Fifty years ago on Sunday January 28th 1962 the people of the Island nation known then as “Ceylon” were rocked by a special news bulletin in the afternoon on “Radio Ceylon” (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation)that interrupted regular programming . The shocking announcement repeated ad nauseam by a male voice on Radio stated that a conspiracy to stage a coup d’etat had been foiled.
Coup d’etat meaning “stroke of state” in French is used to describe the overthrow or deposition of a government or head of state through illegal or unconstitutional means. A coup d’etat generally referred to as a coup is usually undertaken by officer/s of armed forces against the established government. The Radio announcement said that a group of senior Police and Armed services officers had conspired and plotted to overthrow the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike on the previous Saturday January 27th 1962.Details of the planned coup had come to light a few hours before the coup was to be enacted the announcement said.
“Radio Ceylon” also revealed that seven Police and Army officers had been arrested in connection with the coup conspiracy and were being interrogated. Their names were Col.Maurice De Mel, Army chief of staff and Commandant of the Volunteer force, Col.FC de Saram , First officer commanding Ceylon Artillery and deputy commandant of the Volunteer force, Lt.Col. Basil Jesudasan, commanding officer, 2nd volunteer Signals of Ceylon Signals corps, CC Dissanayake (Jungle)Deputy Inspector of Police, Range one, Sydney de Zoysa, DIG Police (retd),Lionel Jirasinghe , Assistant Supdt of Police, and Bede Johnpillai,ASP traffic.The Radio broadcast also said that further inquiries were being conducted and that more persons were expected to be arrested in connection with the aborted coup. “Radio Ceylon” also assured the people that everything was under control and issued an appeal on behalf of the Govt urging people to be calm.The Evening newspapers hit the stands with news about the attempted coup and were sold out. Thereafter the morning newspapers came out with more details. News of more people being arrested became known while rumour mills also worked overtime.Several persons including many Army and Police officers were questioned. Some more persons were arrested. Initially the detained coup suspects were housed in a two-storey building within “Temple Trees” premises. It is said that Mrs. Bandaranaike took a personal interest in their detention conditions ensuring that they had all proper facilities. She even checked on the toilet flushes to see whether they were in working condition.
Finance Minister and Parliamentary secretary (Junior minister) of Defence and External Affairs Felix Dias Bandaranaike was all-powerful then. The Dompe MP who was a kinsman of SWRD Bandaranaike began conducting an “inquisition” of sorts where he questioned each and every coup suspect and recorded their statements. Ultimately it was Felix Dias Bandaranaike’s excessive zeal in playing the grand inquisitor that ultimately worked to the benefit of the coup suspects. Some of the suspects were released. a few were pardoned on the condition that they turn crown witness. A few were not charged but sent on compulsory leave/retirement. Others numbering around 30 were later housed at Welikade prisons and interrogated further.
In the early days these suspects were kept in solitary confinement in appalling conditions. Excessive heat in the cells, dim lights, bug infested beds, no reading material etc were some of the existing conditions. Gradually some of the harsh measures were relaxed. After being produced in courts the suspects were transferred to “star class” cells at Welikada.
Even though the coup was accepted as fact in public discourse yet in another sense there was really no coup because it never got beyond the conspiracy stage to that of execution. Nevertheless 24 persons were charged in courts. Although an overwhelming number of the accused were military or Police officers the chief accused was a civilian civil servant Douglas Liyanage.
While one of the accused died in custody the other 12 were released in batches of two,three and four at different stages through acquittals due to lack of evidence. There were instances of “nolle prosequi” too where the state was unwilling to prosecute further. After protracted trial the remaining 11 were sentenced to ten years imprisonment and forfeiture of property. However they were later discharged later by an appeal made to the Privy council in Britain. After two botched earlier attempts to try the coup accused a third attempt proved successful.Finally 24 persons were tried at a Trial-at-Bar held under the provisions of the Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act, No. 1 of 1962, and the Criminal Law Act, No. 31 of 1962.The defendants, almost all of whom were or had been high-ranking officers of the Armed Services and the Police, were charged upon three counts upon Information filed by the Attorney-General on the 21st November 1962.
