The impact of that single assassination was tremendous at that time. The murder of a prime minister was sensationally shocking news. It was the first major political assassination experienced by the Island nation in the post-Independence era
SWRD Bandaranaike was proud of having ushered in the age of the common man. His Government was regarded by the masses as “Apey aanduwe” or our Government. One manifestation of this was the easy access the people had to their Prime Minister
Given the levels of security available to VVIP’s today it is mind boggling to know that only a police sergeant was in charge of the Prime Minister’s security then. Even the sergeant-in-charge was not on duty that morning. Only a constable had been at the gates
Sixty-one years ago on September 25, 1959 Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRDB) the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then was shot and seriously wounded by a Buddhist monk. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike succumbed to his injuries and passed away the following day. Therefore September 26, 1959 got etched as an important date in the post-independence history annals of Sri Lanka.
The impact of that single assassination was tremendous at that time. The murder of a prime minister was sensationally shocking news. It was the first major political assassination experienced by the Island nation in the post-Independence era. In later years, political assassinations became a regular feature in Sri Lanka.. The death was an event of great historical importance too as it was the first ever assassination of a major political personality in the Island nation at that time. Thereafter September 26, 1959 got etched as an important date in the post-independence annals of Sri Lanka. It is against this backdrop that this column delves into what happened six decades ago relying to a very great extent on earlier writings in this regard.
SWRD Bandaranaike as Premier was officially ensconced in the Prime minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at Galle Road, Kollupitiya. Bandaranaike also divided his time between the ancestral manor at Horagolla Walauwe and his private residence “Tintagel” on 65 Rosemead place, Colombo 7. SWRDB was at “Tintagel” on the fateful Friday he was shot.
A Buddhist monk named Ven. Talduwe Somarama Thero was among those who came to meet Bandaranaike on the morning of September 25,1959. It was a Friday. The monk was a lecturer at the Government College of Ayurveda or indigenous medicine in Borella. Somarama Thero also had an Ayurvedic eye clinic in Borella.The ostensible reason for the monk wanting to meet the PM was to appraise him of requirements for the Ayurveda College.
Talduwe Somarama’s name at birth was Talduwe Ratugama Rallage Weris Singho. He was born on August 27, 1915 to Ratugama Rallage Dieris Appuhamy and Iso Hamy. Weris Singho was educated at the Talduwe Ihala school and in Dehiowita. He donned the yellow robes on January 20, 1929 at the age of fourteen. Somarama was ordained in Kandy on June 25, 1936 at the age of twenty-one.
The premier of the nation was in the front verandah of his house meeting people who had come to see him. One batch of people was accommodated inside while others stood in line outside awaiting their turn to go in. Talduwe Somarama also waited patiently in the queue for his turn and then was admitted in. There was a group of about 20 persons inside and a queue of around 40 outside.
SWRD Bandaranaike was proud of having ushered in the age of the common man. His Government was regarded by the masses as “Apey aanduwe” or our Government. One manifestation of this was the easy access the people had to their Prime Minister.
Talduwe Somarama Thero
Talduwe Somarama Thero sat on a chair at one corner of the Verandah. He had placed a file and a handkerchief on a low stool by his side on his left. Seated on his right was another Buddhist monk from Polonnaruwa named Ananda Thero. The Polonnaruwa monk accompanied by some farmers had come to see the Prime Minister on a matter concerning the appointment of a cooperative society manager. Ananda Thero was later to prove to be a key witness at the trial.
As each person’s name was announced he or she walked up to the Prime Minister, paid obeisance and articulated their woes and views. However when Somarama Thero stood up as his name was announced, Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself got up respectfully, walked up to him and bowed reverentially as was the custom in greeting a Buddhist monk.
He then asked the monk what he could do for him. Somarama – who seemed tensed up according to Ananda Thero – told the PM that certain improvements were needed at the Ayurveda College. Bandaranaike then replied that he could get the Health Minister A.P. Jayasuriya to attend to it if the venerable monk stated the requirements in writing and submitted it to him.
