at the 70th Independence Day event seems to have been received well, judging by the positive responses I have been getting from readers this week. What makes me most happy is the fact that an overwhelming number of these responses have been from Sinhala readers.
Among those responding were two children of Pundit M. Nallathamby who translated the national anthem into the Tamil language. I gathered from their mails that they were very young when their father passed away. Pundit Nallathamby who translated Ananda Samarakoon’s “Namo Namo Matha” into Tamil as “Namo Namo Thaaye” in 1950 had died in May 1951. The poem was approved officially as the national anthem by the then UNP Government in November 1951, just five months after Pundit Nallathamby’s demise.
Mr. Nallathamby’s sons – now residing abroad – were deeply concerned over the recent events in the land of their birth. One of them observed that the national anthem was written and translated with the “intention to inspire the nation and to create a country to be surrounded by peace and harmony” and went on to lament “I am extremely saddened and frustrated by the current situation in Sri Lanka which appears to be an outcome of total misunderstandings, misinterpretations and lack of tolerance of the citizens of that beautiful country of ours.” The other paid this writer a compliment saying “We are very grateful indeed for people like you who always openly speak the truth on many issues facing our mother nation.”
Another valued response I received was from a niece of poet Ananda Samarakoon who wrote the national anthem in Sinhala. She told me that her uncle being a creative writer in Sinhala had loved the language but was opposed to Sinhala being made the sole official language in 1956. “Despite his work being in Sinhala, he was completely opposed to the introduction of Sinhala and anticipated negative results which later emerged” she said and concluded by saying that she wrote to me “with the intention of saying Ananda would certainly have wanted the national anthem to be sung in Tamil on Independence Day as well.”
From among responses by other Sinhala readers, I am excerpting some lines from the one I was most impressed with. This is what he said – “I am also very much upset over the national anthem being sung in Sinhala only… We should rather be promoting the national anthem in all languages because the central message is not giving prominence to Sinhala but to what it strives to promote… The government is driving the minorities up the wall… We just concluded a bloody war after 30 years and it is the time for reconciliation and we are back to square one… I am very disappointed over this racist card being played by the government for cheap political ends… Hope sanity will prevail in Sri Lanka.”
Sinhala and Tamil hawks
Although the positive responses were encouraging and uplifting, I must admit that there were some negative ones too, both from Sinhala as well as Tamil readers. What these responses made me realise once again was the similarity between Sinhala and Tamil hawks and how both groups adopt different paths to arrive at a common destination. Sinhala hardliners do not want the national anthem to be sung in Tamil while Tamil hardliners do not want Tamils to sing the national anthem of Sri Lanka. Thus, both want the same result for different reasons. Much of the negative feedback was also the result of ignorance and prejudice. More heat than light was shed on the issue. I was truly shocked at the total ignorance of many people about the history and background of our national anthem.
However, much of the feedback was positive. This was most heartening. Therefore, it is against this backdrop of positive reader responses that I continue to focus in these columns on the issue of singing the national anthem in the Tamil language. As stated last week, the national anthem in Sinhala and its Tamil translation were officially approved and adopted by the UNP Government under Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake in 1951. Its copyright was acquired and uniformity in melody and manner of singing in both Sinhala and Tamil was officially defined by the UNP Government headed by Sir John Kotelawala in 1954. Sinhala was not the sole official language in that period.
This situation changed in 1956 when the coalition led by S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike gained power. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister and made Sinhala the sole official language. It was indeed noteworthy that the Tamil version of the national anthem continued to be in use even after Sinhala was made the sole official language in 1956. While the Sinhala version was sung in most official functions in Colombo and Sinhala-majority provinces, the Tamil version was sung in Tamil-majority areas and Tamil medium schools. This accommodative attitude was displayed even after Sinhala was made the sole official language and Tamil had no official status at all.
Both versions were in use for many decades. There set in over the years a certain form of usage in relation to the national anthem. The original Sinhala song got pride of place in most State or official ceremonies and events. In some instances, the Tamil version was also sung. It was however the practice for the Tamil version to be used in most events or functions in the Tamil-speaking areas of Northern and Eastern Provinces. Most Tamil medium schools also sang the national anthem in Tamil at school events. This applied to many Tamil medium schools outside North–East too.
