Our Anthem FOR Hearts and Minds

Michael Roberts

The full-frontal challenges from Janaka Perera and Daya Hewapathirane[1] to my advocacy of the National Anthem being sung in Sinhala and Tamil are on different scales, the one moderate and the latter extremist/chauvinist. But they are not totally apart. Both indulge in cherry-picking examples from the world beyond Sri Lanka to bolster their prejudices. More significantly, the moderate claims of JP work insidiously to bolster the extremists like DH and, worse still, to alienate moderate Tamils (the extremist Tamils, in my assessment, are beyond conversion to amity or sanity).


Perera desires the national anthem to be presented lean – in the official language Sinhala. Here, “lean” is “mean” miserly, exclusive, hostile and dominating. It is a rejection of the Buddhist spirit of almsgiving and the Sinhala New Year practices of dana, where one and all are presented with one’s food and where one feeds strangers.[2]

Moreover, it denies voice—and thus SPACE—to the second of our official languages, namely, Tamil (the mother tongue for most SL Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims). As DBS Jeyaraj tells us from Canada[3] that it was Pundit M. Nallathamby who translated Ananda Samaraakoon’s “Namo Namo Maathaa” into Tamil as Namo Namo Thaaye.” That was in 1950. Nallathamby passed away in May 1951 a few months before “the poem was approved officially as the national anthem by the then UNP Govt in November 1951.[4]

The rescinding of this important symbolic gesture by some governments that followed and now by the Gotabaya Presidency is inexcusable, foolhardy, mean and uncharitable.

Janaka Perera defends this decision by pointing to the use of one language in near-neighbour India and by a globetrotting question about the number of countries that resort to multiple languages on such occasions. This is a specious defence. Sri Lanka must pursue what is best for herself. When I referred to the example of dual language anthems at South African and Kiwi rugger matches it was in order to emphasize the manifest multi-racial enthusiasm that one witnessed on those occasions among (and within the hearts of) the players as well as the home crowds amassed at the stadiums. In brief, it was to provide the potential for the dissemination of currents of amity in states such as South Africa that had been racially fractured.

So, the comparative ‘trip’ was meant to underline the prospect of some fellowship across the ethnic divide being generated by a meaningful and moving melody. Clearly, such a step would not transform Sri Lankan politics like some magic wand. It would be one small step, a beginning.

Perera, to his credit, recognises the force of the Sinhala Only movement in the 1950s and 1960s in generating the political divide between the Tamil and Sinhala peoples in the island. But he then dismisses the link between that movement and subsequent acts that have jettisoned the dual presentation of Sri Lanka Maathaa – a symbolic gesture of equivalent status – at a momentous heart-warming moment of self-reflection.

In his miserly meanness, therefore, Perera becomes an ally of those forces which took the “1956 Revolution” to the extremes – extremes which eventually consigned the island state to periodic ethnic clashes and decades of war. The causes of this divide, of course, were complex and included the upsurge of the underprivileged lower middle classes challenging the snooty English-educated and Westernized upper classes holding the reins of power. The jettisoning of the Tamil voice at Independence Day has been one victim – but not the only one – of these complex currents of history.

Today, it seems, that Daya Hewapathirane is one of the drumbeaters of the forceful Sinhala Only currents of the 1950s to 1970s-and-thereafter – currents that had lineages going further back in time. That he cites and lauds Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera is truly in step with this current of history. Such Buddhist monks as Baddegama Vimalawansa, Devamottawe Amarawansa, Talpawila Seelawansa, Mapitigama Buddharakkhita, Mottunne Indasara, Medagoda Sumanatissa, Kotagama Vachissara and Walpola Rahula[5] were at the vociferous cutting edge of virulent Sinhala extremism.

As we know only too well, those extremist claims, and the push for the reins of government in ways that reduced Tamil ‘space’ and position, widened the ethnic political divide.

Recognising the historical force of these Sinhala and/or Sinhala Buddhist-strands of extremism should not blind us to the hand of Tamil extremism in the divisions that developed from the 1930s and 1940s. Among these factors were the fifty/fifty demand pressed by Ponnambalam and the Tamil Congress from the 1930s and the outrageous and ahistorical claims to “Tamil homelands” presented by the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi at its inaugural rally at Maradana on 18th December 1949.[6]  

ITAK stood for “The Federal Freedom Party of the Tamil-speaking People of Sri Lanka” …. and is more widely known as the “Federal Party.” This initial step into the public domain by the Tamil political spokesmen of that day is highly significant in marking their own local ‘imperialism’: a brazen encompassment of the Muslim peoples within Sri Lanka without any assent or encouragement from those people or their leaders.

