The language controversy over Sri Lanka National Anthem

Related Article: Sri Lankan Timeline in Photos

A National Anthem is a song of patriotic sentiment affirming loyalty to one’s country or nation adopted officially by that Country or Nation. An anthem becomes a national anthem through Constitutional provision, specific legislation or long – standing tradition.

Stylistically the majority of anthems are marches or hymns.They are usually written or composed in the most common language in the Country. There are however some notable exceptions to this rule particularly in multi-ethnic nations.

In Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon , the song “Namo Namo Matha” written by the artist-poet Ananda Samarakoon was formally adopted as the national anthem in 1951. It was slightly amended and changed to “Sri Lanka Matha” in 1961 without the consent of Samarakoon.

When the national anthem was adopted in 1951 Sinhala had not been proclaimed as the sole official language. Thus the United National Party (UNP) government of the day got the song in Sinhala translated into Tamil by the scholar “Pundit” M. Nallathamby.

Both the Sinhala and Tamil versions have been in use for decades. There has set in over the years a certain form of usage in relation to the national anthem. The original Sinhala song gets pride of place in most state or official ceremonies and events. In some instances the Tamil version is also sung.

It has however been the practice for the Tamil version to be used in most events or functions in the Tamil speaking areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Most Tamil medium schools also sing the national anthem in Tamil at school events. This applies to many Tamil medium schools outside the North – East too.

It is indeed noteworthy that the Tamil version continued to be in use even after Sinhala was made the sole official language in 1956. Both the Sinhala and Taml versions were sung in the sixties of the last century when the Prime minister Dudley Senanayake visited Jaffna.When Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike came to Jaffna as premier in 1974 to open the newly set up Jaffna campus of the University of Sri Lanka both versions were sung.

It was common in those days for selected school bands and choirs to render the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil. What is remarkable is that though the Tamil language held no official status the more enlightened governments of the day had no qualms about the national anthem being sung in the Tamil language in Tamil medium schools or official functions in the predominantly Tamil speaking regions.

The Constitution of 1978 ushered in by the UNP regime led by Junius Richard Jayewardene provided national language status to the Tamil language. It also granted Constitutional status to the national anthem. Clause 7 of the Constitution says – “The National Anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Matha,” the words and music of which are set out in the Third Schedule”. Both the Sinhala original and Tamil translation were acknowledged.

K W Devanayagam

This was done mainly because of former Kalkudah MP KW Devanayagam who was at that time the only Tamil minister in the UNP government. This act evoked praiseworthy mention as an indicator of inclusiveness and tolerance.

The Wikipedia dictionary in its entry on national anthems refers to Sri Lanka in this way – “The Sri Lankan national anthem has translated lyrics for each of the country’s official languages Sinhala and Tamil. It was actually written in Sinhala, but a Tamil translation is also played on some occasions and mostly played in Tamil Provinces and Tamil schools”

It could be seen therefore that this Island nation has displayed a sense of accommodation towards the usage of Tamil language in the sphere of “officially” singing the national anthem throughout its post independence period.

Although the singing of the national anthem decreased significantly in the North and east due to the escalation of the ethnic conflict the practice is once again emerging in recent times after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Against this backdrop it was indeed troubling to see a sudden “assault” on the usage of the Tamil national anthem from unexpected quarters. Strong moves were initiated by sections of the government to abolish the translated Tamil version of the national anthem and impose Sinhala as the only language in which the national anthem could be sung officially. A cabinet paper was taken up for discussion by the government in this regard on December 8th 2010.

It is somewhat unbelievable that such a politically myopic exercise could have been undertaken at the present juncture.

After decades of a separatist conflict the alienated Tamil population is slowly struggling to be re-integrated into the political mainstream of a united nation. Now they were being denied the right to sing the national anthem in their mother tongue and dealt a symbolic blow.


This act of denial had other insensitive connotations in the wake of the military defeat inflicted on the LTTE. It could be interpreted by some as a symbol of triumphalism. The Tamils were being treated as a “conquered” people and forced to sing the national anthem in the language of the “conqueror”.

There was also a cruel irony in the contemplated move.The limited right to sing the national anthem had been enjoyed in the past when Tamil had no official Constitutional status. Now Tamil had official language status thanks to the 13th and 16th amendments to the Constution. Sadly attempts were being made now to deny the right to sing in Tamil after elevating it as an official language.