The full names of the 24 Defendants charged in courts were –
1)DON JOHN FRANCIS DOUGLAS
(2)MAURICE ANN GERARD DE MEL
(3)FREDERICK CECIL DE SARAM
(4)CYRIL CYRUS DISSANAYAKA
(5)SIDNEY GODFREY DE ZOYSA
(6)GERARD ROYCE MAXWELL DE MEL
(8)BASTIYAMPILLAI IGNATIUS LOYOLA
(9)WILTON GEORGE WHITE
(10) NIMAL STANLEY JAYAKODY
(11)ANTHONY JOHN BERNARD
(12)DON EDMOND WEERASINGHE
(13) NOEL VIVIAN MATTHYSZ
(14)VICTOR LESLIE PERCIVAL JOSEPH
(15) BASIL RAJANDIRAM JESUDASON
(16)VICTOR JOSEPH HAROLD GUNASE KERA
(17)JOHN ANTHONY RAJARATNAM
(18)WILLIAM ERNEST CHELLIAH
(19)TERENCE VICTOR WIJESINHA
(20)LIONEL CHRISTOPHER STANLEY JIRASINGHE
(21)VITHANAGE ELSTER PERERA
(22)DAVID SENADIRAJAH TAMBYAH
(23)SAMUEL GARDNER JACKSON
(24)HUBERT GERARD RODNEY DE MEL
The charges set out in the Information were that the defendants, on or about the 27tb January 1962, did, in contravention of section 115 of the Penal Code (as amended by section 6 of Act No. 1 of 1962), conspire ,
(1) to wage war against the Queen,
(2) to overawe by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force the Government of Ceylon,
(3) to overthrow otherwise than by lawful means the Government of Ceylon by law established.
The charges set out in the Information were as follows:-
(1)On or about the 27th of January, 1962, at Colombo, Kalutara, Ambalangoda, Galle, Matara, and other places, within the jurisdiction of this Court, the defendants above named with others did conspire to wage war against the Queen and did thereby commit an offence punishable under Section 115 of the Penal Code.
(2) At the time and the places aforesaid and in the course of the same transaction the defendants above-named with others did conspire to overawe by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force the Government of Ceylon and did thereby commit an offence punishable under Section 115 of the Penal Code.
(3) At the time and the places aforesaid and in the course of the same transaction the defendants above-named with others did conspire to over throw otherwise than by lawful means the Government of Ceylon by law established and did thereby commit an offence punishable under Section 115 of the Penal Code.
As the coup case unfolded an excited public was regaled with more and more news of the coup by the vibrant media which existed then. The “koo”as ordinary people referred to it became a widely discussed topic throughout the length and breadth of the country. Through various news items in the media the people came to know of matters relating to the attempted coup d’etat in bits and pieces.
The conspiracy had been elaborately planned and was to be a “gentleman’s coup” without bloodshed. It was to be a swift, surgical strike and the mission was expected to be accomplished within a few hours from midnight on Saturday January 27th 1962.
The then Army commander Maj-Gen Winston Gerard Wijeykoon, Acting Navy captain (commander) Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar, Air Force chief, Air commodore John F Barker and Inspector-General of Police MWF Abeykoon were entirely in the dark about this proposed coupd’etat.
The codename for the coup was “Operation Holdfast”. Holdfast is the military codename referring to Army engineers. The idea was to seize strategic positions and installations in a “blitzkrieg”, cordon off Colombo, prevent reinforcements coming in from the Army cantonment at Panagoda, detain the prime minister, senior ministers, key officials, leftist leaders and get Mrs. Bandaranaike to announce a “voluntary” transfer of power.
Troops and officers from the 3rd Field Regiment, 2nd Volunteer Anti-aircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery , 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment,Ceylon Engineers,2nd Volunteer Signals Regiment, Ceylon Signals corps and Armoured cars of the Sabre troop of the Ceylon Armoured Corps were to be utilised for the coup with elements from the Police. Sections of the Navy too were expected to assist.
The coup blueprint was roughly something like this. At 10.00 pm on Jan 27th senior DIG Police “Jungle” Dissanayake was to issue a “Take post” order to his men. Immediately ASP Johnpillai in charge of traffic was to clear all main roads and strategically important highways of traffic. This was to be accomplished in 30 minutes.
The clearing of traffic in roads was to facilitate the smooth, swift, unhindered progress of military convoys and columns along roads towards their target destinations. This deployment was to be under the personal supervision of FC de Saram and Maurice de Mel. It was to begin at 11.00 pm on Saturday (27th) and cease at 1.00 am on Sunday (28th).
According to “Operation Holdfast” plans the Prime minister was to be placed under house arrest. Senior cabinet ministers including Finance minister Felix R Dias Bandaranaike and important government officials including Defence and External Affairs secretary NQ Dias were to be arrested and taken to Army headquarters.
Others to be taken to Army headquarters were the DIG-CID SA Dissanayake (jingle) who was a brother of CC Dissanayake (Jungle) and acting Navy chief Rajan Kadirgamar. The SP-CID John Attygalle was also to be taken to Army headquarters. Incidentally both SA Dissanayake and Attygalle were to become future IGP’s. Those taken to Army headquarters were to be detained in an underground bunker at the armoury. They were to be held incommunicado for a certain period of time.
Other cabinet ministers, and important officials were to be placed under virtual house arrest. These included the IGP, Air Force chief and Army commander. Their movement was to be restricted to their homes alone. In another facet of “Operation Holdfast” a number of Government members of Parliament and leftist MP’s of the opposition were to be detained en masse at the “Sravasti” MP’s hostel. These included all LSSP, MEP and CP members. Some were to be placed under house arrest in their own homes in Colombo.A crucial part of “Operation Holdfast” was the seizure of Colombo city and cordoning it off. This was deemed to be of vital importance as a potential counter-strike by officers and troops loyal to the government was feared. It was necessary therefore to prevent soldiers stationed at the Panagoda cantonment from entering Colombo until the transfer of power was completed.
Army personnel with armoured cars were to be stationed at the two Kelani river bridges, the Wellawatte-Dehiwela bridge and the Kirillapone bridge. In addition military personnel with radio equipment would be stationed at key locations in suburban Colombo.Soldiers with vehicles were to be positioned in strategic junctions within Colombo city also.
At midnight Police cars equipped with radio and loudspeakers were to go around Colombo and outskirts announcing a 24 hour curfew. People were to be warned to remain indoors and that anyone seen outside would be shot on sight.
While these announcements would be going on, key installations would be taken over in a rapid “blitzkrieg” like manouevre. The Central Telephone and Telegraph exchanges would be taken over and all tele-communication suspended until further notice. The Police headquarters and Criminal Investigations department (CID) offices in Fort were to be taken over shortly after midnight. The newspaper offices of Lake House and Times of Ceylon were also to be taken over and newspapers were to cease publication for a few days. There was no Television in Sri Lanka those days and the most important communications institution was “Radio Ceylon”. Fully armed Signals corps despatch riders on motor cycles were to be positioned from 11 pm on Nov 27th at Torrington (Independence) square. At H-hour when the password “holdfast” is given these troopers were to storm “Radio Ceylon” and take it over.
In anticipation of the coup the conspirators in the Army sappers had on Thursday Jan 25th laid out a special telephone line from the Army headquarters at Lower lake rd to the Army barracks in Echelon square in Fort. This secure line was to be used for urgent intra-army communication. “Col” Maurice de Mel was to be at Army headquarters co-ordinating matters. FC de Saram was to position himself at the Prime Minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at the earliest and direct operations from there. The password there was to be “British Grenadier”. This was the title of the Artillery regiment’s marching tune. CC “Jungle” Dissanayake was to be at “Queens House” (Presidents House) in Fort and direct operations from there until Police headquarters was taken over. Queens House was the official residence of then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who was later implicated in the abortive coup.
“Jungle” was to commence “coup” operations from 11.00 pm on Jan 27th. The password for “Queens House” operations was the name of an IGP during British times-”Dowbiggin”. Once the coup was accomplished the leaders were to meet at “Queens House” and request: Governor-General Sir Oliver Gonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and take direct authority.
The coup conspirators did not seem to have plans of retaining power for themselves after acquiring it. At least that is what it seemed at that time.The simplistic plan was to dissolve Parliament and establish direct rule under the Governor-General Sir Oliver. He was to be assisted by a “Regency Council” in which former Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawela were to be members of. Even Wijayananda Dahanayake and Sirima Bandaranaike being ex-premiers were to be invited to join this council. After a reasonable period of time fresh elections were to be called and an elected government installed.
It was stated later that three phases were envisaged. The first phase after the coup would be a military dictatorship. The second phase would be “indirect democracy” where a council including ex-prime minsters would assist the Governor-General in ruling. The third phase was elections to Parliament after promulgating a new constitution ensuring justice and equality to all races and religions.
