Swansong of Unity

Sinhala nationalism in Namo Namo Matha.

Anthems have truly only one purpose – to instil patriotism and nationalism in citizens at a time of need. This time of need can range anywhere from a cricket match to a rallying cry to support troops fighting for the territorial integrity of a country (which in Sri Lanka has rarely coincided with the former). In Sri Lanka, the flip side of a national lethargy where for instance, deadlines are passé and only upheld by social pariahs who value time, is the militant fervour with which symbols of Sinhala hegemony are protected. The flag, the national anthem, the constitution wherein the status of Buddhism is enshrined – all three are inextricably entwined in a complex dynamic that has influenced polity and society since independence in 1948. This has led to tragicomic situations, where even the seemingly benign news of an official re-recording of the national anthem can result in presidential decrees and political acrimony.

Breaking away from colonial rule in the late 1940s, the people of Sri Lanka were kindled with patriotic fervour. Of course, one of the first steps of any new nation-state in the postcolonial world was to find a lyric expression of its status of independence. After a competition, Ananda Samarakoon's composition Namo Namo Matha was chosen as the national anthem on 22 November 1951. The first public rendering of the national anthem was made on Independence Day 4 February 1952 by a group of 500 students from Museus College, Colombo and was broadcast over the radio. History does not record how many people listened.

A national anthem is predicated on the existence of one pivotal element, the nation.  A nation is commonly considered to be a group of people bound together by language, culture, or some other common heritage and is usually recognised as a political entity. Ordinarily the word nation is used synonymously with country or state; however, it does imply more than just a territory delineated by boundaries. A nation could also signify a group consciousness of a shared history, race, language or system of values. Sri Lanka thinks not – its history has been coloured by the systematic and calculated repression of the aspirations of minority communities and groups, something that rabid chauvinists neglect to remember.

State symbols often celebrate and commemorate a history of cruelty, injustice, and exclusion. Strangely missing from the history of the national anthem in Sri Lanka is any recognition of a shared destiny. Although a national anthem should ideally stand for national unity, in Sri Lanka, it embodies the perverse tragedies of the past – every time it is sung it is an inadvertent recognition of the politics that have plagued the country for over half a century. This profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering and discrimination is couched in lyrics which stand aloof from the need to find unity in diversity – a key element of a pluralistic society that Sri Lanka has not been able to establish. More than amnesia in verse, Namo Namo Matha is a harmonious perpetuation of partisan politics that has left the country grappling with the after-effects of a protracted civil war.

Also hiding in the seemingly innocuous national ardour of the anthem is the pernicious evil of majoritarianism – a singular plague which in the guise of democracy has ravaged this nation's polity and society after independence in 1948. It is in Sinhala, the language of the majority. It sings hosannas about the bounty of Sri Lanka, its beauty, its rich harvests and a host of other peripheral and idealised qualities, but not about its peoples.

Sri Lanka Matha,
Apa Sri Lanka
Namo Namo Namo Namo Matha.
Sundara siri bharini,
Surandi athi sobhamana Lanka
Dhanya dhanaya neka mal pala thuru piri jaya bhoomiya ramya
Apa hata sapa siri setha sadhana,
Jee vanaye Matha!

And so on… In the second stanza, the prayer to the mother nation is (in translation):

In wisdom and strength renewed,
Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended,
In love enfolded, a mighty nation,
Marching onward, all as children of one mother,
Leads us, Mother, to fullest freedom.

There is not a single reference to the multiple ethnicities in the island. No hint of the complex socio-political matrix that has coloured communal relations, the richness of religions or the multiplicity languages, a shared past. Listening to the 'national' anthem, you could be forgiven if you believed that Sri Lanka was a mono-ethnic, Sinhala Buddhist nation-state.