I stress, here, that the historical assertions within the Federal Party’s set of demands in 1949, especially those pertaining to Tamil inhabitation of the lands identified in British times as the “Eastern Province,” have been dissected and eviscerated by Gerald Peiris –beginning with his original article in 1985.[7] Nevertheless, the Tamil intelligentsia has continued to press their historical claims in insidious, and even dishonest, manner. The concept of “Tamil homelands” still lurks as a prominent pillar in the platform of leading elements of the TNA, while Wigneswaran (Chief Minister of the Northern Province at one stage recently) has been vehement in presenting this argument;[8] and there is little doubt that it is an axiom among Tamil extremists in the diaspora.

These Tamil extremists, the sneaky lot as well as the vociferous lot, are part of the problems we face today. Reconciliation and concession are anathema to their mode of thinking. Mutatis mutandis, this assertion applies to Sinhala extremists of the calibre of Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera and Daya Hewapathirane. As so often in politics, the extremists feed off each other.

It is sad, then, that Janaka Perea cannot see how his more moderate reading of the politics of the last seventy years feeds into the adamantine positions of Daya Hewapathirane et al. When Hewapathirane asserts that the “Tamils are a small non-indigenous minority community” residing within this our island, he is postulating an outrageous hegemonic claim. It is Hitler-like in its exclusivity and possessiveness.

Hewapathirane is not alive to the possibility that some playful critic could pursue his mode of thinking to a logical conclusion and claim that the island belonged to the descendants of the stone-age aboriginal people who resided in the island before migrants from northern India arrived at some point in the millennium BC. Behind this type of assertion one can perceive extreme danger: within its bland concoctions, one sees (A) ahistorical assessments and (B) fascist modalities of thought.

While Janaka Perera is not in this category, his lean meanness feeds such Sinhala and/or Sinhala Buddhist extremists. ….. and the latter thereby sustain Tamil extremists. Our world is a vicious circle.

PS: It follows that President Gotabaya has been quite unstatesmanlike in insisting on the National Anthem being rendered n Sinhala on the 4th of February. He has missed a wonderful opportunity just like his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. at the moment when the armed forces had defeated the Tamil Tigers. The latter’s Victory Day Speech was quite vacuous and full of shibboleths. I made my criticisms public then.[9] This note, here today, marks my disappointment and criticism of President Gotabaya for his failure to embrace both indigenous languages expressed in an evocative medium at a momentous occasion.

I witnessed a North African standing next to me at Galle Face Hotel during the opening ceremony for a conference organised by a German Foundation exclaim in delight when “Namo Namo Maathaa” was presented by a small choir. When Brian Gilbertson, a talented Australian operatic singer, rendered the anthem in Sinhala at Adelaide Oval in 1996, the You Tube recording presented in my website Cricketique drew these responses

  • “Simply fabulous. Had goose pimples when the SL anthem was sung” – Sadha Ratnasinghe
  • “As a Sri Lankan New Zealander thanks” – Lily Edwardes
  • “Heart-warming and uplifting” – Ajit Alphonsus
  • “Wow!” Sachitra Waralwaththa

So, Gotabaya and his advisors missed a wonderful opportunity to set the programme of reconciliation rolling.


Lily de Silva: “Giving in the Pali Canon,” ……. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel367.html#pali

Sooriya Gunasekara 2017  “Elara was not a Tamil – Part I and Part II,” 10 April 2017, http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2017/04/10/elara-was-not-a-tamil/

DBS Jeyaraj 2020  “Tamils Want To Sing The National Anthem In Their Mother Tongue,” http.//dbsjeyaraj.com/

DBS Jeyaraj 2020 “Singing the National Anthem in the Sinhala and tamil Languages,” 4 Feb 2020,http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/66925

Steven Kemper, 1991 The presence of the past. Chronicles, politics, and culture in Sinhala life, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Asko Parpola: 2002 “Pandaih and Sita On the Historical Background on the Sanskrit Epics” in Journal of the American Oriental Society),

Gerald H Peiris 1991 “An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, IX (1): 1991: 13-39.

