Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party created primarily to secure the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists in Sri Lanka and as such has propagated an exclusivist Sinhala-Buddhist narrative over the years, has displayed electoral behavior seemingly inconsistent with its original mandate, especially with its decision to break away from the Rajapkse regime and support the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena for the January 2015 presidential election. The inconsistency lay in the fact that the JHU paired with the United National Party (UNP) it formerly criticized[i], and that the common opposition alliance it joined was an expressly pluralistic one championing parity of status for all ethno-religious identities.
This paper attempts to understand this shift of stance of the JHU, and explain how such shift has not compromised its position in mainstream politics. Towards this end, it will analyze the JHU’s changing electoral strategy in relation to the particular brand of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism the party promotes and its electoral calculations. Next, it will discuss how such nationalism has managed to circumvent a dent in the JHU’s voter base by creatively manipulating the logic of the party’s existence with different rationales that justify JHU action in changing circumstances. It will then analyze how this same nationalism has generated perceptions of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in society, and bring to light a new angle in which to view this hegemony in light of the changing nature of the JHU and the nationalism it propagates. For this purpose, the paper will draw from Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony. Lastly, it will draw a conclusion based on this discussion.
Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism: The JHU Brand
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is a political party created in 2004 by a group of Buddhist monks primarily with the aim of establishing a Dharma Rajya (Righteous State) in Sri Lanka. Towards this end, it aimed at countering the wave of ‘unethical’ Christian conversions of Buddhists (and even Hindus), and restoring the primacy of Buddhism in the island, in addition to “purifying the political process from corruption and abuses”. As such the party has, since inception, assumed an extremely pro-Sinhala-Buddhist stance. In fact, one of the twelve principles on which the party was founded is that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist unitary state that cannot be divided” (Ibid, p. 247), while another states that “the hereditary rights of the Sinhalese should be granted while protecting the rights of other communities who inhabit the island” (Ibid).
In this light, the JHU joining to power the not-so-obliquely-pro-Sinhala-Buddhist Mahinda Rajapakse’s presidential election campaign and subsequently his effort to militarily wipe out the LTTE seems quite expected. However, its alliance with the United National Party (UNP) for the 2015 general election seemed a glaring contradiction given the strong criticism the latter drew from the former during the 2002-2003 ceasefire agreement. Hence pairing with the very same party 12 years later for electoral gain necessitated strong justification, a perception evidently shared by many voters judging by the frequent questioning of the alliance. In a pre-election Q&A session of Champika Ranawaka[ii] the author attended, in answer to many such questions, Ranawaka reasoned that as times and priorities change, one has to adjust one’s ways to make sure that one is still in a bargaining position and claimed that “those who do not change will be destroyed”. Therefore, he held, it is necessary to work with erstwhile contenders under changing circumstances as long as it aligns with one’s aims and objectives, such aims and objectives in this instance supposedly being securing the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists.
A respondent of this study claimed that “If not for the JHU there is a high risk that the UNP led government might proceed in an anti-nationalist direction. JHU has the potential to control the non-Sinhala-Buddhist elements within the government by using appropriate political strategies” (interview with a supporter of JHU, 13 November 2015). A local level politician of JHU, in an interview with the author held prior to the election, opined that “People have made up their minds to vote for UNP because of their faith in Champika and the JHU. They would not otherwise vote for the UNP, they don’t trust that party. They trust us to protect the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhist community. They know we always keep our promises” (interview with local level politician of JHU, 14 August 2015).
These opinions show that the JHU’s shift of attitude from being exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist to aligning with a proclaimed pluralistic coalition is justified by the party’s supporters using a Sinhala-Buddhist rationale. It is interesting to note how the very same majoritarian logic that brought the JHU to power with the pro-majority Rajapakse regime – i.e. securing Sinhala-Buddhist interests in the country – was used to justify that party joining a not-so-majoritarian coalition, in that it was viewed as necessary for a pro-Sinhala Buddhist element to be present in the pluralistic alliance to check any possible move detrimental to the best interests of the majority ethno-religious group. The next section will analyze how the JHU’s survival in mainstream politics has been ensured by the flexibility of the rationale that underpins the stance of the party, and of its politicians and supporters in justifying such rationale.
The JHU constitutes an apt example of how adaptability ensures survival. It joined to power the presidential election campaign of Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005 as a proclaimed Sinhala-Buddhist force openly endorsing a military solution to the armed conflict. They successfully portrayed themselves as the [sole] guardians of Sinhala-Buddhist interests in the country, claiming to always represent and secure Sinhala-Buddhist interests in the decision-making process, and strengthen the position of the government in its military campaign against terrorism by drawing the critical support of Sinhala-Buddhist voters. The perks in this arrangement were mutual: Rajapakse earned increased public trust (from at least the Sinhala-Buddhists) due to the presence of the JHU, and the JHU enjoyed material benefits such as ministerial portfolios and the power that came with being part of the Rajapakse regime. Over time, however, the pragmatist Rajapakses were effectively able to replace the JHU as the guardians of Sinhala-Buddhism, thanks much to the popularity they gained among Sinhala-Buddhist masses because of the successful military conclusion of the war. It could be persuasively argued that the JHU sought to reclaim its position as the primary representative/guardian of Sinhala-Buddhist interests in the country (which would ensure decisive electoral gains), but could not find the space for this within the Rajapakse regime. Their foregoing of all material benefits offered by the Rajapakse regime and joining the emerging opposition alliance for the 2015 presidential election therefore makes perfect utilitarian sense.
