Days after he was elected, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that even though the Tamil and Muslim communities had not voted for him, he was the president of all Sri Lankan people. He is yet to provide any confidence that that inclusive spirit will inform his governance. To begin with, he included no Muslims, and only two Tamils in his 51-member cabinet — it has no women either. He made his intentions even clearer in his inaugural speech in Parliament on January 3. “We must always respect the aspirations of the majority of the people… I will always defend the unitary status of our country, and protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana whilst safeguarding the right of all citizens to practise a religion of their choice.” The majority in Sri Lanka are the Sinhala-Buddhist people, on whose votes Gotabaya was elected. The Tamil minority has been struggling for years for the adoption of constitutional amendments that will loosen the unitary grip and address its political aspirations, but that looks farther away now. The government has lost no time in pandering to the majoritarian galleries – the national anthem will no more be sung in Tamil, the second official language of the country, at the February 4 National Day ceremony.
The practice had been initiated in 2016 by the previous National Unity Government, as a measure of inclusiveness, and in recognition of the need for national reconciliation. It had symbolic value, coming as it did after an era in which the predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa government had engendered a toxic mix of Sinhala nationalism and militarism on the back of the 2009 military victory over the LTTE. In fact, it was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government that unofficially discouraged and ended the singing of the official Tamil translation of the anthem at government functions and in schools in the Tamil north and east of the country, which had been common practice since the 1950s.
Some in Sri Lanka have pointed to India, where the anthem is sung in one language across the country. The two situations are not comparable. Post-independence India quickly adopted a path towards accommodation of its linguistic diversity, and barring a few years in the 1950s, language has consequently not been the inflammable issue that it became in Sri Lanka. If anything, it is India, where the current majoritarianism seeks to fuse Hindi and Hindutva and impose both, that should learn a lesson or two from Sri Lanka’s own tragic history, in which an early Citizenship Act, and a Sinhala Only legislation, fed into notions of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy, and led to untold violence.