After the Indian national anthem, the only other anthem that I have been familiar with from my early childhood came from a nearby island — Sri Lanka.
Like the sing-song Sinhalese language, the captivating anthem went up and down and was punctuated by this refrain — Namo Namo Matha. I always thought it was so mellifluous and that the lyrics were inseparable from the music. Like any national anthem, it was about national glory, pride, gratitude, commitment and a salutation to the mother nation. I didn't understand a word, but loved the music and was so familiar with every nuance.
Today, on the 68th Independence Day of the island nation, they sang the anthem yet again, but this time, the words sounded different and completely new; but more familiar and more proximate. And I couldn’t believe my ears — the school kids rendering the anthem in Colombo were singing in Tamil too, a language that has long been marginalised or rather banished by the State to discriminate its native speakers. Today, the Namo Namo Matha that I am so familiar with, also ended like this — Namo Namo Taye. Both meant the same — saluting the nation. Matha was Sinhalese and Taye, Tamil. There were many more words that I could relate to now.
For the first time, I felt the body of the music. And it was beautiful.
This was historic because at the heart of the decades-long bloody conflict in Sri Lanka was language and its associated ethnicity. For Sinhala Buddhist politicians who began the discrimination of Tamils immediately after the British left, it was a ploy to deploy their suzerainty over an autonomous and proud race that had allegedly benefited more from the British than them. The Tamils from the north east were literate, more adept in English and other skills, thanks mostly to their openness to missionary education, and hence were found to be useful by the British. But, the majority Sinhalese nationalists were disgruntled and outraged and waited for their turn. The only way to dispossess the Tamils was to impose Sinhala as a mandatory language, when the country became independent, and that disrupted everything. It was like asking people of Tamil Nadu to learn Hindi to qualify for government jobs. Overnight, Tamils became second class citizens in their own country. It led to a civil war, destruction of material and intellectual wealth, perpetual loss of peace, and mass killings that were no different from genocides.
So, after the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, the country sang the national anthem only for one more year in two languages. Then on, it was all Sinhala, for 67 long years. Majority of the present day Sri Lankans wouldn't have heard it in any other language.
That’s why I also had never heard the Tamil version on the Sri Lankan radio programmes that were my staple entertainment while growing up in Kerala. In the absence of good entertainment on All India Radio, it was the Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and English stations, coming all the way from Colombo as short wave signals, that kept my young days lively. And every day, the programmes wound up with their national anthem, which ended with the Namo Namo Matha. Later, while living in Colombo for nearly five years, which also saw the end of LTTE and the massacre of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians, I always felt very close to the charming music of the anthem because I literally grew up listening to that.
Many might still find today’s gesture mere symbolism when the underlying issues of the Tamils are still unresolved. Despite damning UN reports and UNHCR resolutions, the alleged perpetrators of the war crimes are yet to be brought to book and the lands of the Tamils occupied by the Sri Lankan army are yet to be freed. Promises of autonomy to the Tamils are far from fulfilled and the efforts of homogenising Tamil areas are still continuing. Still, beginning with the emotional and cultural symbol, namely the language, where it all began might melt a few hearts and mend a few minds.
As The Hindu report, described, the Tamil anthem went viral on the social media and moved many politicians. For most of them, it was the first time in their life. They had never heard their national anthem in any other language than Sinhala. Some reports said many veteran Tamil leaders such as R Sampanthan had moist eyes.
Perhaps, this will be the first step in re-imagining Sri Lankan nationalism, which horribly went wrong and ruined the lives and future of millions.
Here's a video of the Sri Lankan national anthem being sung in Tamil: