05 February 2016

The name, the flag and the anthem of the nation

There has been a lot of discussion on the appearance in public of a sticker with a particular spin on what can be argued to be the true name of this island, “Sinhale”. 
Pic courtesy www.maphill.com

“Sinha-Le,” literally (of the) Lion (Sinha) Blood, with the first part in yellow and the last or ‘le’ element in red first appeared in social media when someone got a tattoo done, took a picture and posted it on Facebook.  Since then it has gone viral in Sri Lanka.  While a particular group has happily piggybacked on the term and extremist ‘interpreters’ have indulged in vandalism that is a clear articulation of virulent communalism, by and large, this ‘campaign’ if you want to call it that has been marked by a disorganization that can only indicate that it has resonated with something felt on the ground. 

There is palpable discontent among Sinhalese over the crass generalization in referring to them, reference marked by vilification and a mischievous (softer word) reducing of all identity-related ‘problems’ to the ‘chauvinism’, ‘extremism’ etc of that community.  Response, typically and initially, involves identity assertion.  In this instance, the fracture is actually a distortion of the etymology.  There  was no ‘lion’ and no ‘blood’ in Sinhale after all. [I wrote on the subject in the 'Daily Mirror' recently: "I say 'NO' to Sinha-Le AND to Sinhale-bashers"]

Indeed the use of ‘Sinhale’ as a reference to those whose mother tongue is Sinhala goes against the historical, political and philosophical thinking that yielded the named  ‘Sinhale’ in the first place:  Siv-Hela (the four Helas, namely Yaksha, Naga, Deva and Raksha).  Embedded in this is the idea of embrace, cross-fertilization of cultures and all those other things that those who vilify the Sinhalese want post-war ‘reconciliation’ to be, of course along with a disavowal of history, a reduction of all identity-related problems to ‘Sinhala chauvinism/extremism’ and a comfortable accommodation of other identity assertion/asserters including chauvinists/extremists and chauvinism/extremism of other communities. 

While the surfacing of the Sinha-Le phenomenon can be read as reaction to all this or, as the typical rubbishers of anything related to Sinhala would have it, a mere manifestation of latent racism ingrained in Sinhala DNA, the fact remains that it is a distortion that is detrimental to the cause of Sinhalese who feel short-changed by the whole multi-ethnic-multi-religious discourse and the cartel that dominates the discussion. 

So we come to the lion in the national flag.  The Sinha-Le folk would see a connection and an exclusive one at that between the lion in the flag and the presumed lion in the name ‘Sinhale’.  The fact is that the name Sinhale and the lion in the flag were produced by two processes of historical unfolding, the one having little to do with the other.  What Sinha-Le does is not only a devaluation of Sinhale but articulating consciously or unconsciously a racist and exclusivist creed. 

That said, the call for the removal of ‘Sinha-Le’ stickers is still silly and illegal.   It’s a name.  That’s all.  If those who swear by it indulge in vandalism or any other illegal activity, then the law should intervene.  One deals with the ideological and political connotations ideologically and politically, that’s all.  After all there are political parties and organizations which have ‘Muslim’, ‘Tamil’ and even ‘Eelam’ in their names, all recognized by the Commissioner of Elections as legitimate political entities.  Apply that rule selectively and you open a can of worms.  There are better ways to deal with it. 

There have been cries for ‘action’ against those who use flags that do not have the green and orange strips.  This too is silly.  There is an official national flag.  Any piece of cloth that adds or subtracts is technically not a corruption of the name, but merely another piece of cloth or a different flag. 

It is the same with the National Anthem.  There’s a lot of agitation of a Tamil version being sung at official events.  It was pointed out on social media recently that it is strange that those respond to the Sinha-Le phenomenon, even as they say ‘we all have the same blood’ or emphasize ‘plasmic’ similarity/unity, are fine with two national anthems, multiple legal systems and even the division of the country.  ‘Schizophrenic?’ the commentator asks, tongue-in-cheek.  However, one should not let the confusion of the politically schizophrenic inform a rational and sober reflection on the issue of a Tamil version.[I have dealt with the issue of the 'National Anthem' in "Affirming Sri Lankan identity in anthem(s)", "Is nation resident in flag and anthem?" and "In search of nation in anthem-singing, flag-waving times"]

If we go with the political and philosophical thrust of ‘Sinhale’ then we can sing the National Anthem in any language not just Sinhala and Tamil.  There can be official versions in Sinhala and Tamil, but it would of course be silly to have an official version in, say, Swahili.  If someone wants to sing a Swahili translation, so be it.  If someone wants to put a different set of words to the melody, it would be silly to call it the ‘National Anthem’.  For example, we have ‘Olu Pipila’ with basically the same melody.  No one calls it a version of the National Anthem and no one calls it a pernicious corruption either!  Any digression in terms of melody and content is a non-issue with respect to ‘corruption of the national anthem’ because, like in the case of the national flag, it’s just a different song.  We can't call it illegal can we?  It might hurt sentiments of Sinha-Le Sinhalese but that’s probably mostly because those sentiments are based on an erroneous understanding of ‘Sinhale’.

In short we can have an official version in Tamil which by and large contains the same sentiments as the Sinhala version.  That’s what the spirit (shall we say?) of Sinhale recommends.  And that, moreover, is the spirit of the words ‘eka mavakage daru kala bavinaa…’ (since we are all children of a single mother…).  That’s this island, our mother.   It is about embrace.  It is about a celebration of commonalities (as opposed to the crass affirmation of difference).  And if it is about the politics of the here and now, a Tamil singing a Tamil version of a national anthem that is and has been exclusively sung in Sinhala, it speaks of a political choice to belong along with others and not belong as a separate entity in the sense of a communal enclave.   More wholesome, one would think.

We are celebrating 68 years of Independence.  There are political and ideological issues of ‘Independence’ of course and some might think there’s nothing much to celebrate.  In fact it could be cogently argued that the celebration itself is a disavowal and rubbishing of history and heritage over and above insulting the memory of those who turned a geography into a country, a population into a people and practices into a rich culture.  We have much work to do to recover ourselves and our nation, however we may want to define these.  So if we must quibble about names, flags and songs, let us at least resolve to draw the remarkable, unique and rich philosophical thinking that yielded ‘Sinhale’ even if we don’t want to go with that name.  


Sylvia Haik said...

I remember an aid song that had verses in Sinhalese, Tamil and English and the song was very well received. Why don't we have verses in our anthem in all three languages and all communities just sing one anthem at every occasion. We could do the same to our flag as the two colours appear an afterthought and removed by idiots. These colour can be easily incorporated into the background of the lion.

Anonymous said...

It has taken a very long time in Sinhala usage for "le" in Sinhale to be given an interpretation as blood. Perhaps this is the first time and somewhat mischievously, intentionally or otherwise. Also the meaning had to be forced with "le" in red or hyphenated or by some other means.

But "le" which can mean in some place or thing, is quite common in Sinhala as in Male (මළේ), Ale(අලේ), Gele(ගෙලේ), Kele(කැලේ) etc. etc. which some may now interpret as blood everywhere?