BY Tisaranee Gunasekara
"The conquering hero who threatens to destroy the liberty of his homeland belongs to history, not myth”. - René Girard (Violence and the Sacred)
The disturbingly inane proposal for a Sinhala-Only National Anthem has suffered (an ephemeral) setback, due to internal dissent. Still, it may return, as the proposal for presidential term-limit removal did (initially withdrawn due to internal opposition and subsequently reintroduced via the 18th Amendment). A resurrection is likely because the idea of a Sinhala-Only National Anthem is integral to the Ruling Family’s nation-building project aimed at moulding a Sinhala- supremacist and a Rajapaksa-supremacist Sri Lanka.
The proposal to scrap the Tamil version of the national anthem is of huge symbolic importance; its historic equivalent would be the 1958 policy of using Sinhala letter ‘Sri’ in vehicle licence-plates. A Sinhala-Only National Anthem would be a divider rather than a unifier; it will widen the psychological gulf between the majority and the minorities and drive home the impression that minorities are not-so-welcome interlopers in a Sinhala-country. Consequently it will be a natural landmark in our journey to the past, to the time before India compelled us (via the Accord) to replace the post-1956 Sinhala supremacist vision of Sri Lanka with a more inclusivist and pluralist model.
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 in German (the original), Italian, French and Romansh; New Zeeland’s national anthem has English and Maori lyrics; post-Apartheid South Africa has a multi-lingual national anthem in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. Perhaps the President got his anti-factual information from Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who backed the ‘Sinhala-Only’ proposal vigorously, stating, as a clincher, that Indian national anthem is in Hindi! (This latest Weerawansa faux-pas is on par with his previous gems, such as Guy de Maupassant wrote The Old Man and the Sea and Angulimala hurled a boulder at Gautama Buddha!) That President Rajapaksa and Minister Weerawansa were unaware of India’s national anthem being written by Rabindranath Tagore in Sanskritised Bengali is hardly outstanding. What is remarkable is that in a 60+ cabinet there wasn’t a single minister with both the knowledge and the backbone to set them right. That lacuna says much about what we have become in this Era of Our High King.
A review of George W. Bush’s memoir ‘Decision Points’, claims that “by Bush’s own account, revenge is among his chief motives in sanctioning torture” (New Yorker – 29.11.2010). Was the proposal for a Sinhala-Only National Anthem a knee-jerk reaction by the President to the Oxford Debacle, a painful humiliation heaped on Lankan Tamils as a collective punishment for the anti-Rajapaksa protests by a segment of the Diaspora? Perhaps.
On the other hand, this proposal is no coup de foudre; it is very much in consonance with previous Rajapaksa measures such as reversion to a unitary-state model, abandonment of the homeland concept, unilateral-judicial de-merger of the North-East and reduction of the ethnic issue into a terrorist/Tiger problem (plus resumption of internal colonisations, mushrooming of Buddha statues in areas with no Buddhist-civilians and the arrest and ‘blasphemy’ trial of Islamic-convert Sarah Malani Perera).
These measures are reverting Sri Lanka into a Sinhala-First country in which the minorities are not citizens with equal and inalienable rights but guests living on sufferance (how they are treated depends on how the majority perceives their conduct; Tamils ‘misbehaved’ in London; ergo, the punishment).
The Sinhala-Only National Anthem proposal reeks of vindictiveness and ill-will. Can such measures which humiliate ethno-linguistic minorities promote national reconciliation? Surely there is a greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children and youth if they can sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand?
Incidentally, a Sinhala-Only National Anthem will neither hurt nor displease Tiger remnants and sympathisers; in fact they will use such measures as vindication of their past deeds and a green light for their future plans. It will be those Tamils who still believe in a Lankan future who will be dismayed, grieved and alienated by such mean-spirited and petty-minded measures.
The Sinhala-Only National Anthem idea fits in with the Rajapaksa strategy of peace-building not by winning-over the minorities but via repressive laws, militarisation and internal colonisation. The Defence Secretary recently stated that the “re-positioning of security forces in a post-war era was a costly business as new bases and cantonments were needed to accommodate troops in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. ‘This is a very high priority. Unlike during the war, troops cannot be given makeshift shelter,’ he said” (The Island – 8.12.2010).
Lankan Armed Forces would correctly regard the North as their country but they are unlikely to regard its ethnically and religiously different populace as their own people, especially with historical and recent memories redolent of suspicion and enmity. An army in a territory it considers its own, controlling a population it considers alien (and inimical) is a recipe for abuse and repression. For instance, in his latest letter to the President TULF leader V Anandasangaree (whose anti-Tiger credentials cannot be in doubt) states that “20 business persons from Jaffna had been summoned by the Army Intelligence to know about the contribution they made to the LTTE when they had certain areas under their control. I understand that this is going on for some time. At this rate there will be no end to the harassment the people will be subjected to” In the name of ensuring security the regime is busily creating a new vicious circle of hatred and violence.
The dominant Manichean mindset condemns as a terrorist/traitor anyone who is not totally subservient to the Rajapaksa project. This is the basis on which the regime interacts not just with the Tamil/Muslim North-East but also with the Sinhala South and the world.
Wherever there is difference of opinion, democratic dissent or peaceful opposition, the rulers see a mortal enemy ‘who must be brought down before he brings us down’. The recent statement by President Rajapaska at the 11th National Convention of Samurdhi Officials about ‘trade union leaders on foreign payroll’ indicates that the winds of repression are wafting in a Southerly direction. Ere long, the regime may brand trade-unionists and workers, fishermen, doctors, nurses and teachers, students and public servants as ‘traitors’ and suppress their dissent with brutal efficacy.
Juxtapose the Presidential remark with the statement by a Presidential sibling that “Emergency Regulations couldn’t be lifted due to clandestine activities of the TNA and JVP. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa alleged that the TNA and JVP had launched a campaign to destabilise Jaffna Peninsula…. the war veteran said that armed forces had paid a huge price to restore peace in the country, therefore politicians couldn’t be allowed to jeopardise national security according to their whims and fancies” (The Island – 29.11.2010).
The composite picture is of an intolerant land in which democratic dissent is outlawed; and of a regime determined to utilise anything – from Sinhala extremism and xenophobia to repressive laws and extra-judicial deeds – and sacrifice everything to ensure its own longevity.