What nation?
However, one must also place the anthem in the context of post-independence politics in Sri Lanka.  As they did throughout their empire, the British ruled Ceylon by creating an English-speaking elite from amongst the Sinhala and the Tamils. Their favouritism engendered an opposition which took racial and religious overtones. The majority of those who had been left out of the elite spoke Sinhala and were Buddhists, and they began to promote a racist notion of Sinhala superiority as an 'Aryan race'. After independence it was this Sinhala-speaking group that gained control of the new state, and began to exclude Tamils from higher education, jobs and land mainly by making Sinhala the only official language. Not surprisingly, Tamils resented this discrimination. As the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has argued, the island's violence is a late-20th century response to colonial and postcolonial policies that relied on a hardened and artificial notion of ethnic boundaries.

In the 30 years from the mid-1940s, successive governments took measures to reduce the number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. These measures interacted in diverse and complex ways with a potent Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism, which gradually became the animating ideology of the Sri Lankan state. Particularly among the arriviste, lower caste Sinhala, the spread of anti-Tamil chauvinism was soon perceived as a promising means of increasing economic opportunity. As time passed, the electoral promise of pandering to this chauvinism tempted even the most cosmopolitan of Sinhala politicians.

It must be remembered that Sinhala Buddhists strongly believe that they have a duty to protect and uphold their faith in Sri Lanka. From the political leaders who, in the name of preserving the supremacy of Buddhism in Sri Lanka have deferred to the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy, that seemingly benevolent institution so much a part of politics in Sri Lanka) and much as they have manipulated it, to the attitude of the Buddhist clergy, the primacy given to Buddhism has proved inimical to the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This Sinhala-Buddhist mentality, which has informed and shaped post-independence politics in Sri Lanka, has engendered intolerance in polity and society and carries a large burden of responsibility for the ethno-political conflict.

Sri Lanka's national anthem is a lens for this history of complex socio-political interactions. In 2003, the farce continues. News of a formal re-recording of the national anthem in December 2002 raised the heckles of the ancienne regime –after all, how on earth could Sri Lanka even contemplate a re-recording without expecting a political imbroglio? The minister in charge pleaded ignorance, the president warned the prime minister against hasty decisions, the singers said they had faithfully kept to the original tune and lyrics and the general public was wondering what on earth the fuss was about.

The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 1999, reporting on complex humanitarian emergencies, cited a study by the United Nations University that found a positive relationship between war and inequality among domestic social groups.  More than simple poverty, it is this inequality, which the weak state is unable or unwilling to manage, that breeds conflict.  Although not all poor states with high levels of inequality have experienced civil war, in those that have, such as Sri Lanka, inequality corresponding to ethnicity proves an especially potent destabilising force.

This observation holds valuable lessons for Sri Lanka, for it is a country of multiple identities and multiple ethnicities. This ethnic diversity is something to be celebrated, not shunned or repressed. State institutions should reflect it and encourage it along with the need to cohabit peacefully and to appreciate the concerns and aspirations of each community.

Sri Lanka has much to lose if the present peace process breaks down. An indifference to historical antecedents, the international context and the legitimate aspirations of all communities could irrevocably plunge Sri Lanka into a vortex of bitterness, mistrust, mutual acrimony and violence. A negotiated agreement or a peace process that addresses the symptoms of violent conflict must include provisions for future processes towards institution-building and societal transformation if they are to be sustainable.  A true expression of the volksgeist of a nation not only depends on a celebration of its linguistic diversity, but also an acknowledgement of its multi-ethnic fabric.

A commitment by both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to the creation of a federal Sri Lanka was welcomed amidst great fanfare late last year. A culture of rights, respect and the honourable accommodation of differences is crucial to the federal idea and to its realisation.  It has to be a new social contract, a covenant – the Latin word from which the term federalism is coined – if it is to have lasting legitimacy. A truly national anthem of Sri Lanka must recognise this fundamental reality.

~ Sanjana Hattotuwa is not married to another man. He is also a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo. Views presented in the article are his own.

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