It was common in those days for selected school bands and choirs to render the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil. What is remarkable is that though the Tamil language held no official status then, the more enlightened governments of the day had no qualms about the national anthem being sung in the Tamil language in Tamil-medium schools or official functions in predominantly Tamil-speaking regions.
Political landscape changes
The political landscape of the island began to change from what it was at the time of independence. The parliamentary elections of 1956 were a watershed in the political history of the island. The UNP that was in power from 1947 was defeated. As mentioned earlier, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon. It was a different story in the predominantly Tamil-speaking provinces. Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) led by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam QC won ten of the sixteen seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Two of them were Muslim majority constituencies.
The party known as the Federal Party(FP) in English espoused the goal of federalism. Even as the 1956 victory hailed as a people’s revolution ushered in a new government of the common people described as “Apey Aanduwe” (our government), the state of ethnic relations in the country deteriorated drastically. Sinhala had been declared the sole official language of the country. Non-violent protests by Tamil political leaders were disrupted through organised violence. There were anti-Tamil race riots. Attempts to resolve the crisis through political arrangements like the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Agreement were aborted because of extremist opposition.
One of the earliest casualties in this conflict-ridden atmosphere was the Tamil perception of independence. The advent of FP and rise of Tamil nationalism saw the Tamil polity being asked to treat Freedom Day as a day of mourning. The rationale was that independence from the British had only resulted in bondage under Sinhalese. There was only a change of masters. Hence, Independence Day was nothing to celebrate about, but only to be observed as a black day.
These symbolic protests underwent a change after the Republican Constitution of 1972. Thereafter, May 22 too was observed as a black day. February 4 lost a little of its significance. The UNP Government elected in 1977 ushered in a new Constitution in 1978 thereby doing away with Republican Day and Republican Constitution. The symbolism of black flags on Independence Day however continued. The escalation of the conflict and resultant suffering made the very concept of independence meaningless to Tamils.
Both the Sinhala and Tamil versions continued to be sung in the late fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties of the last century. When the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake visited Jaffna in the sixties, the national anthem was sung in Sinhala and Tamil. When Sirimavo Bandaranaike came to Jaffna as premier in 1974 to open the newly set up Jaffna Campus, both versions were sung. When Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa visited Jaffna in the eighties to open the ‘Gam Udawa’ housing scheme, the national anthem was sung in both languages.
There was some forward movement in the quest for parity of status for the Tamil language in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Constitution of 1978, ushered in by the UNP regime and led by J.R. Jayewardene, provided national language status to the Tamil language. It also granted Constitutional status to the national anthem. Clause 7 of the Constitution says: “The national anthem of Sri Lanka shall be ‘Sri Lanka Matha,’ the words and music of which are set out in the third schedule.”
Tamil received national language but not official language status in the 1978 Constitution. The national anthem in Sinhala was given constitutional status through Clause 7 of the same Constitution. However, the Tamil translation was also given constitutional recognition by way of the third schedule to the seventh clause. The official gazette as well as copies of the 1978 Constitution published in Tamil had the Tamil words of the national anthem.
Both the Sinhala original and Tamil translation were acknowledged. This was done mainly because of former Kalkudah MP K.W. Devanayagam who was at that time the only Sri Lankan Tamil Minister in the UNP Government. This act evoked praiseworthy mention as an indicator of inclusiveness and tolerance. It could be seen therefore that this island nation has displayed a sense of accommodation towards the usage of Tamil language in the sphere of “officially” singing the national anthem for many years.
Tamil received elevation as an official language along with Sinhala by way of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987. Tamil as an official language received further enhancement in the administrative and legislative spheres through the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1988. Sections 18 and 19 of the Constitution clearly state that Tamil is both an official and national language of Sri Lanka. The elevation of Tamil as an official language provided greater impetus for the national anthem to be sung in Tamil, but events had begun to overtake and these concessions on the language front were beginning to be seen as part of the “too little, too late” syndrome in volatile politics.
Ethnic conflict escalated
Sri Lankan Tamils, represented primarily by ITAK/FP, persisted with its agitation cum negotiation strategy to restore rights. This was resisted by successive Sinhala-dominated governments. It was a period of ethno-nationalist conflict. All things changed utterly as the ethnic conflict escalated and the Sinhala and Tamil communities slowly drifted apart. The practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil in the North and East gradually diminished even as hostilities mounted.
