5 December, 2020

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Sinha Le Politics & Socio-Cultural Persecution

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Cultural purity is an oxymoron.” – Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers)

The Independence Day celebrations commenced with the national anthem sung in Sinhala and concluded with the national anthem sung in Tamil. It was a first and a good first, a gesture of enormous symbolic significance, an unmistakable indication of the new government’s commitment to an inclusive, pluralist project of nation-building.

Sinha leGotabaya Rajapaksa once derided the singing of the national anthem in Tamil as “a ridiculous and unpractical idea.”[i] But for those who accept the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka and look forward to a truly Lankan future, that moment felt not ridiculous or unpractical, but deeply moving. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is not living up to expectation in several key areas, starting with the economy. But now and then it does something which vindicates fully the historic outcome of January 8th 2015 and keeps hope of a better future alive.

We don’t love other people’s countries; we can only love our own. Measures which humiliate ethno-religious minorities cannot promote national reconciliation or foster Lankan patriotism. There is a greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children and youth when they are allowed to sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand.

Mahinda Rajapaksa imposed the de facto ban on singing the national anthem in Tamil not during the war, but several months after the defeat of the LTTE, as a petulant response to the Oxford Debacle. The LLRC (appointed by the Rajapaksa administration) in its report criticised the ban and warned that it would “create a major irritant which would not be conducive to fostering post-conflict reconciliation.” It also recommended that “The practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages in the same time must be maintained and supported.” That recommendation was finally implemented by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government on February 4th, 2016.

The pro-Rajapaksa opposition tried to use this necessary measure of reconciliation to inflame Sinhala minds and widen the national divide. They frothed and fumed; some limelight-craving politicians even threatened to impeach the president. Former president Rajapaksa was not slow to leap into the fray. He reiterated the same old counter-factual arguments he used when he imposed the ban five years ago, claiming that in no country in the world is the national anthem sung in more than one language[ii]. Mr. Rajapaksa’s ignorance is understandable; not so the inability/unwillingness of his better-read and more knowledgeable sidekicks to enlighten his ignorance. Sri Lanka is not the only country with a bi-lingual national anthem; Canadian and Cameroonian national anthems are sung in English and French (O’ Canada has an Inuktiut version too); Swiss national anthem is sung in German, Italian, French and Romansh; New Zeeland’s national anthem has English and Maori lyrics; and post-Apartheid South Africa has a multi-lingual national anthem (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English). India having a mono-lingual national anthem is another argument Mr. Rajapaksa regularly use. He is clearly unaware that the Indian national anthem is written not in Hindi, the language of the majority community, but in Bengali, the language of a minority community. The equivalent would be if Lanka adopted a national anthem written not in Sinhala but in Malay.

Reality has very little significance in the politics of Sinha Le. When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 presidential election, the pro-Rajapaksa group argued that this was not a true defeat because a majority of Sinhalese voted for Mr. Rajapaksa. The underlying logic was obvious. Sri Lanka is not the equal homeland of all her people, but the chosen land of the chosen race. Minorities are not co-owners of the country; therefore their vote has a lesser value and any electoral outcome in which their vote is decisive is not a legitimate one. Maithripala Sirisena might be the president of the really existing ethno-religiously pluralist Sri Lanka. But Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the president of the land of Sinha Le.

‘Teaching of Contempt’ and Deadly Faultlines

In 2010, British courts made a landmark decision rejecting the idea that Christianity deserves special protection from law. Delivering the verdict, Lord Justice Laws dismissed such a contention as ‘irrational’: “We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.”[iii]

We live in pluralist societies. Perhaps not out of choice but because it is the inescapable, unchangeable reality we are faced with. Secularism and tolerance are not thus choices but necessities, if we want to prevent the implosion of our societies through civil hostility and conflict. The bloody developments in parts of Middle East, Africa and Asia prove the costs of anti-secularism and the destructive and self-destructive nature of the drive for purity. The victims of armed Islamic fundamentalists are often not members of other religions but fellow Muslims who are regarded as the wrong kind of Muslims and therefore deserving of death.

Sinha Le is not an exclusively Sinhala, Buddhist or Lankan product. It is a part of global and historical phenomenon which advocates government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity – either ethnicity or religion. The adherents of ‘politics of salvation’ believe in a land which is pure, a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethnic or religious community. Their programme therefore is essentially one of ethnic/religious purification/cleansing.

The relentless search for purity, purity of blood, of faith, of culture gives rise to an inquisitorial state of mind, a pathological fear of anything new or different. This malady is not limited to Sinhala-Buddhists, but is common to extremists of every ethnic and religious community in Sri Lanka. The Tigers were infected by it and the internecine bloodletting it gave rise to made no small contribution to the LTTE’s eventual decline and defeat. It is present among some Lankan Catholics and Christians and those Lankan Muslims who have become adherents of more extreme forms of Islam such as Wahabism.

