By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
We approach the 72nd anniversary of independence with yet another Sinhala Tamil issue looming before us. By lunchtime on February 4th, the national anthem may or may not have been sung at the official Independence Day function, including or excluding the stanzas in the Tamil language, a practice adopted since 2016. The current dispensation has stubbornly refused to clarify beforehand if the rendition of the national anthem at the official ceremony will be mono or bilingual.
Meanwhile, many individuals have expressed their opinions on the subject. Many that I read has been in favor of the bilingual rendition. One or two have opposed it. A regular contributor had proposed the Sinhala version in the Sinhala majority areas and Tamil translation in the Tamil majority areas. Whereas it may be a practical suggestion, it does not address the issue, what happens at the official ceremony.
Those in favor have quoted examples of countries such as Singapore and Canada. I read an interesting article titled ‘Tug of war continues over Maatha and Thaaye’ in an English daily which had listed names and flags of 17 countries with multilingual national anthems. Eight of them belong to the African continent with no record of land borders before colonization. Colonial powers permanently erased the tribal boundaries of pre-colonial Africa.
The United Nations comprises of 193 member states as of date. Less than 25 countries have multilingual national anthems. The number of countries with monolingual national anthems by far outnumbers the former category. These countries, too, have minority communities. The national anthems of such countries are invariably in the language of the majority community and most widely used in the country.
It had been said, in Singapore, the national anthem is sung in Malay though the Malays are a minority. That is a misnomer. Singapore gained full internal self-government in 1959. However, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew felt the historical and economic ties between Singapore and Malaya were too strong for them to continue as separate nations. He campaigned vigorously for a merger. With such an outlook, he introduced Malay, the language of the majority community in Malaya as the official language of Singapore since he envisaged Singapore becoming an autonomous Province in such an arrangement. In 1963, the leaders of Singapore, Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak signed the Malaysia Agreement. The Federation expelled
Singapore in 1965. Always the pragmatist and with more critical issues to be addressed, Lee Kuan Yew maintained the status quo on the language issue.
The original lyrics of ‘O Canada’ was written in 1880 and the English version in 1908. and officially adopted as the National Anthem in 1980. The two versions are not the same. On Canada Day, the Federal Government in Ottawa and elsewhere in the country sing the English verse 1, followed by French verse 2. That is understandable as both the English and French-speaking groups belong to the Caucasian tribe. ‘O Canada’ has been translated and is sung in the languages of the Indigenous Peoples i.e., First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. However, all such versions have no official status.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain consists of the regions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is also the great democracy our political pundits from both sides of the divide revert to when in need of guidance.
English, Gaelic (Scottish), Welsh, and Irish Gaelic are the languages of the peoples in the said regions. They have official language status in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, respectively. English is also considered an official language in all regions and the working language of the UK of GB.
There has been no demand for the three regional languages to be given equal status as the English language outside their region of origin.
There has also been no demand to sing ‘God save the King/Queen’ as applicable in Gaelic, Welsh, nor Irish since its introduction in 1745. It has always been sung in English since.
Human beings are creatures who will not part easily with what has been given. Certainly not without a fight. At this point in time, it would be futile and counterproductive to visit the rights and wrongs of the past 72 years.
The fact is, stanzas of Sri Lanka Thaayae has been part of the official Independence Day Ceremony since 2016.
Its discontinuation now will have many negatives. It will give reasons for the Northerners to challenge and vilify President Rajapaksa’s swearing-in pledge to be President to all Sri Lankans and unnecessarily distract the recently elected Presidency. It will give additional ammunition to the intransigent Tamil politicians who make it their mission to oppose most government initiatives. The same would apply to the insolent diaspora. The only positive will be the pleasing of a few ultra-nationalists and some men in yellow robes.
Sri Lanka is currently facing a massive debt crisis besides numerous other serious issues. This country does not need the toxicity of another divisive Sinhala Tamil issue, bound to arise from the discontinuation of the practice commenced in 2016.
Therefore, one hopes Sri Lanka Thaayae will be part of the national anthem at the Independence Day celebrations, and the matter put to rest by lunchtime on February 4th.