Before 1956, almost every major school in Jaffna had Sinhala teachers (many of them Buddhist priests) to teach Sinhala to students. After Sinhala was imposed as the sole official language to the exclusion of Tamil, this practice ceased. Likewise, the singing of the national anthem in Tamil went out of vogue in the Tamil area schools. This was reflected to some extent in Tamil schools in the South too but several Tamil-medium Muslim schools countrywide continued with the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil.
The Tamil political psyche too had changed over the decades. Tamils saw themselves as being on par with the Sinhalese as one of the two founding race of this nation during the Ramanathan-Arunachalam era; the G.G. Ponnambalam period saw Tamils thinking of themselves as the premier all-island minority; the S.J.V. Chelvanayagam years saw the Tamils regarding themselves as a territorial minority of the North-East; the Amirthalingam years and emergence of TULF saw Tamils perceiving themselves as a distinct nationality with a separate homeland and right to self-determination. Velupillai Prabhakaran and other militant leaders led an armed struggle to liberate this homeland on the basis of the 1977 mandate for Tamil Eelam.
In the evolving new situation of ethnic conflict, the practice of singing the national anthem went out of circulation in Tamil polity for more than three decades. The politics of ITAK and later the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) created an environment where alternative “Tamil State” anthems were being sung at political meetings. At least three different songs were in use then.
Tamil State Anthems
One of the Tamil State anthems was “Vaalha Eezhath Thamizhaham, VaalhaendrumVaalhave” (long live Eelam Tamil homeland, long live forever) by Paramahamsathasan. The other was “Engal Eezhath Thamizh Thirunaadu, Kalai Vaazhum Ponnaadu” ( our great Eelam Tamil land, the golden land where arts flourish) by “Thirukkovil” Ariyanayagam, the father of former TNA MP Chandranehru Ariyanayagam and grandfather of current TNA Ampara District MP Kaveendiran Kodeeswaran. Ariyanayagam adapted his anthem from “Engal Thiraavidapp Ponnaadau” composed by film lyricist Kannadasan for the film “Maalaiyitta Mangai.” The third was “Vazhiyave, Vazhiyave, Vazhiyave, Engal Thanga Maamanith Thamizh Eezham” (long live, long live, long live, our golden gem Tamil Eelam) by fiery Eelamist poet Kasi Anandan now living in Chennai.
All these versions of a “Tamil Eelam national anthem” were sung during the past decades when Tamil ultra-nationalism and separatism rode high. These were different to the songs sung in “praise of mother Tamil” or “Thamizh Thaai Vaazhthu.” Glorifying the “Tamil mother” is a must in all Tamil cultural functions.
Personifying the Tamil language as ‘mother Tamil’ and singing praises of her is something difficult for non–Tamils to understand. Usually, Subramania Bharathi’s “Vaalha Nirantharam, Vaalha Thamizhmozhi, Vaaliya Vaaliyavae” (long live in perpetuity, long live the Tamil language, long live, long live) or Bharathidasan’s “Thamizhukkum Amuthendru Paer, Anthath Thamizh Inbath Thamizh Engal Uyirulkku Naer” (Tamil is a name for ambrosia that Tamil, sweet Tamil, is equal to our life) are sung in honour of the “Thamil Thaaye or Tamil mother” at cultural events. In neighbouring India’s Tamil Nadu State, the “Neeraarum Kadaludutha Nilamadanthaik Kezhiloghum” verse from Professor Suntharampillai’s Manonmaneeyam “is used as the Thamilthaai Vaazthu. That practice was not followed by Sri Lankan Tamils as those verses refer only to the land of the Tamils in India.
After the ascendancy of Tamil militancy in general and the LTTE in particular, the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil at the North and East began rapidly declining. Very often the music alone would be played on official occasions. After the LTTE established territorial control over certain regions in the North and East, the national anthem was virtually discontinued.
LTTE’s poet laureate
The LTTE did not have a substitute Tamil Eelam anthem. Instead, the sectarian tigers extolled the virtues of “Pulikkodi” or tiger flag. The tiger flag was portrayed as the Tamil Eelam or Tamil national flag. The LTTE’s poet laureate Puthuvai Rathinathurai wrote the song “Earuthu Paar, Kodi Earuthu Paar” (See it being hoisted, see the flag is being hoisted). This was sung during the mandatory hoisting of the tiger flag at most ceremonies in LTTE-controlled areas.