Historically religion has often functioned as a destructive force, tearing apart countries and communities. Therefore if we want to save the ‘nation state’ from disintegration, we need to keep it separate and insulated from this immeasurably powerful force which under certain circumstances can flatten everything in its path and drag societies and peoples to utter ruin.

Shortly before she was killed by the IS (Islamic State), Ruqia Hassan, a young Syrian woman wrote the following lines on her facebook page. “The only thing the secular man remembers from the Qur’an is that the God is the most merciful, and everything comes from that… The only thing the extreme Islamists memorise is one verse – to be tough with infidels and merciful to believers – but to the extreme Islamists, everyone is an infidel, whether Muslim or not.”[iv] Ms. Hassan knew that difference first hand. She was one of a handful of residents in Raqqa who dared to criticise the monstrosities committed by the IS.

Ms. Hassan’s incisive comment is applicable to extremists in general. Anything can be grist to their ever-churning mill of hatred, anything can arouse their fires of suspicion, anything can trigger their violent intolerance, including a soprano.

Kishani Jayasinghe and the Inquisitorial State-of-mind

Kishani Jayasinghe, the internationally renowned Lankan soprano, sang at the official cultural show to celebrate the Independence Day. Her repertoire included both popular Sinhala songs and old jana kavi (folk poems). The next morning, the presenter of the programme, Derana Aruna, played Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of the iconic Sinhala song Danno Budunge, and followed it with a rant which was ignorant and uncouth in equal measure. “Female cats sometimes make sounds like that in the night. What do we do then? We take a piece of brick and throw it in that direction… A warped version of the Danno Budunge song was sung at a ceremony to celebrate the National Independence Day. Opera or something, we don’t know. Why are such things being done to valuable things? We don’t know whether such things are done in expectation of bricks being thrown.”[v]

Kishani JayasingheEveryone has the right to have an opinion on Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition of Danno Budunge and to express that opinion. If the presenter expressed his dislike of Ms. Jayasinghe’s rendition in civilised language, there would have been nothing to object to. Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, even in the West. But the vile language the presenter used and his thinly-veiled attempt to incite the viewers into paroxysms of violent hatred placed his remarks beyond the pale. He compared the singer to a queen (a non-sterilised female cat) in heat and indicated that stoning is the right and proper response to her. In his opinion Ms. Jayasinghe insulted a holy-object of Sinhala-Buddhism. Therefore she must be responded to not with words but with stones. Between this mindset and the mindset of those who murder women and men for violating this or that religio-cultural taboo, the difference is just one of degrees. For all of them, violence is the first and favoured resort, the ideal solution to every problem, be it an unacceptable political decision or an objectionable song.

Commenting on the situation that prevailed in the early years of Nazi Germany Sebastian Haffner said: “Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks whom he loves what he does in his spare time whose company he seeks whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance”[vi]. In Sri Lanka, like elsewhere in the world, there is a tendency to demonise not only ethno-religious other, but also those members of one’s own community seen as ‘impure’. The enemy is not only those who follow a different faith, but those of one’s own faith who interpret that faith differently and live their lives in a way which violates some taboo created by tribal societies which ceased to be centuries ago. Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara would have his Christian, Hindu and Muslim counterparts, those who believe there is only one correct way of life and would not hesitate to impose it by laws and even sword and fire.

The Sinha Le insanity is dangerous. It needs to be countered, but not with laws or force, let alone violence, but with arguments. We have a battle to wage, but it must be waged in the terrain of ideas. We must meet their insanity with logic, their ravings with facts, their incitement to violence with appeals to reason. This is also a struggle which moderates of other ethnic and religious communities must wage against their own extremists. Not doing so would be a deadly mistake. Many Tamils who were appalled by the LTTE’s crimes and errors opted to remain silent partly out of fear and partly due to an understandable unwillingness to give solace to the Lankan state. Their silence encouraged and emboldened the LTTE into committing ever greater atrocities. Those atrocities turned potential allies into implacable enemies (including North-Eastern Muslims), enraged most of the world community and which eventually helped the Lankan state to impose a crushing victory on the LTTE.

Extremism and fanaticism begin with destruction and end with self-destruction. That is a lesson no Lankan, be he/she of the majority community or minority communities can afford to forget.


[i] Sri Lanka mirror – 6.4.2012

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGDql4GGEhs

[iii] The Times – 30.4.2010

[iv] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/ruqia-hassan-killed-for-telling-truth-about-isis-facebook

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlrLDZwNHU

[vi] Defying Hitler

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Latest comments

  • 1
    7

    Kishani Jayasinghe ruined the song.

  • 7
    0

    Then why the silence for Bhathiya and Santhosh renditions of other so called Buddhist songs ?

  • 5
    0

    This is a typical example of how the freedom of the press, speech and media are used negatively in our country.. If you have nothing good to say about someone else, don’t say it,! No one wants your opinion and to know that you dislike someone’s performance whatever it may be.!! All people should like to hear or read about is the goodness of whatever it may be regarding our fellow country people.

    It is very sad that in SL in all spectrums of society and amongst Sri Lankans outside the country too, the common utterances of all you hear at a social gathering is criticism of others. It stems from an ingrained trait of jealousy and it is sad that it is something most Sri Lankan’s seem, to foster. Can we not speak of the good of our people, praise those who have succeeded and prospered in life where ever they may be and take pride in the fact that our countrymen and women are doing well in their fields both at home and abroad. If you have nothing good to say about anyone of anything please shut up no one wants to hear criticisms!!

    I have not heard or seen what seems to be a typical destructive criticism of what I have learnt is a very talented, successful young lady who performs overseas. How she sings any song is her right, it is left to us to accept it or not for that is her choice and her right.

    • 5
      1

      The lady sang so beautifully. It was impressive at first. But then when one considered the actual meaning of the song, Danno Budunge, the operatic style did not go too well.

      I arranged this for our local Pittsburgh Temple about 6 years ago. We sang it for Vesak twice. As you can see, the words go best with in Legato-Tessitura style in accordance with dispersing of aggregates:

      Danno Budunge in English

      Dhamma of Buddha’s truths
      Disperse all aggregates
      Prepare observe of Sil
      Steadfast and Piously

      Dhamma of Buddha’s truths
      Disperse all aggregates
      Prepare observe of Sil
      Steadfast and Piously

      Many the Monks who strive
      Cleansing defilements
      Many the Monks who strive
      Cleansing defilements
      Their dwellings glitter in the sky
      Arahants purified
      Their dwellings glitter in the sky
      Sublime and purified

      Interlude

      When Bhddha’s truths abide
      Earth resembles heavenly plains
      The light of sun is barred
      By shadows of the chaste
      Shadows of Arahants
      Psychic powers living in the sky
      The light of sun is barred
      By shadows of the chaste

      Waters of lakes abound
      *With Manil, Lotus, Olu blooms*
      Wild geese that live in the pools
      Yonder is Anudrdaha’s light
      Wild geese and flowers in the ponds
      City of Anuradha’s dawn
      Wild geese and flowers in the ponds
      City of Anuradha’s dawn

      Dhamma of Buddha’s truths
      Disperse all aggregates
      Prepare observe of Sil
      Steadfast and Piously

      Dhamma of Buddha’s truths
      Disperse all aggregates
      Prepare observe of Sil
      Steadfast and Piously

      ******************

      Translated into English by Venerable Punyasiri
      Words arranged by Ramona Therese Fernando

      This line is to be sung to these beats:
      *With Manil, Lotus, Olu, blooms*
      1 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1

      • 3
        0

        ramona grandma therese fernando

        “Prepare observe of Sil Steadfast and Piously”

        On Sundays, and on Mondays go out and kill.

        • 0
          1

          It can be sung to the Instrumental Version by
          AnjulaSashikaW Danno Budunge Instrumental , on SOUNDCLOUD

      • 2
        0

        The lyrics sound as absurd as Ramona’s usual comments, but maybe that is because she “arranged the words”!

        Anyway, Geese are (and were) alien to this country.

        So much for these lyrics making any sense!

        • 0
          1

          Aquinas,

          Haven’t you heard of Lanka’s sacred geese?

          • 0
            0

            Ramona, no I haven’t. Please provide a source for this interesting information.

            Thanks.

        • 0
          0

          And Aquinas,

          The lyrics and even my arrangement emerge out of the heart of ambience and expression of Lankans who have lived for over 2,500 years in an island steeped with history, mysticism, and love.

          However, if one dwells in the fixated cut and dry path towards individualistic money-making for Western interests, then the true meaning is clouded.

          But let me try and make it clearer, so you too will appreciate the uniqueness of Lanka, and especially Buddhism:

          1st verse is about performing Sil to remove mental aggregates that bind us in perpetuity to an unwholesome existence.

          2nd Stanza: it’s about monks who have achieved Aranthood and exist in conceptual nature for the hope of mortal souls.

          3rd stanza: “”

          4th stanza: It’s about an ancient pilgrim to Anuradhapura, who takes delight in beauty of the lakes. Upon lifting his eyes, he sees in the distance, Anuradhapura at dawn. Thus does he merge that memory into the innocence of early-morning impressions.

  • 5
    0

    This is journalism at it’s best.Hats off to the author for the wonderfully written article.Most of the Srilankans think that the only way to be patriotic is to be racist. It’s not the fault of the sinhala people but of the past politicians who ingrained this thought in their mind for the advancement of their political career. The present rulers are trying to change this misinterpreted thought by making certain positive moves to ensure the people that recognizing the culture,language and the contribution made by the minority communities to the economy should also be respected.

  • 1
    1

    Which Richard Wagner’s hymn/opera/score has supposedly been attributed to the creation of Danno Budunge? I know there’s the hymn of Ceylon, but that could have very easily come from the Lankan musical impression.

  • 0
    0

    Tissaranee, [Edited out]

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