The inspiration for the coup planners was Pakistan. Gen. Muhammed Ayub Khan had seized power on October 27th 1958 in Pakistan in what was described as a “bloodless” coup. Interestingly Ayub Khan deposed Pakistan’s president Iskandar Mirza, who had been Ayub Khan’s mentor and benefactor. Mirza as Defence secretary was responsible for getting Ayub Khan appointed as Army commander on Jan 17th 1951. Mirza bent the rules to make Ayub Khan the first native Pakistany army chief by superseding two of his seniors Generals Akbar Khan and Raza.
Mirza went on to become governor-general and later President when Pakistan became a republic on March 23rd 1956.On October 7th 1958 Mirza declared martial law and appointed his protege’ Ayub Khan as chief martial law administrator. The army chief had only three months more before mandatory retirement. Though trusted by Mirza, the Pakistani general staged a coup within three weeks of assuming tremendous power as martial law administrator.He sent three generals at midnight to arrest his patron Mirza and then “exiled” the deposed president to England. Ayub Khan became president. Interestingly there were many who welcomed the coup in Pakistan then thinking a stable political climate would prevail. Ayub Khan entrenched himself in power by holding an unusual type of referendum in 1960.
Over 80,000 recently lected local authority members were asked to vote “yes” or “no” to the question “Have you confidence in the President, Field Marshall Ayub Khan”? With 95.6% voting yes the military dictator introduced a new Constitution for Pakistan. Ayub Khan’s coup was the inspiration and model for the coup conspirators in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then. It is noteworthy that none of the three defence service chiefs or Police chief were involved in the coup. Most of the officers involved were of senior rank.
The coup was described jocularly by the colourful ex-prime minister of Ceylon Sir John Kotelawela as a “Buddhist” coup. Sir John who had himself served in the Army during british rule called it Buddhist as the planners were obsessed by the idea that not a “drop of blood should be shed”. Ironically most of those involved in the attempted coup were not Buddhists but Christians. Except for a few the overwhelming majority of those charged in courts were Christians both Protestant and Catholic drawn from Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and even Chinese communities. Several reasons could be attributed for this attempted coup but the premier cause was a state of mind which believed the ruling politicians were ruining the country through maladministration. The world’s first woman Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike was regarded by the coup conspirators as someone unfit to govern and therefore had to be replaced in the larger interests of the country.The country was deteriorating due to bad governance. Another argument adduced by the Defence was that of a danger of dictatorship being foisted upon the country and that the accused persons were only trying to prevent it by preemptive action. It was alleged openly in court that Felix Dias Bandaranaike wanted to impose totalitarian rule.This suspicious belief and hostile mood was prevalent among most of the accused in the attempted coup case. The prevailing situation in the country has to be understood in the proper context in order to comprehend the thoughts and motives of the alleged coup conspirators. zhe prevalent atmosphere is best illustrated by the observations made by the learned judges who delivered the verdict in the coup case. The following relevant extracts from the judgement delivered by Chief Justice MC Sansoni and Justices HNG Fernando and LB de Silva on April 6th 1965 in the Queen vs Liyanage case are reproduced below –
“The evidence concerning the alleged conspiracy cannot be adequately understood except in the background of events which had occurred in the country during a period of about one year preceding 27th January, 1962. Some reference to those events is necessary at this stage.
From about February 1961 there had been in the Northern and Eastern Provinces a movement styled " Satyagraha " designed to manifest the opposition by the Tamil-speaking people to the Government's Language Policy. In consequence it was necessary to station Army Units in areas where the movement was being pursued, and a particularly strong Army detachment was stationed in the Jaffna District. After some weeks a State of Emergency was declared, under the Public Security Act, and a number of Tamil leaders were detained in pursuance of the Emergency Regulations on the grounds of security.
The Satyagraha virtually ended soon after these detentions. But the leaders were kept in custody for some further time. Even after their release in the latter half of 1962, however, the declaration of Emergency was continued and was still in force in January 1963. It was the position for the defence at this Trial, that although Emergency Regulations were no longer necessary after the abatement of the Satyagraha situation, the declaration of Emergency was continued because the Government was under stress owing to difficult economic and labour conditions.
One advantage which the Government enjoyed during a State of Emergency was that the Volunteer sections of the Armed Services could remain mobilised and thus expeditiously available for use in strike situations and in the event of civil disturbance.
