18 December 2015

Is 'nation' resident in flag and anthem?

There’s been a lot of back and forth on the matter of the national anthem in recent days.  Some argue that a country should have one national anthem, i.e. in one language instead of various versions in different languages. Some argue that since there are more than one ‘official language’ it makes sense to have as many anthems as there are official languages, or else have verses in all languages. 

I am not a big fan of multi-ethnic, multi-religious propositions because they tend to fudge demographic realities and if the logic of representation is taken to its logical conclusion then we would have to break down line and verse and have ‘language-representation’ that correspond to percentage of population.  Furthermore, as time goes on and the percentages change, lyricists would have to get back to composition and add and subtract so that representational integrity is not compromised. 

I think there’s been too much fascination with symbols and I suspect that this has something to do with doubts about the substance which symbols are supposed to represent.  I don’t believe nation and nationalism exist in flag and anthem.  Neither do I believe that making anthem and flag ‘representational’ (even in proportionate terms, as would be the logical democratization as opposed to the fictionalizing and mischievous enhancing and suppressing sought and often secured by the ‘one-ethnicity, one-vote’ type of proposal) makes for a more united and integrated polity. 

Years ago, I believe in the year 2002, the UNP Government dubbed its comprehensive plan for overhauling the economy ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’.  One can only regain something that one has lost.  If one is clueless about what was lost, it cannot be regained.  Sri Lanka certainly needed some regaining and one of the things that stood out and screamed ‘take me back, take me back’ was territory seized by the land-grabbing terrorists.  There were other things too that had been ‘lost’. A sense of dignity.  National pride.  There was truth that had been overtaken by myth, especially regarding ‘exclusive traditional homelands’.  There was legitimate grievance that had been frilled for political expediency to a point where wild aspiration had moved several light years from grievance. 

There were a lot of ‘lost’ things, none of which ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ sought to recover.  Much of it was ‘regained’ only after the UNP was unceremoniously tossed off the political stage in 2004.  A key ‘lost’ or at least hidden element that was studiously left out of the blueprint was that class of things which includes culture, heritage and history.  Sure, these are not necessarily ‘economic’ categories, but then again ‘Sri Lanka’ is not just an economy.  Indeed, the architects and implementers of ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ not only would have given a hoot about such things but would salivate if they could see them obliterated at project-end. 

That much-sought erasure was tripped by electoral defeat, but this does not mean the project was abandoned or that a ‘regaining’ should not take place.  There were many things given up for ‘lost’ during the time the pro-Eelam NGOs and academics had their honeymoon at Hotel CFA.  Much was recovered after 2005.  What was recovered in relation to what was not, what needs to be recovered, what can be recovered and what ought to be protected, was minute, really. 

If there’s little in us that we can say is unique, then there’s no point talking about becoming Asia’s Miracle.  I believe there is a lot that is unique and also that there’s a conspicuous neglecting of all that.  If we do not know our history, have no sense of heritage, are ignorant of who are ancestors were, the philosophies that fed the thinking that built a civilization in a particular way, then we cannot understand who we are. We will not know where we ought to go. We end up inhabiting other people’s versions of our reality and embracing uncritically their wellbeing-blueprints. 

What is the point in waving a ‘national’ flag over a territory upon which reside a people who have a warped sense of nation or one that has been defined for their consumption?  Why sing a ‘national’ anthem if nation is just a piece of land defined by a boundary and which holds a people who share with each other only the fact of territorial containment. 

I am not saying we should not sing the anthem or wave the flag, but such acts would be so much more meaningful if we got our act together so we can flag that which is undoubtedly ‘national’ and learn to sing those ballads which speak of things that came before.  Is there ‘national flag’ in the future we script for our children by way of the development models we’ve chosen?  Is there ‘national anthem’ in our relations with our neighbours or are we required to sing on a lower key and tiptoe so some supposedly ‘big’ brother doesn’t get upset? 

We regained lost territory. That’s physical.  For this we can wave the flag.  We are yet to recover lost cultural territory. We are yet to slay our colonial ghosts. We are yet to reach our full potential and we will not get there until we have a solid sense of who we are. 

We are not flag-deserving or anthem-deserving, not yet; not in any way that makes sense. We had our terrorism-vanquishing moment. We brought out the flags to celebrate the fact that we won’t have to worry about bombs taking us out.  Worthy of celebration. There’s much more that could be celebrated, that needs to be celebrated. We are not worthy. Not yet.    

Flag and anthem should be embedded (in a metaphorical sense) in the nation and not the other way about.  That’s the only way these things can have meaning.

This was first published on December 18, 2010 in the Daily News.