The Trilingual Master Plan and Monolingual National Anthem Muddle


Rajan Philips

It is not as if the government’s right hand does not know what its left hand is doing. It is as though there is no central coordination between what the government’s many hands are doing. The government is more hyper than it is organized and it is less given to thinking than doing. I am not the only one saying this and the national anthem cockup is not the only instance where the government has come into public view with its pants down. More informed and more important people are saying the same thing in regard to other instances. Kalana Senaratne lamented in last Monday’s ‘Island’ (27 December) that "there seems to be no clear and principled policy, no proper coordination between relevant organs of the State, no single and authoritative decision-maker concerning issues of foreign policy and no single voice that could be relied upon on matters concerning Sri Lanka’s external affairs". Not just foreign policy. Two days later the Wednesday’s ‘Island’ carried the following bombshell of a headline story.

The brutally frank former Prime Minister and Senior Minister in charge of Good Governance and Infrastructure RatnasiriWickremanayake, scathingly criticized the government for its failure to provide even basic facilities, such as offices and secretaries, for Senior Ministers. One such minister when asked by the ex-PM where his office was, promptly replied: "in the air!"

The story on the economic front is no different, that is if you can ignore the Central Bank’s accountant Governor and his abstract statistics, and look where it matters – among small businesses, the millions who depend on wages and salaries, and the majority of farmers and fishers. Their experience is not the same as the Governor’s. The response from that experience is what scares the hell out of the government MPs. According to Jehan Perera (The Island, Tuesday, 28 December), the MPs are so scared they would rather have the LG elections under proportional representation than first-past-the-post for which the government has prepared legislation but is withholding passage.

One thing with PR is that it can hide a rout just as it has cut back landslides. The government is not going to lose votes for deciding to sing the national anthem in ‘Sinhala Only.’ It is moot if it will win many votes because of that decision. What it does is totally destroy the government’s already diminished credibility. For it is vigorously promoting a Trilingual Master Plan, on the one hand, and obstinately insisting, on the other, that the national anthem shall be sung only in the Sinhala language.

Linguistic Engineering

The Trilingual Master Plan project is an ambitious exercise in linguistic engineering. As motherhood objective there is no reason for anyone to object to it. But operationalizing it and that too in ten years, is another matter. The types of commitment and resources that will be required even to partially succeed in this venture are such as have not been seen or deployed in Sri Lanka in our living memory.

A media article (The Island, 3 December), entitled "The Ten Year Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka" written by the ‘Administrator (Sri Lanka Foundation)’, provides a good account of the thinking behind this project. There is nothing wrong with the thinking, but doing it is the problem. More to the point of my article, while the thinking behind the trilingual project is laudably progressive, the insistence that the national anthem be sung in Sinhala Only is patently regressive.

The trilingual project appears to be the brainchild of Senior Presidential Advisor Sunimal Fernando, the Sociologist, who was also recently revealed as the initiator of the southern caucus twenty years ago to plan Mahinda Rajapaka’s ascent to the presidency. The project also received parliamentary endorsement from another academic and non-cabinet supporter of the President, Rajiva Wijesinha. But on the national anthem issue these two men of substance and culture seem to have been blindsided by ignoramuses in the cabinet.

As if there are no other pressing matters facing the ministers, the Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs, W.D.J. Seneviratne, apparently found time to produce a cabinet paper based on a misreading of the Singaporean practice, recommending that the national anthem be sung in Sinhala Only and that its Tamil translation be abolished. Seneviratne’s much learned cabinet colleague,Wimal Weerawansa, reportedly lectured the ministers that the Indian national anthem is sung only in Hindi and called the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem "a joke." So much for Mr. Weerawansa’s erudition.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where the national anthem can be sung in more than one language. That is a great tribute to Ananda Samarakoon’s versification and music in Sinhala seventy years ago that could be so naturally rendered into Tamil by Nallathamby Pulavar after the original song was adopted as the national anthem in 1951. It is also an indication of the direct translatability of the two languages and the mutuality of music between the two cultures. Politically, the adoption of the two versions of the national anthem soon after independence marked a redeeming instance of consensus amidst all the brouhaha over the Lion flag. For sixty years, no one has suggested that one of the two versions is a ‘joke’. Until now!

For sixty years Tamil children have sung the Tamil version in schools and in public functions. It was a Tamil Minister, Senator M. Tiruchelvam, who directed in 1965 for the first time that the national anthem music be played in cinema halls before the show start. One of my childhood memories is listening to my mother sing, in the afterglow of independence, the Tamil and Sinhala versions as well as Tagore’s Indian national anthem in Bengali. Now, when I remember my mother’s singing I have to think of Weerawansa. What a horrible predicament!

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