Gerald H Peiris 2006 “Disputes over Territorial Claims’ in Sri Lanka,” in Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy: Kandy Books, pp. 385-412

Gerald H Peiris 2017 “Land Policy and Territorial Claims,” in Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustained Development – to strengthen the struggle for survival, Colombo: Visidunu Prakashakayo, pp. 293-322

Harim Peiris, 2018 Chief Minister Wigneswaran breaks with the TNA and forms the TMA.” 31 October 2018, https://groundviews.org/2018/10/31/chief-minister-wigneswaran-breaks-with-tna-and-forms-the-tma/

Michael Roberts, 1993 “Nationalism, the past and the present: the case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and  Racial Studies, January 1993, 16: 133-161.

Michael Roberts, 2001 “Sinhala-ness and Sinhala nationalism,” Colombo: Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, No 4.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Some pillars for Lanka’s future,’ Frontline, 19 June 2009, 26: 24-27.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Sinhala mindset,” 9 Dec. 2009, http://thuppahis.com/the-sinhala-mind-set/

Michael Roberts 2013 “Mixed Messages and Bland Oversimplification in President Rajpaksa’s Independence Day Speech,” 11 February 2013, https://groundviews.org/2013/02/11/mixed-messages-and-bland-oversimplification-in-president-rajapaksas-independence-day-speech/

Michael Roberts 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, Appendix V, pp. 273-92

Thevarajah 2019 “Sri Lanka: Tamil People’s Council calls rally to stir up Tamil nationalism,” 14 September 2019, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/14/tpfw-s14.html

Shenali Waduge 2018 “ITAK’s separatist demands & pro-LTTE statements,” 20 December 2018,   https://www.shenaliwaduge.com/itaks-separatist-demands-pro-ltte-statements/


[1] SEE https://thuppahis.com/2020/02/05/for-the-singing-of-the-national-anthem-in-sinhala-only-two-adamant-voices/. ……..I have not met either Perera or Hewapathirane and do not have any biographical information about them.

[2] See Lily de Silva, n. d.

[3] See http://dbsjey[3] Jeyaraj was a frontline journalist in Colombo and a keen rugger fan in the 1970s and 1980s — before he migrated to Canada. He was, and still remains, a moderate Tamil. He paid for his moderation: he was assaulted severely at one point in Toronto.

[4] See http://dbsjeyaraj.com/

[5] This list has been compiled with the assistance of my Aloysian mate KK de Silva.

[6] For the full text of their inaugural programme, see Roberts, Tamil Person & State. Pictorial, 2014, pp. 273-82.

[7] See Peiris 1991 which presents the original essay from Proceedings of the international conference on ‘Economic Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, (International Centre for Ethnic Studies, August 1985). Note that Radhika Coomaraswamy assigned a Tamil geographer to examine the detailed argumentst in the Peiris work. She did but could not fault it.

[8] See Goonasekera 2017; Thevarajah 2019, and Waduge 2018. Wigneswaran was a member of the TNA but broke away in late 2018. It is my conjecture that he is a Colombo Tamil who is trying to be more nativist and Jaffna Tamil than all the local Jaffnese in one boiling pot. He was born in Colombo in 1939 and attended Royal College (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._V._Vigneswaran).

[9] See “Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future” in Frontline, 2009. Also see Roberts “Mixed Messages,” 2013.

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One response to “Our Anthem FOR Hearts and Minds

  1. Janaka Perera

    This my response.
    The previous government had the National Anthem sung in two languages since 2016 and even went to the extent of even not having military parades to mark the LTTE defeat of 2009 in order to appease the likes of the TNA.
    Did it achieve so-called reconciliation the past four years. (Remember it was during the previous regime some Tamils marked May 18 – the day the LTTE was crushed – as ‘Tamil genocide’ day)?
    So let me say this. I will NOT oppose the National Anthem being sung in two languages provided the Northern Tamil politicians give up all the separatist / federalist demands once and for all..
    If they give such an undertaking they should also give a guarantee that non-Tamils too will be allowed to settle in the North wherever they like and build temples in the same way Tamils have been allowed to do so in the South; also they must ensure no ‘Tamil genocide day’ will be marked in future..
    They cannot have it both ways (have the cake and eat it too)

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