After the Sri Lankan armed forces began recapturing territory from the LTTE, the writ of Colombo regained its dominance and authority. Although the singing of the national anthem had decreased significantly in the North and East due to the escalation of the ethnic conflict, the practice began emerging once again after the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009.Consequentially, the national flag fluttered proudly in the North and East and the national anthem too began resonating in those regions. In a sense, it was a return to the past or a revival of what had prevailed during the early years of independence.
Initially, the national anthem was sung or played only in Sinhala in the North but due to persistent efforts of Douglas Devananda, the solitary Sri Lankan Tamil Cabinet minister in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, the use of Tamil in singing the national anthem commenced. Slowly but steadily, the national anthem began to be sung in Tamil.
What prevailed then was a “mixed” state of affairs where Sinhala and Tamil were being used to sing the national anthem in Jaffna on different occasions. The important thing however was the fact that after decades of alienation, the Tamils of Sri Lanka were getting drawn into the mainstream. Once again, they were emphasising their overarching Sri Lankan identity. What better way to illustrate this mood than by singing the national anthem? At the same time, Tamils too wanted to retain their ethnic identity by singing in their mother tongue (if possible). The finest example of being a Sri Lankan Tamil would be to sing the national anthem in Tamil. People expected Mahinda Rajapaksa who reportedly “won” the war against the LTTE to “win” the peace too by encouraging Sri Lankan Tamils to come in from the cold of political wilderness and become an integral component of the nation again.
Mahinda Rajapaksa regime
It was indeed shocking when a sudden “assault” was launched on the usage of the Tamil national anthem by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Strong moves were initiated by sections of the government to abolish the translated Tamil version of the national anthem and impose Sinhala as the only language in which the national anthem could be sung officially. A Cabinet paper was taken up for discussion by the government in this regard on December 8, 2010.
It is somewhat unbelievable that such a politically-myopic exercise could have been undertaken at that period of time. After decades of separatist conflict, the estranged Tamil population was slowly struggling to be reintegrated into the political mainstream of a united nation. Instead, the Tamils were being denied the right to sing the national anthem in their mother tongue and dealt a symbolic blow.
This act of denial had other insensitive connotations in the wake of the military defeat inflicted on the LTTE. It was interpreted by some as a symbol of triumphalism. Were the Tamils being treated as a “conquered” people and being forced to sing the national anthem in the language of the “conqueror?” There was also a cruel irony in the contemplated move. The limited right to sing the national anthem had been enjoyed in the past when the Tamil language had no official constitutional status. Now, Tamil had official language status thanks to the 13th and 16th Amendments to the Constitution. Sections 18 and 19 of the Constitution clearly state Tamil is both an official and national language of Sri Lanka. Attempts were being made now to deny the right to sing the national anthem in Tamil.
The unkindest cut of all was that these moves had been proposed under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Former President Rajapaksa had earned much credit in the past due to his efforts to afford official recognition to the Tamil language. He was the first Sri Lankan head of state to start learning the language of the principal minority ethnicities in his country. Mahinda tried to speak at least a few passages in Tamil on important occasions. He was the first Sri Lankan to speak in Tamil while addressing the UN General Assembly. It was he who got his then secretary Lalith Weeratunga to use Sinhala, Tamil and English at the official swearing in ceremony. It was disheartening therefore to see attempts underway to deny usage of Tamil in singing the national anthem when Mahinda Rajapaksa had in the past embraced the language to a great extent publicly in a bid to demonstrate to the Tamil people that they were indeed an integral and esteemed component of the nation.
What then led to this sorry situation? The way to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The rationale for these attempts seems to have been based on good intentions. It had been felt then that no proper procedure was being practised at official functions where the national flag was unfurled or national anthem sung. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had therefore instructed the then Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister W.D.J. (John) Seneviratne to prepare a Cabinet memorandum outlining the appropriate protocols to be adopted in relation to the national flag and national anthem.
