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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Explained: The troubled history of the Sri Lankan national anthem in Tamil

The previous Maithripala Sirisena government would sing the anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil, to boost ethnic harmony in the country. On February 4, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime changed the practice.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: February 5, 2020 9:35:36 am
Sri Lanka national anthem in Tamil, Sri Lanka's Independence Day, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Ananda Samarakoon, indian express, express explained, sri lanka news Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hoists the national flag on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on February 4. (Photo: AP)

On Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence Day Tuesday (February 4), the country’s new government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not sing the national anthem in Tamil, the second national language.

The previous government would sing the anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil to boost ethnic harmony in the country.

The Sri Lankan National Anthem

The national anthem of Sri Lanka was composed by Ananda Samarakoon (1911-1962), a lyricist, singer and schoolmaster. Samakaroon was born a Christian; his birth certificate bears the name “Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Amarakoon”.

Samarakoon was educated in Sinhala under the guidance of DCP Gamlath, considered one of the greatest Sinhala teachers. He then came to India to study music from Tagore and went on to pursue higher studies in Eastern Traditional Music and Indian Classical Music at Shanti Niketan. Later, he embraced Buddhism and took the name “Ananda Samarakoon”.

Samarakoon wrote the national anthem “Namo namo maatha” in Sinhala, recorded in 1946.

According to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education, while the national anthem was accepted by the government, “there were some arguments against it.” Samakaroon was unhappy about the decision to change the first line of the anthem to “Sri lanka maatha”.

Apart from the anthem, Samarakoon composed songs such as “Endada Manike” in an effort to create music with a Sri Lankan identity.

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Significance of the change

This is not the first time the Sri Lankan national anthem is in news. In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to allow the singing of the anthem in Tamil had sparked a row. In fact, his move was attacked by his own party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).

Following this, in 2016 the national anthem was sung in Tamil for the first time since 1949. The move had drawn opposition from former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (Gotabaya’s brother).

The Sri Lankan Tamils constitute a minority in the Sinhalese-dominated island nation. Since 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerilla organisation, waged a war against the Sri Lankan government, which ended in 2009. Their demand was to carve out a separate state for Tamils in northeast Sri Lanka.

In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, best known as the man who crushed the Tamil Tigers, became President. While he enjoyed the support of the Sinhalese-Buddhists, the Tamils and Muslims largely voted for Sajith Premadasa, the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate.

His election was greeted with trepidation by the Tamil community.

According to a report in The Diplomat, in post-independence Sri Lanka, the Tamil anthem was mostly sung in Tamil-speaking provinces. With the rise of the LTTE, the Eelam song gained momentum in the Tamil-speaking regions. Furthermore, “Sri Lankan Constitution provided exclusive sanction to the Sinhala national anthem but the Tamil translation was also given constitutional recognition…” the report says.

Even so, after the civil war was over in 2009, the Tamil national anthem was not sung in public. In 2010, some Tamil politicians criticised a decision to make schoolchildren in Jaffna sing the Sinhala anthem. During this time, housing minister Wimal Weerawansa called the practice of singing the anthem in Tamil “a joke”, further alienating the Tamil community.

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