A special device utilised for the first time in 1961 was to place Volunteer Units on compulsory leave without pay. While expenditure was thus saved, the Units remained mobilised and -could be recalled to duty without the delays involved in a new mobilisation.
In October 1961, Mr. Bandaranaike, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of External Affairs, gave an order to the heads of the Armed Services and the Police to prepare an " appreciation " as to the measures necessary to deal with a situation envisaged in data supplied by Mr. Bandaranaike. Among the matters contemplated in the data supplied, was the possibility of a series of strikes in essential undertakings and of Civil disturbance arising from incitement by Leftist and Trade Union Leaders. This order certainly shows that the Government contemplated the utilisation of the Armed Services during contemplated strikes and disturbances.
There was at this stage much agitation for the implementation of two reports affecting wages and conditions of work. One was the P. O. Fernando Committee report concerning Port labour, and the other the Wilmot Perera Report concerning the Public Service. The Government's position was that the financial conditions precluded the possibility of implementing these reports, and it was feared that the failure to implement them would give rise to discontent and possible disturbance.
About the middle of November 1961 there was a Harbour strike which involved a very large number of Port workers in Colombo. In early December there was a strike of brief duration at some depots of the Ceylon Transport Board. On or about 15th December 1961 Port workers were once again called out on strike, and they continued to be out on strike until after the events of January 1962. In anticipation of this strike and perhaps of probable subsequent strikes, the compulsory leave of the Ceylon Volunteer Force was cancelled on 12th December, and the Volunteer Units quickly reassembled for active service.
There were further in December a strike of cinema workers, of Gas Company employees and of Bank employees. There was also a strike of employees of the Standard Oil Company, and the threat of sympathy strikes in the other Oil Companies. On the 30th December Trade Union leaders announced an Island-wide token General Strike for the 5th January 1962 in support of demands inter alia for an immediate settlement of the Port Strike and for the implementation of the two reports earlier mentioned.
On 4th January 1962, there was a suspicion of sabotage on the part of some Technicians of Radio Ceylon, eight of whom were taken into custody and detention. On 5th January there was a token General Strike affecting workers in the Public Service as well as the workers in the private and public sectors of transport, industry and commerce. In addition to the difficult if not chaotic conditions arising out of these strikes, information available through security channels to the Police and the Army was that an island-wide General Strike, accompanied probably by violence, could be expected towards the end of January 1962. The authorities responsible for security and for the maintenance of essential services in an Emergency were actively preparing to meet the thus contemplated situation. A number of what were termed Operational Orders were prepared to be carried out by different branches of the Armed Services and the Police for the maintenance of essential services and supplies.
That a critical state of affairs was imminent, if not already existing, is obvious. The Army had to be engaged in shifting food cargoes and on picket duties. A censorship was introduced on Press publications of information concerning the strike situation. The Shipping Conferences had imposed a surcharge on freight rates consequent on cargo vessels being inordinately delayed outside the port of Colombo. Trade Unions were restive at the failure of the Government to consider their demands and at the use of the Armed Services for work in the Port.
On 13th December 1961 Dr. N. M. Perera, a prominent Opposition and Trade Union leader, in a speech in Parliament accused Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike of making arrangements with the Army and Navy to rule the country and to arrest even members on the Government side. On 9th January 1962 Mr. Pieter Keuneman, a Communist leader, warned the country that a situation was developing to create the basis for permanent Military rule in the country.
On 12th January 1962 another Opposition leader Dr. W. Dahanayake suggested in Parliament that somebody in the Government was preparing to set up a Military Dictatorship. Similar accusations were made in other public speeches.
There was unfortunately a hook on which to hang these allegations. Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had at a meeting some time earlier in reference to conditions in Russia, stated that a little bit of Totalitarianism might be of benefit to Ceylon.
There is some evidence that in Army circles in Ceylon during this period suggestions were in fact being made that one solution of the current difficulties might be some form of arbitrary rule in which the Armed Services would be associated.
The defence position at this Trial had been that Mr. Bandaranaike did in fact intend to set up a Military dictatorship. We do not at this stage propose to consider whether this allegation is true. What is important in the present context is that conditions existing and contemplated in January 1962, including the imposition of censorship, the full mobilization of the Services on security and civil duties, and the public concern, were such as in other countries had in fact given rise to attempts, whether successful or not, to overthrow democratically elected Governments and to establish some form of unconstitutional rule”.(ENDS)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at