Cabinet paper submitted
A Cabinet paper incorporating basic guidelines was duly prepared and submitted for discussion and approval on November 3, 2010. After preliminary discussion in November, the Cabinet paper was taken up for detailed discussion on December 8, 2010. The officials who drafted the memorandum had relied greatly on a Singaporean piece of legislation as a model. The use of the national anthem is governed by Part IV of the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules made under the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act. This act amended in 2007 was used as a model by Sri Lankan officials.
There is provision in the Singaporean act which stipulates that anyone singing the national anthem should sing official lyrics and not any translation of it. The duplication of that provision in the Sri Lankan Cabinet memo had paved the way for an unwanted and unnecessary controversy. The Cabinet paper recommended the singing of the national anthem in Sinhala only and suggested that the Tamil translation in use for decades be summarily abolished. It was also proposed that those who were not proficient in Sinhala language could write down the Sinhala words in Tamil or English and sing.
The Sri Lankan officials in emulating the letter of the Singaporean guidelines had missed the spirit of the Lion City State anthem. Although the majority community in Singapore is Chinese (75.2%), the national anthem is in the Malay language spoken by 13.6% of the people. The national anthem written by Zubir said is titled “Majulah Singapura” or “Onward Singapore.”
English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and Tamil are recognised as official languages in Singapore but Malay is regarded as the national language. It must be remembered that independent Singapore was part of the ‘Straits Settlements’ during the British colonial rule .After gaining freedom from the British, Singapore remained part of Malaysia until it was expelled and attained independence somewhat reluctantly. Under those circumstances, it was considered appropriate that the national anthem be in Malay only. Translations are available in English, Mandarin and Tamil but only Malay could be used to sing the national anthem in official functions.
Thus, in Singapore where the national anthem is in a “minority” language, there was an imperative need to debar translations and insist upon Malay alone being used officially to sing the national anthem. If translations were allowed, the Mandarin or English version could swamp the Malay version. But this is not the case in Sri Lanka where Sinhala is firmly entrenched as the language of the majority and primary official language. It is the Tamil language that requires special measures and guarantees in the present situation.
Minister Wimal Weerawansa
It was in this context that the Cabinet paper dated November 3, 2010 was taken up for detailed discussion on December 8, 2010. The National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and the then Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities Minister, Wimal Weerawansa at the outset welcomed the proposal to abolish the Tamil translation and sing the national anthem in Sinhala alone.
Weerawansa informed his Cabinet colleagues that Tamils wanted to sing the anthem in Sinhala and said when he was in Jaffna recently, the national anthem had been sung in Sinhala only at an official function. The Jaffna Tamil gathering had sung enthusiastically, Weerawansa said.
Pontificating further, the former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) stalwart observed that it was a joke for a national anthem to be sung in two languages. He also educated his co–ministers that in India, where so many languages were spoken including Tamil, the national anthem was in Hindi only. Unfortunately, Minister Weerawansa was not well-informed about the topic on which he was waxing eloquent. There are several countries like Canada, the Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland and South Africa where the national anthem is sung in two or more languages in full or in parts. At the same time, many countries allow limited use of translations.
More importantly, Weerawansa was incorrect in his reference to the Indian national anthem. The song “Jana Gana Mana” was written in Bengali by the illustrious Rabindranath Tagore – a Bengali himself. It is however written 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 are of Sanskrit origin while only about 40% words in colloquial Bengali is Sanskrit.
“Jana Gana Mana” in Tatsama Bengali
Bengali poets of the 10th century resorted to Tatsama because they felt a greater deal of classical Sanskrit was required to express their thoughts in poetic form. Later in the 19th century, another school of thought comprising English-educated Bengalis revived Tatsama poetry in a big way. Tagore was influenced by this school of thought and resorted to Tatsama in conveying his poetic thoughts in Bengali. “Jana Gana Mana” therefore had a lot of Sanskritised words intelligible to most Indo-Aryan languages. Incidentally, another of Tagore’s compositions “Sonar Bangla” or “Golden Bengal” is the national anthem of Bangla Desh.
Weerawansa was therefore wrong in saying the Indian national anthem is in Hindi. Current Public Administration Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon too has been echoing Weerawansa on the Indian national anthem. However, Weerawansa’s ill-informed onslaught on Tamil being used to sing national anthem found a responsive chord in several ministers. One reason for this type of response was suspicion by some ministers that Weerawansa was only articulating the wishes of the then President Rajapaksa. So some better informed ministers were seemingly in agreement with Weerawansa to curry favour with Mahinda.