A compelling justification for these actions was readily found in the pro-Sinhala-Buddhist narrative in that the JHU crossover was considered justifiable largely because it was made for the sake of securing Sinhala-Buddhist interests in a politically ‘healthy’ country. Though the Rajapakses were by this time liberally flaunting Sinhala-Buddhism, the JHU’s brand of same carried more legitimacy because it was coupled with the call for ‘good governance’ and measures against the corruption of officials of the Rajapakse regime. A respondent of this study, in an attempt to justify the JHU’s decision to crossover, stated that “There were only two alternatives. Contesting alone or sailing with the UNP led coalition. The party first decided to contest alone. But they understood the fact that in a general election like the last one, there is a tendency among the voters to vote either of the major two parties. So contesting alone would be political suicide. So the party was compelled to choose the other alternative. A common enemy unites even the oldest of foes. JHU had to forget the past and join with UNP to defeat Mahinda” (interview with a supporter of the JHU, 13 November 2015).
Abeygunawardana, revealing the internal workings of the JHU in the run up to the 2015 Presidential Election, explains how contesting alone would have been detrimental to the objective of toppling Mahinda Rajapakse from power.
Since the JHU cannot in principle support either Mahinda or Ranil, Champika could stand as the Buddhist candidate for the election … If Champika stood as the Buddhist candidate, then those votes would not go to Ranil. Therefore of the two forerunners Mahinda would get the advantage … [If Champika polled more than 200,000 votes and] the second preference of Champika was counted, in that scenario too, the advantage would lie with Mahinda and not Ranil since those who vote for Champika would prioritize nationalistic concerns over every other issue.
The foregoing excerpts show the tacit understanding of the party’s very members that the JHU could not have won a Presidential Election on its own. By the logic of either the author’s previous argument about crossing over serving utilitarian ends for the JHU, or of the JHU actually wanting to see an end to the corruption of the Rajapakse regime in line with its original quest to establish a Dharma Rajya in Sri Lanka, these calculations show that the JHU was clearly prepared to switch camps prior to the Presidential Election.
Adding to the Dharma Rajya end of the argument, Abeygunawardene elaborates on the internal upheaval within the JHU that arose in response to some decisions of the Rajapakse regime. The forced eviction of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike from her office and the proposed establishment of casinos in Colombo constituted two very strong reasons for the JHU to break away from the Rajapakse regime. Indeed, even for the skeptic it would appear that these actions coupled with the large scale and quite obvious corruption of the Rajapakses would have made it electorally problematic for the JHU to stick with them in light of their original commitment to the Righteous State which had drawn so much support from Sinhala-Buddhist voters. The Pivithuru Hetak (A Clean Tomorrow) movement[iii] initiated by Rev. Rathana was launched in this context.
In this light, joining the opposition alliance, even though it was dominated by elements not particularly disposed to serving Sinhala-Buddhist interests, must have seemed the most prudent course of action on two counts: 1) the JHU could reclaim its position as the sole guardian of Sinhala-Buddhist interests in Sri Lanka with its mere presence in a largely pro-minority alliance 2) this mission could be carried out with more legitimacy against a backdrop of an increasingly corrupt regime from which the JHU broke off foregoing, for all appearances, the numerous material benefits of supporting it.
In order to survive in the political race even after crossing over, the JHU had to make a strong case, and it was found in the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalistic rhetoric of the party. As pointed out previously, supporters and politicians of the party seem to believe that the crossover was done in order to secure Sinhala-Buddhist interests in the emerging pluralistic opposition alliance because it is a pluralistic alliance and therefore a clearly pro-majority voice should prevail to ensure such interests are secured. In this new logic, it was not entirely undesirable to be in a coalition whose goal was not to secure the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists as the first priority. Switching camps was also justified by the good governance ethos surrounding the opposition, which perfectly aligned with the JHU’s original mandate to end corruption and establish the Dharma Rajya. The creative way in which the JHU’s majoritarian logic was adapted to this situation indicates the party’s capacity for negotiating changing circumstances to ensure its political survival, even at the cost of its exclusivist outlook.
JHU and Sinhala-Buddhist Hegemony
The JHU has adapted to changing situations and managed to survive through changing times, and its campaign for ‘securing Sinhala-Buddhist interests’ has also been re-defined to fit these changes. The survival of the JHU in mainstream politics, then, has been the result of constant working and re-working of rationales, actors, and alliances. In this light, to perceive the particular brand of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism propagated by the JHU as a stock, continuous phenomenon may be flawed in that if the rationales, actors, and alliances change over time, the nature of the nationalism they propagate will also invariably change. As explained previously, in the case of the JHU this evolution has happened from propagating an exclusivist nationalistic narrative to joining a pluralistic coalition. It would naturally follow then that any perception of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony such nationalism has generated is also subject to these same changes and fluctuations. In that sense, how may one articulate/understand the JHU brand of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony?
