Sri Lankan National Anthem: Symbolism, Nationalism, Racism and Other Stories

To write a piece of this nature while holding an academic position in a state university is quite a controversial move. Those who read this piece purely for the sake of critiquing it might find ample fuel in it to provoke the fires. Some may perceive this to be a nationalistic piece while others may perceive this to be an opinion of a traitor. Hence, I feel the need to explain a few basics before I delve into the topic at hand. Yes, I am a nationalist. But what is nationalism? For me, I am a Sri Lankan. Not a Sinhalese. If my sense of nationalism comes from hinging on to my moz-screenshot-2race, I will no longer be a nationalist but a racist. All those who are citizens of Sri Lanka are Sri Lankans irrespective of their respective races. To be a nationalist is to have a unified sense that one pledges allegiance to one’s own country although liberatarians may not agree to pledge allegiance to anything. Maximizing the freedom of choice, even as a liberatarian, does not negate one’s ability to choose to pledge allegiance to one’s own state. Some may consider me a traitor after reading the piece. However, my only hope is that Sri Lankans will be able to live in peace and that one day, I and my mixed group of friends will be able to bring forth our children into a country which is no longer divided along meaningless racial lines.

In the debate on the national anthem, the population is divided roughly into four categories. Some who are extremely angry that there is a Tamil version of the national anthem, some who are extremely happy that the national anthem is sung in a language they finally do understand, some who are thrilled that this is a reconciliatory attempt and argue that the attempt of the government to bring about harmony should be praised and the final category of people who argue that symbolic reconciliatory mechanisms are useless when structural changes are not adopted. I will be responding to each of these categories in this opinion piece as I fall into a slightly different category on this divisive issue.

Firstly, I am happy that one segment of the population of my country who are considered to be historically persecuted finally get to sing the national anthem in their own mother tongue. From my own experiences, I know the feeling that one gets when one actually feels the words that one sings. I further do believe that symbolic attempts at reconciliation are also important as it might very well be the stepping stone to structural changes.

Some refer to many ‘facts’ pertaining to national anthems not only of Sri Lanka but also of other countries like India. It amazes me that people can make statements without engaging in the activity of actually checking the veracity of the statements that they make. While India has several National ‘Songs’, it has ONE national anthem which is ‘Jana Gana Mana’ written by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. tagoreI had several conversations with my Indian colleagues who had many things to say about the distinction between the National Songs sung in several languages and the National Anthem of India… The fact remains that the Indian National Anthem is not sung in the majority language which is generally considered to be Hindi with about 41% of the Indian population speaking the same. The National Anthem however is in ‘Sanskritised Bengali’ which is roughly spoken by about 8% of the population. The Indian scholars with whom I had the privilege of conversing of the matter reaffirm that the acceptance of Jana Gana Mana as the National Anthem had nothing to do with the language in which it was written as what was more important is the symbolic aspect of the Anthem. Nonetheless, what I was told by such colleagues is that the purest form of the words used in the national anthem of India are words to which a larger portion of the population can relate as there are many similarities between the languages. (This similarity is somewhat similar to the connections that one observes in Latin based languages.) I was specifically told that the pronunciation of the national anthem of India remains neutral meaning that people speaking language other than Bengali may pronounce it in accordance with their respective language – accents.

There is also a constitutional basis for the National Anthem of India. Section 51 A of Part IV A of the Indian Constitution concerning the fundamental duties of every citizen of India makes it a duty ‘to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national flag and THE national anthem’ (emphasis is mine). India goes to the extent of protecting THE National Anthem by Section 3 of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act 1971 (Act No 69 of 1971) by providing measures to penalize anyone insulting / preventing the singing of the National Anthem. This essentially creates a distinction between the National Songs which are in other languages and the National Anthem of India.

Another country with famous examples of national anthem in two languages is Canada. It has both English and French versions of the national anthem and its bilingual version remains unofficial. In fact, its original version was French and remains unaltered up to date although the English version has undergone several changes. Once again, we have an instance in which the most original form of the National Anthem is in the minority language. As at present the French – speaking population of Canada is roughly 22% whereas the English – speaking population is about 58%.

