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Sunday, 22 March 2015

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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 consensus.

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 to

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 popular consensus.

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.

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