The Oxford dictionary defines hegemony as “control by one country, organization, etc. over other countries, etc. within a particular group”. According to Merriam Webster, hegemony is “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group”. These definitions stem from the popular understanding of hegemony that suggests it is a phenomenon where the actors, their preferences, and the system in which they live stay consistent over time. As the preceding analysis shows, attempting to understand the JHU and the perceptions of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony it generates in this sense may be problematic. Therefore, it is necessary to employ a different approach to understand the JHU brand of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony, and one may find that Antonio Gramsci’s articulation of ‘hegemony’ is a particularly apt theoretical tool for this exercise.
Gramsci depicts hegemony as a fragile state of affairs that may manifest itself in a historic bloc, whose constituent elements constantly work with each other in order to maintain the hegemonic condition. He rejects the belief that hegemony can be understood as a single, unifying force that is completely homogenous. Instead, his articulation presents hegemony as not so overarching and dominant; a precarious situation vulnerable to collapse, but is kept on balance through constant reconfigurations of relationships between its constituent elements.
Hegemony in Gramsci’s understanding is in fact so contingent upon circumstances that it is even possible for previous contenders to work together – deconstructing the dominant understanding of it as a tool of control used by one clearly demarcated class against another – in order to maintain a hegemonic condition warranted by the needs of the actors involved. Speaking of the shifting historic blocs that come together to form the hegemonic condition, Gramsci opines that “[t]he formation of this class involved the gradual but continuous absorption, achieved by methods which varied in their effectiveness, of the active elements produced by allied groups – and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably hostile”. In relation to the JHU and its joining of the UNP it formerly criticized, this articulation seems to explain quite a lot.
As Hall in his explanation of Gramscian hegemony points out;
….’hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society. It is rare for this degree of unity to be achieved, enabling a society to set itself a quite new historical agenda, under the leadership of a specific formation or constellation of social forces. Such periods of ‘settlement’ are unlikely to persist forever. There is nothing ‘automatic’ about them. They have to be actively constructed and positively maintained.
The JHU’s brand of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony is indeed, as pointed out previously, the result of much careful work, and hence has “nothing automatic about” it, and as such is very clearly a phenomenon “actively constructed and positively maintained”. Especially in light of the good governance revolution of post-January 8 Sri Lanka, this hegemony acquired new meaning “under the leadership of a specific formation or constellation of social forces”.
The good governance ethos justified and legitimized the new and unlikely alliances formed by erstwhile contenders, as well as the political forces that realigned themselves in order to forge such alliances. In this context the JHU found increasing currency thanks largely to the pervasive air of legitimacy branding all components of the new regime.
Hence the JHU brand of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony is no longer viewed as a form of nationalism in the negative sense, but rather a constituent component of the pluralistic alliance in the ‘national government’ of Sri Lanka. The JHU may have formerly propagated exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist narratives, but the political leverage the new pluralistic arrangement affords them ensures that a proclaimed Sinhala-Buddhist voice decisively prevails in the decision-making process, which in turn ensures electoral gains for the JHU, not to mention the ruling alliance.
The perception of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony as propagated by the JHU, then, is one that has evolved through time to fit the electoral calculations of that party because it is contingent upon the kind of nationalism propagated by the JHU. Such evolution, however, has also ensured the survival of this perception because it has been able to make a case for itself in different contexts by adapting to the different rationales of those contexts.
This paper has attempted to analyze the JHU’s changing electoral strategy in relation to its shift of stance from being an exclusivist Sinhala-Buddhist party to joining forces with a coalition expressly pluralistic in its outlook. It suggests that the JHU’s brand of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has helped the party survive in mainstream politics by creatively manipulating the logic of a particular historic situation. However, it has also pointed out that given the change of rationales, actors, and the manner in which they function, the nationalism propagated by the JHU has also effectively changed. As such, perceptions of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony generated by this particular brand of nationalism have also undergone evolution. Therefore, it argues that Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony – at least as propagated by the JHU – may no longer be understood as a stock, continuous force. In order to re-evaluate this concept, the paper has made use of Antonio Gramsci’s articulation of hegemony, and concluded that the JHU propagated Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony is a condition maintained through constant working and re-working of actors, their preferences, and alliances, and as such is a fragile state of affairs that may not be as overarching and dominant as the term ‘hegemony’ seems to suggest. The flexibility afforded by this fragility, however, has also ensured the survival of this perception.
[i] The ceasefire agreement of 2002-2003 was signed between the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka in order to negotiate a peace settlement. During this time high level members of the LTTE travelled abroad extensively, the North and East of Sri Lanka opened up and tourism boomed bringing in a lot of money that was allegedly used by the LTTE to purcdshase arms, and the LTTE supposedly became strong enough to resume the war, all of which was severely criticized by many factions in Sinhala society.
[ii] JHU’s winning candidate from Colombo and arguably one of the most popular figures in the party
[iii] A movement calling for reforms towards good governance in 10 critical areas of governance in Sri Lanka including agriculture, health, constitutional reforms, accountability and development.