In this whole debate, one of the aspects that puzzle me is the fact that most of the Sri Lankans seem to have forgotten the primary idea that underlies the national anthem in the first place. Its symbolic value is much greater to be undermined by language wars between two communities. Irrespective of the language that it is sung in, it still remains the SRI LANKAN National Anthem. Anyone who sees it otherwise might very well be a racist who does not have community interests at heart. However, I do personally believe that the country should not be doing any ‘tinkering’ work with the official version of the national anthem that is currently recognized by the Constitution. I do see a distinction between the official version and the ceremonial versions that India has. As most of the people point out, India is an apt example in this debate. However, it is not for the reason that India has ‘many’ national anthems, which is a factually erroneous argument. India is an apt example as it is a multilingual country which has its official national anthem while having several recognized national songs and also one version (though not THE official version) in sign language.

That said, I have no opposition to the National Songs being sung in Tamil or any other language for that matter. After all, the tune remains the same. The idea remains the same. The symbolic value remains the same. Both versions pledge allegiance to mother Lanka which is home to all Sri Lankan citizens irrespective of their races. And for those who are confused, I would like to remind that by singing the national anthem, you are pledging allegiance to the country and not the government of the country. In other words, you can dislike the government of the country while loving the country. Do I believe that this initiative is reconciliatory? I do. As the very famous saying goes, ‘not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done’. Having said that, I understand that, much remains to be done on the reconciliatory front. Merely showing that justice is being done is insufficient for a nation which is still attempting to reconstruct a divided society. Do I believe that structural changes which are required for the betterment have to end up in federalism (as certain people have argued in connection to the debate on the national anthem)? Not necessarily so. I do believe, with uncorrupted political practices, Sri Lanka can reconcile any differences and do away with historical persecution against the minorities within a unitary structure although I truly am skeptic as to when we will as a nation be lucky to experience uncorrupted political practices. As of now, I further believe that as Sri Lankans, we must together build the society without arguing about the language of the national anthem. We honestly should have much greater things to work on rather than wasting time on the language of the anthem. Issues of this nature (which are not really issues), take one’s focus away from the real issues that require more attention.images

After all, the best solution might be to adopt the practice of Spain to not have any words in the national anthem. Spain being a multilingual nation, has effectively had its national anthem ‘La Marcha Real’ without lyrics since 1978. Do not be misled by the versions that you find on the internet with lyrics which are essentially merely entries that were submitted to a 2007 competition which sought to find lyrics for the national anthem or the earlier fascist version of the Spanish national anthem with lyrics.  As I have pointed out above, it is not uncommon to have an official version of the national anthem and several ceremonial versions of it. There is also precedent to have two official versions (although not necessarily a bilingual remix) when the country is multilingual. Furthermore, it is also not uncommon in multilingual societies to have a national anthem which has no words. Not only Spain, but also states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of San Marino and Kosovo (leaving aside the recognition issues pertaining to Kosovo’s statehood) do not have official lyrics in their respective national anthems. Considering the fact that the national anthem is expected to play a symbolic function, one official national anthem with several ceremonial versions or one national anthem without words might serve the purpose. My purpose would have been served if this helps you have a good night’s sleep.

May there be lasting peace in Sri Lanka!

(All images used in the posts unless otherwise mentioned are drawn from and the author does not hold copyright over the photos used.)


Boston Bomber, ‘Collateral Damage’ and Clarke’s Strategy

When I first heard of the Boston bombing and that 3 people have died, I was not shocked. Not because I was not a sensitive human being but because my sensitivity in terms of being shocked by bomb blasts had by then been greatly numbed by the thirty year Sri Lankan war during which the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (more commonly known as LTTE) killed civilians in tens and hundreds. However, when I recover my wits, I always get traumatized by the level of brutality that a human being is capable of showing against another. In this case, it was the same. Little did I know back then that I would be living in Boston when the trial of Tsarnaev was ongoing in the United States District Court of Massachusetts. This post is not meant to be a tribute to those who lost their lives or suffered injuries. Nothing can be a tribute to such a horror. The extent of brutality of bombs should shame humanity as a whole. There are no words to make up for the losses that people have suffered. That is all I could say except for watching in awe those who, like Jeff Bauman and Kaitlyn Cates, stand up stronger than before.