Furthermore these moves were being proposed under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa has earned much credit in the past due to his efforts to afford official recognition to the Tamil language. He is the first Sri Lankan head of state to start learning the language of the principal minority ethnicities in his country.

Rajapaksa tries to speak at least a few passages in Tamil on important occasions. He is the first man to speak in Tamil while addressing the UN General assembly. Recently he got his secretary Lalith Weeratunga to use Sinhala,Tamil and English at the official swearing in ceremony.

It is ironic therefore to see attempts underway to deny usage of Tamil in singing the national anthem when President Rajapaksa has in the past embraced the language to a great extent publicly in a bid to demonstrate to the Tamil people that they are indeed an integral and esteemed component of the Sri Lankan nation.
What then led to this sorry situation?


The way to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The background to these attempts were also based on good intentions. It had been felt that no proper procedures were being practised at official functions where the national flag was raised or national anthem sung.

President Rajapaksa had therefore instructed Public Administration and Home affairs minister W.D.J. (John) Senevirathne to prepare a cabinet memorandum outlining the appropriate protocols to be adopted in relation to the national flag and national anthem. A cabinet paper incorporating basic guidelines was duly prepared and submitted for discussion and approval on November 3rd 2010.

After preliminary discussion in November the cabinet paper was taken up for detailed discussion again on December 8th 2010.
This column learns that the officials who drafted the memorandum had relied greatly on a Singaporean piece of legislation as a model. The use of the national anthem is governed by Part IV of the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules made under the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act. This act amended in 2007 was used as a model by Sri Lankan officials.

Apparently there is a provision in the Singaporean act which stipulates that anyone singing the national anthem must sing the official lyric and not any translation of the lyric. According to informed sources the duplication of that provision in the Sri Lankan cabinet memorandum had paved the way for the current controversy.
It is learnt that the cabinet paper recommended the singing of the national anthem in Sinhala only and suggested that the Tamil translation in use for decades be summarily abolished. It was also proposed that those who were not proficient in the Sinhala language could write down the Sinhala words in Tamil or English and sing.

Majulah Singapura

The Sri Lankan officials in emulating the letter of the Singaporean guidelines had missed the spirit of the Lion City state anthem. Although the majority community in Singapore are the Chinese (75.2%) the national anthem is in the Malay language spoken by 13.6% of the people. The national anthem written by Zubir Said is titled “Majulah Singapura” or “Onwards Singapore”.

English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and Tamil are recognized as official languages in Singapore but Malay is regarded as the National language. Thus it is considered appropriate that the national anthem be in Malay. Translations are available in English,Mandarin and Tamil but only Malay could be used to sing the national anthem in official functions.

Thus in Singapore where the national anthem is in a “minority” language there is an imperative need to debar translations and insist upon Malay alone being used officially to sing the national anthem. If translations were allowed the Mandarin or English version could swamp the Malay version. But this is not the case in Sri Lanka where Sinhala is firmly entrenched as the language of the majority and primary official language. It is the Tamil language that requires special measures and guarantees in the present situation.

It was in this context that the cabinet paper dated November 3rd 2010 was taken up for detailed discussion by the cabinet on December 8th 2010.

Wimal Werawansa

According to ministerial sources who spoke to this columnist on condition of anonymity it was National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and Construction, Engineering , Services Housing and Common Amenities Minister Wimal Werawansa who at the outset welcomed the proposal to abolish the Tamil translation and sing the national anthem in Sinhala alone.

Weerawansa informed his cabinet colleagues that the Tamils wanted to sing the anthem in Sinhala and said that when he was in Jaffna recently the national anthem had been sung in Sinhala only at an official function. The Jaffna Tamil gathering had sung enthusiastically, Weerawansa said.

Pontificating further the former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)stalwart observed that it was a joke for a national anthem to be sung in two languages. He also educated his co – ministers that in India where so many languages were spoken including Tamil the national anthem was in Hindi only.

Unfortunately minister Weerawansa was not well-informed on the topic he was waxing eloquent. There are several countries like Canada, Philipines , Belgium, Switzerland and South Africa where the national anthem is sung in two or more languages in full or in parts. At the same time many countries allow limited use of translations.

