What stole the thunder from the 68th Independence Celebrations in Sri Lanka, I believe, was the cyber cacophony that ran parallel to the event, regarding a political statement made by the Lankan government in making allowance for the Tamil version of the national anthem to be sung at the event. During my lifetime and my inconsistent following of February 4th festivities, this is the first time I saw such an inclusion: by all means a symbolically rich, positive step in the direction of national reconciliation.
In fact, the government itself seemed to be just dipping its toes, as what we saw was by no means a provision of “equal status” to the Tamil version of the anthem with its Sinhala counterpart; as the festivities commenced with the singing of the Sinhala version alone. The Tamil version was sung, subsequently, as a mark of summing up the agenda — chronologically, and hierarchically, a second up, nonetheless. But, that should not be a bother at the present time, as the allowance for the Tamil version in itself is a progressive mini step in a context where there was none.
Naturally, the cyber-domain, the modern day equivalent to the Market Square of Roman times, was flooded with sentiment. A more broadminded, reasonable, knowledgeable and reflective body seemed to uphold the move by the current government, notwithstanding their political or ideological biases. Then, again, a substantial number — presumably, deficient in some of the values I have cited above; or, perhaps, misted by their own racial and political prejudices — appeared to be both upset and betrayed, while they channeled their frustration in vocal posts and comments.
The allowance for the singing of the Tamil version of the anthem — a translation, really — was condemned mainly by statements that bordered on the racist, and the ignorant. Very often these two variables were seen to go hand in hand, breeding artificial fear and doubt in the minds of the masses without opinion. But, as I noticed, the convictions and conclusions that were being paraded en masse were often either misinformed, or maliciously construed. A lack of historical awareness and the absence of a mind to contextualize the government move in the present time were more than apparent. Some of the statements that were designed to arouse the naive and vulnerable Sinhala insecurities includes the following:
- (A photo of President Sirisena with the caption) “What Prabhaharan couldn’t do in 30 years, I did in one”.
- “In another few years, the anthem will be sung in Arabic and Veddha languages, too”.
- An erratic chart listing out a host of multi-linguistic countries like China, South Africa, USA, Singapore, India etc, insisting they have only ONE national anthem (unlike Sri Lanka, as suggested, which now has TWO).
- The transmission of the falsehood that TWO anthems were now allowed (as opposed to the fact that what was used was a ‘translation’ of one singular song).
Misinformation and maliciousness are two words I used above. For instance, the chart circulated, referred to in bullet 3 in the above list, made very intriguing reading. In it, South Africa was given as a multi-linguistic country which has three “main languages” and a national anthem that is sung in one. In fact, post-apartheid South Africa (to my knowledge) has five “official languages” and a national anthem that is trilingual. The origins of that anthem is another story altogether, with the appropriation of an indigenous gospel to suit the political and social aspirations of the modern South Africa.
The national anthem of Singapore is available in the four national languages of that country, but is generally sung in one language — Malay: which, the misinforming miscreants failed to note, was the language of a “numerical minority” in Singapore. The usage of the Malay version is a homemade method of safeguarding and elevating the prestige of that numerical minority: an act equal to making the Tamil version of the Lankan national anthem the default song at public events.
Lack of awareness and misinformation also has deluded most of the upset souls that there is no constitutional breach in singing the twin-version of the national anthem at a public event. It was shocking than sad to observe that some banner waving zealots of the moment were even unaware that there was a Tamil version of the anthem in existence. It only goes to show how narrow and limited their worlds are. What have they been thinking has been sung in Tamil speaking areas all this time? Have they been naive enough to believe that in all-Tamil speaking schools, offices, functions and so forth they have been singing the Sinhala anthem for the past 65 years?
What was most disillusioning for me was the blatant lack of awareness or knowledge — even in the remotest form — in some regarding the historical precedents to crisis, which makes this newly devised inclusion nothing more than compensation coming the way of the Tamil community five decades too late. It is also a form of realization dawning on some of the Southern leaders, and a step which, had it been taken fifty years ago, could have averted the worst human tragedy of our time. The lack of awareness or knowledge regarding the historical path that led to crisis, what the missed opportunities were, who the villains of the tragedy etc are not known or understood by most of these sons and daughters of the post-1988 period who are, yet, quick to curl their tails against the Tamil version of the national anthem.
As a social collective we have failed in meaningfully passing down / absorbing the fairies and demons of history to our generation. Our immediate elders have failed in it and so have we. Our solace has been in monolithic fantasies and myths of “unified nations”, “unified peoples” (like in a Bob Marley song), and in “uninterrupted grandeur” of one, undisputed line of Lion-flag waving kings. Complexity, contradiction and multiplicity has been essentially ironed out in the Lady-Bird like capsules of history which are pushed down the throats of our children. Very little is shared or transmitted of more contemporary history: knowledge that gives the shivers to the mainstream state is easily erased and censored from being handed down; and with that erasure goes the immense suffering of the Tamil nation and its people for the past half a century, at the least.
Ironically, the last few weeks, I have been reading a book by the late Tamil journalist and activist, S. Sivanayagam, titled Sri Lanka: A Witness to History. Sivanayagam, with great detail, but in an easy and lucid style, traces the socio-political history of the North and the East — broadly contextualizing them within the larger developments of the nation — from the 1920s to the 2000s: the kind of “handbook”, I was telling myself, that can serve anyone, specially from the Sinhala South, in getting to know a raw picture of what has been happening in the Tamil speaking areas of the country for the past century. But, then again, Sivanayagam’s book is 680 pages and LKR 3000. But, the intimate accounts of what has been happening in Jaffna and peninsular regions at the hands of successive governments from Bandaranaike-Senanayake-Jayewardene times to the 2000s will only help people to be more receptive to the human need in singing two versions of the one song.
I would even go as far as to say that if you are Sinhala, as a member who identifies with that collective definition, stop on your tracks for a moment before you let go of that huzzah of “pride”, and revert to a more critical exploration of what policy and political practice the members you have chosen as your representatives and leaders have greeted the Tamil aspirations with. Explore and be aware of the unpardonable discrimination and lack of consideration with which they have thwarted that community over and over. If after such a level-headed assignment there is a reasonable approach you may have for an issue as negligible as singing the national anthem in two languages, perhaps, your “pride” can earn a better footing for a meaningful stance.