If this post is not a tribute to those who lost their lives or who are rising up stronger than before, then what is it about? This is about collateral damage. The con220px-BostonSuspect2cept which has been stretched too far by all warring states. This is about techniques employed by Attorneys – at – Law whose previous successes at various courts feed into their non-inflatable egos. In layman’s terms collateral damage refers to ‘deaths, injuries, and damage to the property of people who are not in the military that happens as a result of the fighting in a war’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary).  But for Tsarnaev, the deaths of the three individuals were collateral injuries. For what? For the killings of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. (An analysis of the legality of the attacks in Iraq and AfghaAP Inistan are saved for a future post). The distorted notion of collateral damage is something that one hears on day – to – day conversations perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of what actually constitutes of collateral damage. Anything that directly targets and attacks civilians is not collateral damage. It never was. It never will be. A reference to the Additional Protocol I (AP I) to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 seems to be relevant in this regard. According to Article 57 AP I (The AP I is applicable to international armed conflicts.) even in an international armed conflict, precautionary measures have to be adopted in order to achieve the relevant military objective. The deliberate attack on civilians for any purpose (including the purpose of demoralizing the enemy forces, or to teach a government a lesson) is against accepted rules and principles of International Humanitarian Law. However, it is alleged that Tsarnaev had written a note stating that the deaths that occurred at the Marathon Bomb amount to ‘collateral damage.’ Well, they do not. While nobody would accept this lame attempt at justifying the horrible act, what some  – the kind which prefer to appear intellectual by clinging to claims of justice – would say is that it is acceptable as a legal defense or worse yet a reasonable act of retaliation for the deaths of the Muslims in other regions.

While one should not be quick to judge or jump into conclusions about someone’s guilt, it is necessary to understand that there is a limit to which legal defenses can be stretched to save a defendant. While lawyer Judy Clarke should be praised for her talent in law and her ability of obtaining life sentences for those who she defends, her strategy in the current case is questionable. The three notable convicts she defended – Jared Lee Loughner, Susan Smith and Ted Kaczynski (who is more commonly known as Unambomber) pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in the present case, Tsarnaev has not pleaded guilty although he has not expressly refused responsibility for the charges against him as well. While Clarke attempted to raise the insanity defense in the trial against Ted Kaczynski who was at a previous stage subject to some psychological experiments which are claimed to have unsettled his mentality, she was unsuccessful in doing so as Kaczynski refused to accept the defense and instead pleaded guilty. In the case at hand, Clarke was reported as having told the court that Tsarnaev is responsible for the acts and also that those acts were the results of being misguided. This new strategy may play an important role in how the Jury perceives the suspect. Earlier today Katherine Q. Seelye explained in New York Times, the impact that such an approach can have on the members of the Jury.

What is interesting in the way that Clarke has characterized the alleged suspect is that he seems innocent not because he is not responsible for the acts but because his Judy Clarkeresponsibility cannot be considered to be purely attributable to him when there are implications that he was misguided. In other words, although he is physically responsible, he remains morally innocent as he was corrupted by some other person who instilled anger in this young man’s mind. The defense gets even more interesting in the sense that the lack of an express guilty plea paves way for Tsarnaev to lodge an appeal if the verdict happens to be unfavorable to him. This was not an option available to all the other famous defendants defended by Clarke. It is widely reported that Clarke is capable of seeing the good side of every human being – even in the one’s that the world generally tend to despise. Would she succeed in protecting Tsarnaev like she protected the other defendants? Would this mark a more glorious victory for justice?  We have to wait for the verdict to know whether justice would prevail.  Is it just to take the life of a man who took another’s life? Is it just to let him serve a life sentence and be supported by public funds? What is justice anyway???

(All images used in the posts unless otherwise mentioned are drawn from and the author does not hold copyright over the photos used.)

Related Posts

Rape of Law

The controversy pertaiimagesning to the ban of  BBC’s recent documentary on the Delhi Gang Rape, titled ‘India’s Daughter’ led me to rethink my position of decency and justice. The reasons given to justify the ban were that it: 1.   violated Four Indian Statutes (despite my attempts, I have not been able to recover the said statutes except a very general idea of the same) 2. has the potential of inciting public outrage 3. gives overarching importance to freedom of expression 4. gives a  platform to Mukesh Singh (convicted of rape and murder and currently on death row) 5. reveals the identity of the victim and violates privacy.

