On the eve of the 68th Independence Day, Sri Lankan society is still far from breathing easy on linguistic and cultural plurality, as it was clearly shown by the diverse views expressed on as to how the national anthem should be sung at the official celebrations. From a government standpoint, an agenda was prepared where better “inclusiveness” was made apparent, which was tangibly seen in the singing of the national anthem in Tamil: the very “numerical minority” within the Lankan matrix that has been at the receiving end of governmental policy since (at least) 1956. The state maneuver to include the “Tamil nation” and its cultural and linguistic expression in the official agenda of the Independence Day programme has crucial “symbolic value”; as long as that value is not stopped short at being a showcasing alone, and is, in time, translated into meaningful policy and practice.
In contrast to the governmental agenda, a segment of the previous regime (notably, those who have aligned themselves as the so-called, self-styled “Joint Opposition”) have condemned the inclusion of the Tamil anthem, while professing a boycott of the Independence Day celebrations altogether. The former President, Mahinda Rajapaksha, in particular was reported on news as scoffing at the singing of a Tamil version of the anthem, suggesting that in most ethno-culturally pluralistic countries there is one standard version that is used in common. From a man who often seemed to believe in “home-made” solutions and measures in which international communities did not necessarily feature, the above statement by Rajapaksha is bewildering. But, then again, the former President never had the welfare of a united, reconciled Sri Lanka in mind. He was a seasoned mafia-style politician who manipulated the military crushing of the LTTE with expertise to build a shallow empire on sand, in which he effectively called the shots for a decade with simple “divide and rule”. It was during his time that policy was being prepared to cancel out the Tamil version of the national anthem altogether as recently as 2013-14. His Minister of Housing and Parrotary was the linchpin behind this single-minded, grossly unacceptable dictate.
The present Sirisena government’s response to the “apparent” inclusion of Tamil should, as yet, be viewed with caution. On the pro-side of things, this is a very positive incentive, specially in a context where racist germs are purposefully in active search for a breeding ground even in the immediate run up to February 4th. The proponents of Nazi-style fascist nationalisms such as Sinha-le Organization and Bodhu Bala Sena made several uncanny headlines, nonetheless drawing the public imagination to them, during the whole of January 2016. The government’s response to the extravagance of these fanatic mobs, in my opinion, was more than considerate, given the lessons learned from 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, 1983, 2012 and so on. Sinha-le had its vehicle parade from Colombo to Kandy with a very significant (but not altogether accidental) little “clash with forces” in Mawanella: a stronghold for the Muslim community, where the Sinha-le wanted some crackers lit, and speeches made. The ensuing confrontations got out of hand, with the Police reacting in uncharacteristic mildness.
Former President Rajapaksha’s claim that “most countries” have their national anthem sung in one standard language is both misleading and ignorant. Most countries, whatever there lapses have been in the past, have, by the present, learnt from history and expanded their national structures to accommodate cultural, linguistic and religious plurality. Presidents like Rajapaksha — shrewd and cunning mob leaders — have quite often “feigned” education: they have “pretended” to have learnt lessons, but have actually let those lessons go for inner-cartel advantage. Since President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe are the current brand of engine oil with which the state-structure is being run, I would, at present, be cautious and careful in airing my hurrahs at the one-off appearance of the Tamil national anthem. I have faith for a better accommodation of cultural and ethnic pluralism in the hands of the present government, but I would let them deliver the goods before I put my hands together.
On the day of the 68th Independence Celebration, I would, again, reiterate an issue on which I have debated extensively in different capacities. This is to do with the premier “national symbols” such as the national flag and the national anthem which, in my view, should be revised to meet the spirit and sentiment of a broadly-defined inclusive Sri Lanka. The current national flag is an insult and disgrace to the spirit of democracy with mathematically-sensitive oblongs of various colours being allocated to the different core ethnic definitions found within the island. The categories are bizarre and undermining of numerically slim compositions, while erasing (or, disregarding) communities such as the Malays, Javanese, Veddhas, Kaffirs and so on, who, though a numerical minority, are legit citizens of the country. The current national flag, as it is, is one that makes one self-conscious of one’s “majoritarian” or “minority” status. In pure semiotic terms, there is very little inclusiveness in the sword-wielding “lion flag”: even that popular appellation of “lion flag” has already marginalized and contorted all other ethnic-cultural definitions, but one.
In 1947, on the lead up to Ceylonese independence, Handy Perinbanayagam, the famous Jaffna-based political activist, teacher and person of letters suggested that the symbolism on the Lankan flag should be able to represent the cultures and aspirations of all communities alike. Regards the symbolism, Perinbanayagam’s suggestion was to use Sri Paadha / Adam’s Peak. In addition to its multi-cultural relevance, Perinbanayagam also highlighted that the symbol of a mountain also represents connotations of purity, spirituality etc. Of course, given how Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism has taken root on Lankan soil, and as to how the SLFP and UNP have, alternately but surely, entered a symbiotic existence with ultra-nationalisms since 1956, it would be a mammoth uphill task to push for reform in an area like this. But, for reconciliation to be meaningfully stabilized, one cannot stop by singing the national anthem in Tamil on one single day of the calendar year. It has to be entrenched within a larger, imaginative project that has to redefine the petty, narrow-ended categories within which the nation has been made to operate for the past five decades.