In a country dominated by Cartesian thinking, it’s not surprising that a man vilified for the better part of a decade as a chauvinist, traditionalist, warmonger, and opportunist should be celebrated as a martyr. I remember coming across a particularly unsavoury (no doubt defamatory) article on this man on an anti-Rajapaksa website, before he decided to cross over to the side that the website was tacitly supporting at the time.
I am, of course, talking about Patali Champika Ranawaka, whose rise to prominence over the decades has been due to a combination of coincidence and perseverance. The UNP, a party hardly known for its sympathy towards Champika’s former party, the Hela Urumaya, now supports the latter’s claim that it was he, and not the government, who facilitated the winning of the war. To lend support to such a claim is to lend support to the party and the ideology it espouses, at least implicitly.
Why do I say that? Because much of that ideology is built today on the view (some would say myth) that the Jathika Hela Urumaya spearheaded the war campaign. Barring this, the JHU has precious little with which it can oil its wheels and spokes. Whether or not one agrees with their take on who should get the greater credit for what happened in 2009, one must concede that as far as propaganda goes this remains their rallying point.
The question as to who really won the war in that sense will remain, for a long time, unresolved, and not even history books will apportion credit fairly and properly. The problem for the JHU is not that it can’t claim any credit; indeed, I would be the first to say that it deserves greater credit than those whom party stalwarts refer to as pseudo-patriots.
The problem is that the Hela Urumaya’s claim to credibility and sincerity can’t be squared with its transformation after 2014. Since the Hela Urumaya of today, for better or worse, is not only led but also embodied by Champika Ranawaka, the problem with the party is more or less the problem with the man leading it. And the problem with Ranawaka is that most of the principles he now claims to stand for are at variance with the political camp he has chosen to side with.
I do not say that the JHU is alone in committing this cardinal sin; others from far more significant political outfits have chosen to go down the path of expedience, sacrificing everything for a handful of silver. But the JHU’s dilemma has been compounded by the political landscape against which the Champika Ranawaka arrest on the one hand and the tensions between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa in the UNP on the other are playing out. To put it succinctly, everything’s in a mess.
Champika Ranawaka’s arrest should never have happened. The case can be made that he and Rajitha Senaratne are probably the most reviled political figures (outside the Royalist Brigade of the UNP) here, but that by no stretch of the imagination will ever be casus belli for their arrest, even if the judiciary is handing down the warrant. The last thing the government needs now is a martyr for the opposition.
The UNP is probably in deeper waters than in 1994, which is why this is the sort of incident it can use to embarrass the government; arresting Champika smacks of political revenge and no excuse trotted out by spokespersons can conceal the reality of it being so. In that sense I am not in support of it: unless compelling evidence is brought out into the open and proved, I will see in it an act of vengeance not only unnecessary but also uncalled for. It’s the last thing we need now after the Swiss Embassy fiasco.
Years ago, an academic, in an essay on nationalist politics in Sri Lanka, implied that the JHU was responsible for the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. This is, of course, an enticing claim to make, but it’s preposterous and, to say the very least, simplistic: the JHU never unconditionally supported Rajapaksa and in any case, the campaign against the war led by the UNP and the Chandrika-ist section of the SLFP was enough to convince a majority within the party itself, who had been axed after Chandrika’s takeover of the party in the early 1990s and its transformation into an outfit for anti-war brigades and for federalism, to select the populist from the South over a more cosmopolitan figure.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that the JHU laid the groundwork for Rajapaksa. To identify how they did this, it is instructive to return to the days of Soma Thera’s passing away and funeral and understand what led to the rise of the JHU itself. Since I’ve tried to chart its history in this column before I won’t dwell on it again, except to say that without the JHU, the SLFP would have found it not a little difficult to mobilise sections of the petty bourgeoisie against the UNP.
Today the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist petty bourgeoisie are decidedly with Rajapaksa. Not the UNP, not the SLFP, and certainly not the JHU. Ergo, it is not with Champika Ranawaka. If there’s one thing about nationalist politics in Sri Lanka we don’t seem to have learnt, it’s that no party in the periphery, no matter how much nationalist rhetoric it musters, can equal the standing of a major party. Malinda Seneviratne observed on more than one occasion that the likes of Rathana Thera (and Champika) better served their cause outside parliament; he not unjustifiably lamented their Trotskyite practice of seeing everything in black and white, a dichotomy which may have helped people to distinguish between the good guys (the UPFA plus breakaway minority parties) and bad guys (the UNP plus mainstream minority parties) but which also reinforced the belief that everyone against Rajapaksa was, by default, a supporter of separatism.
That Trotskyite practice seems to have worked against the JHU today. It cannot go alone. If it did, it would have found it irrepressibly easy to go solo after the war. For the record, the JHU did not choose that option. That option became viable and expedient only after Ranawaka fell out with Rajapaksa. If the 2015 election was an attempt to settle personal scores with those in power at the time, Champika, followed by Rajitha and led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, would have been at the top of the league.
The irony of this was seen, most palpably, when he joined hands on the same political stage with the same people who were against the same nationalist credentials the guys propping him up claim for him presently. I am not thinking of Champika and Rajitha only here, but also of those known for their hostility to nationalism joining hands with a man responsible for the good guy/bad guy dichotomy that was a crucial part of the ideological campaign that got Sinhala Buddhist nationalism back into mainstream politics and Mahinda Rajapaksa as its messiah.
So we have the likes of Mangala Samaraweera and Mujibur Rahman (the latter of whom once derided Champika as an Islamophobe) tacitly turning Champika to a martyr. What would be more incongruous? Maithripala and Mahinda as president and prime minister? Yes, but that happened. More incongruous would be Mahinda and Chandrika together, but given how enmities give way to alliances of expedience I wouldn’t consider that a no-no either. In any case, enmities like that happen to be more personal than political. The rift between the likes of Mangala, Mujibur, and Rajitha on the one hand and Champika on the other are, by contrast, more ideological. Ranawaka is responsible, perhaps more than anyone else, for making it possible for Rajapaksa to imply that opposing him is the moral equivalent of supporting, if not funding, terrorism.
Where does all this leave us? It leaves us with the unenviable conundrum of seeing one party lambast Champika as a traitor, and another party hostile to the ideology he earlier supported celebrate him as a hero. I don’t know whether this can explain the lukewarm response to his arrest, even by those opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though that can partly be explained by the popularity of the president’s other decisions (including his appointment of non-relatives to important positions) and the broad support they have got from the disgruntled middle class.
In any case, I can but only relish the irony of Champika’s arrest, even if in principle I oppose it. The late, lamented S. L. Gunasekara used to say that, by his ruthlessness, the man most responsible for Prabakaran’s death was Prabakaran himself. The other day a friend told me that, by his Sinhala Buddhist nationalist association, the man most responsible for Champika Ranawaka’s arrest was Champika Ranawaka himself.
It doesn’t get more ironic than that.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org