I was subject to the torture of sitting through the intellectual academic circles arguing in a very divided manner on the issue which was indeed a surprise. My surprise was primarily caused due to many reasons. The assumption that underlies the argument that the documentary can cause public outrage is that such an outrage did not occur when the incident took place in 2012. However, this is an erroneous notion as the rape and murder of the young lady did cause an outrage in India in 2012. (For instance, see The contention that the documentary gives overarching importance to freedom of expression is unacceptable on many different levels. Primarily, there was already many different articles, blog posts, community talks and the like on the issue where the details of the rape had been revealed. Secondarily, the documentary (at least in my personal point of view) does not seem to impede the judicial process. Thirdly, freedom of expression should only be restricted if it affects other rights. Unless it can validly be shown in this situation that the documentary does in fact impede the judicial process or that it violates other rights of the community, there does not appear to be a valid reason for the ban.

Some further argued that the documentary gives a platform to Mukesh Singh. This perhaps is caused due to sentimental reasons and emotions that are evoked in those who watch the documentary. Nonetheless, I am incapable of conceiving how it could be perceived as a platform for Mukesh Singh unless it can be considered as providing him an opportunity to portray himself as an innocent person which I don’t think is the case in this documentary. Although he attempts to argue that he was merely driving the vehicle, his remorseless attitude and misogyny makes a reasonable person doubt his innocencimagese beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps, those who argue that the documentary gives Mukesh Singh a platform base their views on what the Defense (so-called)Attorney states. An accused, irrespective of how gruesome his conduct has been, has a legal right to be defended and has the right to fair trial. However, that does not mean that the Defense Attorney’s arguments should be based on morality and general advise to the women-kind on how not to get raped, what to wear and what time to come home. There is a reason why the lawyer’s job is referred to as an Attorney – at – Law and not an Attorney – at – Morality. Mr. M.L. Sharma, does not bring up any LEGAL justification for the acts that have been committed and fails to prove his capacity as an Attorney – at – Law.


Mukesh Singh does try to provide his (rather pathetic) justifications by making (quite outrageous) statements such as ‘You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands to clap’, ‘a decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night’ (judging by that standard, I admit I am not decent. I am proudly indecent. On certain days, after having remained in the Faculty of Law until seven o’clock in the evening judging student presentations, I reach home past nine. Hence, I am indecent. I travel alone some nights when my husband is incapable of picking me up. Hence I suppose I am extending a hand to clap with.), ‘a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy’, and in relation to another rapist he says that ‘he was capable of anything’ (so the girls on the street should have telepathy to ascertain what the passersby are capable of), ‘out of shame they would learn a lesson’ (from the rapist school of discipline, I suppose), ‘the death penalty will make things even more worse for girls’ (pray, explain how!), ‘now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her’ (fact: they DID kill her. Her intestines were pulled out. An iron rod was inserted into her vagina). I beg those who consider this a platform for Mukesh Singh to explain how in fact, it becomes one.

The next issue is the identity of the victim which was revealed in the BBC Documentary. However, this is not the first instance in which it was revealed. (See (Note its date of publication. There may have been even prior revelations of the victim’s name which I will not be digging into in this post) . The link provided herein gives more detail than just stating the name of the victim and it states that her father wished to reveal the victim’s name. Moreover, prior to the documentary begins, it states that the film was made with the cooperation of Asha and Badhri Singh, the rape victim’s parents. In light of these, it amazes me that some argue on lines of privacy. Are we talking of the privacy of the girl? I am sorry to say that it was violated the moment that the bus that she was traveling in, deviated from the usual route. Her privacy was violated by those who favor the idea that women should not be out on the streets after a particular time of the night. Her privacy was violated by those who demand that women should dress one way or the other. I do not wish to venture into the issue of the parents’ privacy as it is not a concern that arises as they have voluntarily consented to the facts of the matter being released to media – which I personally believe is a good decision although I cannot imagine the trauma the parents might be going through…

In short, I am shocked. You should be too… What has the world come to?

(All images used in the posts unless otherwise mentioned are drawn from and the author does not hold copyright over the photos used.)