More importantly Weerawansa was incorrect in his reference to the Indian national anthem. The song “Jana Gana Mana” was written in Bengali by the illustrious Rabindranath Tagore a Bengali himself. It is however written in “tatsama” and not colloquial Bengali.

Tatsama Bengali

Tatsama Bengali is somewhat classical and has an extensive vocabulary of words “loaned” from the ancient Sanskrit language. About 70% of words used in Tatsama Bengali is of Sanskrit origin while only about 40% words in colloquial Bengali is Sanskrit.

Bengali poets of the 10th century resorted to Tatsama because they felt that a greater deal of classical Sanskrit was required to express their thoughts in poetic form. Later in the 19th century another school of thought comprising English educated Bengalis revived the Tatsama poetry in a big way.

Tagore was influenced by this school of thought and resorted to Tatsama in conveying his poetic thoughts in Bengali. “Jana gana mana” therefore had a lot of Sanskritised words intelligible to most Indo-Aryan languages.

Weerawansa was therefore incorrect in saying the Indian national anthem is in the official language Hindi. Incidently another of Tagore’s compositions “Sonar Bangla” or “golden Bengal” is the national anthem of Bangladesh.

According to ministerial sources Weerawansa’s ill-informed onslaught on Tamil being used to sing the national anthem found a responsive chord in several ministers.
One reason for this type of response was the view shared by some that Weerawansa was only articulating the wishes of President Rajapaksa. So some better informed ministers were seemingly in agreement with Weerawansa to curry favour with the President.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara

In that situation several of the more enlightened ministers also kept silent.There was also hesitation among ministers of the Tamil and Muslim communities to speak out. But not so the irrepressible Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

The veteran leftist firebrand who had joined cabinet ranks as minister of National languages and Social integration was the first to speak against the proposal to do away with Tamil in singing the national anthem.

Nanayakkara spoke eloquently on the need to be inclusive and fair by the minority communities. He saw no need for the removal of an arrangement that had been in practice for so many years. Comrade Vasu also pointed out that the need of the hour was to reach out to the Tamil masses and bestow upon them a sense of belonging. The national anthem proposal would be detrimental to national unity, he said.

With Nanayakkara leading from the front the counter-offensive to the “Sinhala only” imposition gained momentum. Rajitha Senarathne the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister , Douglas Devananda the Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development Minister, Rauff Hakeem the Justice minister A.L.M. Athaulla the Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister joined the discussion and spoke out against the proposal.

A L M Athaulla

Athaullah had a counter–proposal. Why not include verses from Tamil also into the national anthem along with Sinhala? He queried. For the national anthem to be truly national both the Sinhala and Tamil languages should constitute it observed the uncrowned king of Akkaraipatru who went on to propose a bi-lingual national anthem.

The mood at the cabinet meeting changed and it soon became obvious that the proposal to do away with the Tamil translation of the national anthem was being met with stiff resistance. It was also clear that deep divisions were emerging on this account within the cabinet conclave.

Gauging the situation correctly President Rajapaksa brought the discussion and debate to an end by announcing that the decision on the cabinet paper would be deferred indefinitely until a later date. He said that an intensive informed discussion was necessary before a final decision was arrived at.Meanwhile the status quo would remain as usual, the President stated.

Although the decision on the issue has been deferred the controversy surrounding the issue has not ceased. News reports in sections of the media continue to fuel it.

Mathripala Sirisena

The reconciliation process launched by President Mathripala Sirisena has removed this obstacle: the Sri Lankan national anthem can also be sung in Tamil. The Head of State is in fact lifting a ban existing since 2010, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa prohibited schools and other institutions from using the Tamil version of the national anthem.

“The President said that he would send a circular saying that there is no ban on singing the national anthem in Tamil”, said the Democratic Peoples’ Front (DPF) leader Mano Ganeshan.

It is important to note that the issue has not been resolved conclusively.

One thought on “The language controversy over Sri Lanka National Anthem

  1. This is a very interesting item.

    Being a non-Sri Lankan, I never realised your National Anthem was in a supposedly different language.

    Of course it should be universally sung in Sinhala.(that includes when played in other Countries.)

    However, as your item pointed out, in the areas of mainly Tamil population it is most definitely correct for it to be sung in the Tamil language. Otherwise there is no way for your Nation to ever become united as one without accepting the fact you have two distinct races.

    Thank you both.

    Wishing Tamils and Sinhalese the best of good fortune.

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