In that situation, several of the more enlightened ministers kept mum. There was also hesitation among ministers of the Tamil and Muslim communities to speak out; but not so the irrepressible Vasudeva Nanayakkara. The veteran leftist firebrand who had joined Cabinet ranks as National Languages and Social Integration Minister in the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was the first to speak against the proposal to do away with Tamil in singing the national anthem.
Comrade Vasudeva Nanayakkara
Vasudeva Nanayakkara spoke eloquently on the need to be inclusive and fair by the minority communities. He saw no need for the removal of an arrangement that had been in practice for so many years. Comrade Vasu also pointed out that the need of the hour was to reach out to the Tamil masses and bestow upon them a sense of belonging. The national anthem proposal would be detrimental to national unity, he said.
With Nanayakkara leading from the front, the counter-offensive “Sinhala only” imposition gained momentum. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister, Douglas Devananda, the then Traditional Industries and Small Enterprises Development Minister, Rauff Hakeem, the then Justice Minister, A.L.M. Athaullah, the then Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister too joined the discussion and spoke against the proposal. Athaullah had a counter–proposal. Why not include verses from Tamil into the national anthem along with Sinhala? He queried. For the national anthem to be truly national, both the Sinhala and Tamil languages should constitute it, observed the uncrowned king of Akkaraipattu who went on to propose a bilingual national anthem.
The mood at the Cabinet meeting changed and it soon became obvious that the proposal to do away with the Tamil translation of the national anthem was being met with stiff resistance. It was also clear that deep divisions were emerging on this account within the Cabinet conclave. Gauging the situation correctly, Mahinda Rajapaksa brought the discussion and debate to an end by announcing that the decision on the Cabinet paper would be deferred indefinitely until a later date. He said an intensive informed discussion was necessary before a final decision was arrived at. Meanwhile, the status quo would remain as usual, he stated.
Silencing Tamil national anthem What happened thereafter is well-known. Orders went out quietly to government officials and officers of the armed forces that the national anthem should not be sung in Tamil. There was no official decree but officially sanctioned unofficial instructions resulted in the silencing of the Tamil national anthem. Neither Vasudeva Nanayakkara nor Douglas Devananda could prevent this.
The Rajapaksa regime under Mahinda did not ban the Tamil national anthem legally but saw to it that singing the national anthem in Tamil was forbidden in day-to-day affairs. The subterfuge adopted was that of maintaining the status quo overtly while negating the practice of singing the national anthem on ground. It was stated that there was no change and that constitutional provisions remained. Thus, it was said that singing the national anthem was a right that prevailed and had not been taken away. An unofficial diktat however was strictly enforced by which schools and government institutions were “discouraged” from singing the national anthem in Tamil. The armed forces in the North and East were tasked with the duty of preventing the national anthem being sung in Tamil.
The Tamil people soon got the message and gave up attempts to sing the national anthem in Tamil during the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Schoolchildren were compelled to sing the Sinhala words scripted in Tamil. People like Weerawansa went about saying Tamils wanted to sing in Sinhala and not Tamil. Thus, the right to sing the national anthem in Tamil was suppressed forcibly on the one hand while it was falsely asserted on the other that the right to sing the national anthem in Tamil remained still. It was somewhat unbelievable that such a politically myopic exercise could have been undertaken at that critical juncture.
Things changed with 2015 regime change
Things however changed with the regime change in 2015. The “good governance” government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe restored the singing of the national anthem in Tamil. It created a very healthy precedent in 2016 of ensuring the singing of the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil at the national independence commemoration event. By doing so, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government promoted ethnic equality and national reconciliation tremendously.
Currently, those positive gains are being reversed and the tragic past is being revived. What is most dismal about this situation is the sad sense of déjà vu it evokes. The issue which came to the fore during the first Rajapaksa regime under Mahinda is resurfacing in the second Rajapaksa regime under Gotabaya. This sad state of affairs brings to mind what Nobel laureate in literature Eugene O’Neill wrote in his play ‘A moon for the misbegotten’ – “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” How and why this sad situation is evolving will be examined in a forthcoming article.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org