Patali Champika Ranawaka

On October 10, 2000, there was a parliamentary election. Two days later, a newly-formed party split over its National List seat. The Central Committee had selected one person for that seat. This person had later resigned over the split, a problem given that he was the party’s president. Worse still, the split had been a tug-of-war between him and a younger rebel, who was apparently hell-bent on forcing everyone into selecting him.

In the end, that rebel got what he wanted. He got the seat.

SL Gunasekera, the president, had commented on him and his faction: “A set of intolerant Talibans.”

The Sihala Urumaya got 1.48 percent of the votes that year. In 2001, when another parliamentary Plection was called (one which saw the defeat of the ruling People’s Alliance), that amount slipped to 0.57 percent. Gunasekera left. The rebel, Patali Champika Ranawaka, emerged as a leading nationalist after his faction gained support. The entry of bhikkhus into parliament and what followed thereafter is history. Done and dusted.
What explained the rift? Going by election results, Ranawaka was more popular: he got 37,000 votes from Colombo against 28,000 his rival got. This was reflected within the party: Gunasekera wanted the National List seat, something opposed by 90 percent of the candidates in the Sihala Urumaya. So, it wasn’t a deterioration brought on from inside. The people wanted Ranawaka.

Beneath those numbers, there would have been a bigger rift. We wouldn’t really know. What we do know is that between the parliamentary election of 2001 (where the SU didn’t get a single seat) and that of 2004 (where nine JHU members entered the Parliament), things moved fast.

The government led by Chandrika Kumaratunga and her rival Ranil Wickremesinghe became indecisive. Everything ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhist’ was trashed in the name of plurality. Everyone considered a nationalist, Gunasekera included, was marked as an extremist. A key critic of the LTTE, Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera passed away. Soon enough, the nationalist wave turned into a tsunami. The JHU rode on it.

Between 2001 and 2004, the JHU built up a nationalist front headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Between 2005 and 2010, the war was fought and won. And between 2010 and 2015, the man who’s credited as having ended that war was opposed by those very people who (it is claimed) had written much of his manifesto, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’. All from the JHU.

That they were his scriptwriters is of course hard to buy, but that they stood by and defended him and the war isn’t. Having built credibility, they walked out on their former boss. They defeated him. They joined forces with the same people they’d once branded as ‘Tigers’ and ‘Eelamists’.

There are questions here that will and won’t be asked. Like what happened to the Sihala Urumaya. Or what would have happened if Gunasekera stayed. Or what was worse: Ranawaka’s perceived chauvinism or his later squandering of it. Questions on whether the ‘Old Guard’ SU was preferable to the ‘New Fleece’ JHU won’t be asked either. But they should, and for a good reason.

Whenever one reflects on the JHU, there’s a verse which should come to mind at once. It’s from a poem by William Wordsworth that encapsulates his former ardour over the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! – Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

The JHU’s decision to go into areas like constitutional reform replaced the nationalist wave of 2010. The ‘bliss’ in that ‘dawn’ soon soured. Champika Ranawaka’s removal from the Ministry of Power and Energy in 2013 aggravated the campaign to find a common candidate. When Maithripala Sirisena became president, the people who had supported and continued to support his predecessor shifted from the JHU. They began calling Ranawaka a traitor, compounded by Rathana Thera’s admission that his party never had a Sinhala Buddhist base.

“The attraction of a country in romance” – was this the wave which brought the JHU into Parliament? If so, did the perceived neglect of it erode that party’s popularity later on? To ask this is to ask whether the alternative outcome in 2000, i.e. the Gunasekera Faction’s victory, would have been more desirable.

Not for nothing was Gunasekera called a ‘moderate,’ not many people, for instance, know that the Sihala Urumaya’s principles (inadvertently) reflected those of SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha. Bandaranaike’s original stand, which he kept to before yielding to popular pressure in the 1950s, was that no unification of the country was possible without unifying the Sinhala people. By ‘Sinhala’, of course, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists were included, a point reflected in the fact that not only did Protestants and Catholics vote for the Sihala Urumaya, but a Christian priest, Father Oscar Abeyratne, canvassed for it.

Bandaranaike and his Sinhala Maha Sabha, then, found a rightful heir in Gunasekera. But what happened next? His position in the SU was questioned. Why? Because he was an atheist!

No one who has ‘read’Gunasekera and fellow SU stalwart Malinga Gunaratne (who was also a non-Buddhist) can deny that they were for what Ranawaka wanted: An end to the war. True, there were rifts. Gunasekera was against the entry of Buddhist monks into Parliament, a point which intellectuals and nationalists (in the wake of statements like the above by Rathana Thera) agree with. But his faction was more inclusive. It was respected by a larger section of the country, which explains why Ranawaka is called a ‘racist’ by the same people who voted for Sirisena, while his rival remains quietly respected.

Who was better, then: the non-Buddhist who maintained his views till his death or the Buddhist who kept on contradicting his own stand?

Not that this hasn’t happened before. Read up on the JVP and the LSSP and their coalitions with the same parties they opposed. Read up on Max Eastman, James Burnham, and John dos Passos, avowed Communists and Trotskyites who made U-turns in the face of the Red Scare. Read up on Trotsky himself, who predicted that the Bolsheviks would give way to a single dictator and then forgot his own prophecy by joining them in 1917. And while you’re at it, read up on Wordsworth’s former revolutionary zeal and his subsequent capitulation.

There are turncoats and there are those who change. The two are different. The JHU doesn’t have turncoats and there’s no reason to think it will. But judging from what some of its own members have said and the people they’ve joined with (a year ago it would have been impossible to dream of Ranawaka or Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe in the UNP), there’s doubt. Makes one want to revisit the Old Guard. Makes one want to return to the ‘country in romance’, where Sinhala people, whether Buddhist or Christian, united as one.
The Sihala Urumaya is dead. So is SL Gunasekera. Their legacy remains, however. Always.