Of Amendments and Anthems
Nearly half a millennium of systematic
Western colonial domination and exploitation has such a devastating
impact on a small, island society that it certainly takes more than a
half century for that society to recover.
Even the transition from British colonial rule to a free Sri Lankan
polity in 1948, while providing for a functioning modern 'state', could
not ensure the forming of the island's society into a wholly integrated,
consensual and culturally inclusive 'nation'.
Colonial policy resulted in a new 'ethnic' consciousness among
diverse social groups; colonial economics prompted the political
mobilisation of socio-economic classes; and, post-colonial modernisation
has given new significance to language, religion and caste.
Worse, colonially imposed economic dependence was, for long,
compounded by an intellectual and
spiritual dependence on the former colonial powers for inspiration
for models of Statehood, nationhood and 'development'.
That, 69 years after freedom from British rule, Sri Lankans yet
agonise over the formation of their State and nation, should, then, come
as no surprise. Indeed, the ferment of public discourse today has taken
on contours of orderly and informed debate to a degree that demonstrates
a maturing of our society.
Multiple weekly TV political talk shows, enlivened and emboldened by
the sudden breath of media freedom, provide platforms for intensive
political debate. Numerous civil society groups that were spontaneously
part of the popular wave that swept aside the old regime are yet
actively engaged in
contributing to national issues and decision-making.
We now have an impromptu 'National Executive Council' comprising the
top leadership of almost all major political parties and movements, that
deliberates national policy and determines numerous steps
for rapid repair of administrative systems and a return to systematic
and responsible government.
Thus, every step in national repair and recovery is under popular
scrutiny and constructive debate whether it be constitutional reform,
corruption probes, national reconciliation or, even how our national
anthem is sung.
The very fact that the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution is
an amendment of the country's third Constitution which is the basic law
of the country's second 'republic', indicates the yet transient nature
of our post-colonial recovery.
We are yet building our State and Nation in the modern, post-colonial
world. And the challenges of global competition, of tough geo-political
conditions, and international rivalries have all sharpened our sense of
national identity to a degree that language, religion, and cultural
symbols are all distinctive markers that need careful clarification and
To its credit, the Government has offered the 19th Amendment Bill for
public debate, albeit for just two weeks, and has said its provisions
are open to revision.
This practice of good governance in stark contrast to the plethora of
rushed legislation of the past regime which, under the cover of
'patriotism', had torn asunder the very fabric of lawful governance,
impoverished the national exchequer and, almost trapped our sovereignty
in a geo-political vice between contesting world powers.
The re-definition, then, of our political system is now up for public
debate and legislative decision. As government leaders as well as
supportive political parties and civil society groups have taken pains
point out, the 19th Amendment will be part of a longer process of
State-building that will gradually and sensitively also engage with the
knotty issues of ethnic identity, cultural equality and, inclusion of
all communities in the national development effort.
The issue of singing the national anthem, then, must be seen as part
of this on-going process of self-understanding among all of us, Sri
Lankans, as to how 'together' we are as an island nation and, how well
we sing together in a harmony that is not monotonously flat, but a
chorale of precise notes of melodic clarity. It only when the lyrics are
fully understood that a song is well sung.
National anthems are sung in a variety of ways throughout the world.
Some are sung in a language not actually used by the majority of the
people - as in India and Singapore - while others are sung in a mixture
of languages in a single song - as in South Africa - and yet others are
sung in the language of the majority of the people on that basis of a
Ananda Samarakone, when he composed the melody and the song, made no
attempt to insist on a single language.
It is likely that the late composer would have been proud if his
poetic lyrics were translated into numerous languages so that the whole
world, or, at least our immediate neighbours, would know how much we
appreciate our land and its wealth.
At the very least, we must ensure that all Sri Lankans fully
understand the words that we sing so that our harmony has full
authenticity as a nation united. At the same time, the power of our song
can only be expressed by languages rooted in our soil and resonating
with the rhythms of our island life.