The Question of the National Anthem’s Language and the Nature of the Crisis (Part 2)

Dhanushka Silva

The D.S. Senanayake cabinet included two Tamil ministers, GG Ponnambalam and C. Sittampalam. The Prime Minister requested that a suitable Tamil translation be adopted for the national anthem as soon as a Cabinet Paper on the topic was passed. Scholar Panditha M. Nallathambi was entrusted with the task and came up with an excellent translation.

On February 4the, 1952, and parallel to the singing of the Namo Namo Mata anthem in Sinhala as the official national anthem, the Tamil translation of the Namo Namo Thaya was also sung at the Independence Day celebrations in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Thandarikunamalai, and Batticaloa. During the visit of Sir John Kotelawala to Jaffna in 1954, the Tamil translation of the National Anthem was sung to welcome the Prime Minister. The National Anthem was played in both languages in the presence of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the opening of the Jaffna Campus of the University of Sri Lanka in 1974 as well.

Wikipedia’s entry on Sri Lanka’s national anthem being sung says, “The lyrics of the national anthem of Sri Lanka have been translated into the official languages of the country, Sinhala and Tamil. It was originally written in Sinhala. This Tamil translation is sometimes sung, often in Tamil schools in Tamil-majority areas”. When asked about the content of the national anthem of Sri Lanka, it seems that it is patriotic enlightenment that unites an unborn child to a mother named Lanka. Therefore, there is no reason for the Tamil people to reject or protest the content of the national anthem. Often their opposition is to singing the national anthem in a language they do not know well.


The National Anthem has been sung in both Sinhala and Tamil for decades. The Tamil version of the original Sinhala anthem was played at many state and official ceremonies. Even governments that were in power when Tamil was not recognized as a national language, have been more intelligent in this matter. Ajith Thilakasena concludes in his book The Trajectory of the Language Crisis, that the crisis in Sri Lanka was not an ethnic one, but a crisis of language. So, from the 80s to the first decade of the 21st century, the singing of the national anthem in Tamil was suspended due to the war.

The language in which the national anthem was sung after the war was decided purely on political grounds, and not out of genuine desire to promote ethnic harmony. On 8th December 2010, a cabinet paper of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government issued a guideline to abolish the Tamil translation of the national anthem and have it sung in Sinhala only. The Singaporean emblem was enshrined in Section 11(6) of the National Flag and National Anthem Act, which states that if anyone sings the national anthem, it should be in accordance with an official transcript. Sri Lankan officials enacted the law in accordance with Sri Lankan law. Did you have a correct understanding of the essence of the law? A good example is Singapore Majula Singapura (the Singaporean national anthem) which is sung and was composed originally in Malay, while the majority population (of 75.2%) of Singapore were Chinese. The national anthem was translated into English, Mandarin, Chinese and Tamil. However, at state ceremonies, the minority sings in Malay.

The language crisis has severely affected many once-colonized countries. In Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and South Africa, people sing their national anthems in whole or in part using two or more languages in order to justly represent minority communities. Many countries have allowed limited use of the translated national anthem. Sinhala is the language of the majority in Sri Lanka and has been constitutionally recognized as the official state language. The usurpation of the right of a people to sing the national anthem in their mother tongue is a symbolic attack on them. It is a compulsion to separate people. It is more important for the present government to rethink its essence than to lean to the law borrowed from the government that decided to Sinhalaize the national anthem in 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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