The time then was 9.45 am. Somarama Thero sat down and fumbled with the file on the stool by his side as if he was going to pull out a memorandum to be given to the Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister was getting ready to receive what he may have thought were some papers, the Buddhist monk took out a pistol concealed in his robes and fired twice at point blank range hitting Bandaranaike in the chest and abdomen.The Prime minister made a loud sound like a gasp or moan and went down. He then got up slowly and with great difficulty tried to stagger back inside the house.
When a shocked Ananda Thero got up from his chair, a thoroughly excited Somarama stood up and pointed his gun at the priest from Polonnaruwa. An agitated Ananda Thero shouted “Ammo” (mother). Somarama then turned around and followed Bandaranaike, shooting at him wildly. He fired four more shots thus emptying the magazine. One bullet injured the Prime minister’s hand. Another hit a school teacher named Gunaratne who had also come to see the Prime minister on that morning. A third shot smashed the glass pane on a door. The fourth struck a flower pot breaking it. Somarama Thero had used a .45 Webly Mark VI revolver to fire the six shots including the fatal ones.
Meanwhile there was pandemonium as the people on the verandah started scattering here and there in fear. Ananda Thero ran out and shouted to the policeman on duty at the gate that a monk was shooting at the prime minister. The Policeman who had already started running towards the house upon hearing the shots came inside and fired at Somarama Thero injuring him in the thigh.
“Country, race and religion”
Realising what had happened, enraged people surrounded Somarama who was shouting excitedly that he had done so for the “country, race and religion”. After a scuffle in which Somarama was manhandled by the people, the monk was formally arrested. The furious crowd may have mauled the monk but for the merciful intervention of Bandaranaike.
The bleeding Bandaranaike lying on the floor had urged the people not to harm the monk in any way. The apprehended monk was taken away by the police to the Harbour Police station amidst tight security. SWRD Bandaranaike was rushed to the General Hospital at Borella and taken to the operating theatre .
Tragically, Bandaranaike never suspected any threat to his person and was unbelievably unconcerned about security. Given the levels of security available to VVIP’s today it is mind boggling to know that only a police sergeant was in charge of the Prime Minister’s security then. Even the sergeant-in-charge was not on duty that morning. Only a constable had been at the gates.
When attempts were made by concerned police officials to provide Bandaranaike with a personal bodyguard, Bandaranaike had reluctantly agreed. A police sub-inspector was assigned. However Bandaranaike asked him to go back after a few days saying that a sub-inspector should attend to more important duties and requested the IGP to assign a few police constables instead.
Unlike some politicians of the present era who regard the deployment of a large contingent of bodyguards as a symbol of their important status, Bandaranaike who thought of himself as a “popular peoples prime minister” felt a sense of embarrassment at being protected by many policemen.
Parliament was in session at Galle Face when news of the assassination attempt reached the house. Education Minister Dr. W. Dahanayake who was to later succeed Bandaranaike as Prime minister later wanted Parliament to be adjourned but the majority of the honourable members disagreed. Opposition leader Dr. N.M. Perera stated “there was no need to panic”. Several Ministers and MP’s from both the Government and opposition left the house and made a bee-line to Borella to see how the premier was faring.
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
The Governor General of the time was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. When news reached him of the shooting incident Sir Oliver was at “Queens House” swearing in the new Italian Ambassador Count Paolo di Michelis di Sloughhello. Sir Oliver stopped the ceremony and rushed to Rosmead Place. Thereafter he sent a message to Parliament that it continue to function in a “business as usual”manner.
The Governor-General known and respected for his political wisdom and statesmanship took the initiative of declaring a state of emergency as a precautionary measure. It may be recalled that it was Sir Oliver who acted decisively and declared emergency in May 1958 when anti –Tamil violence erupted in a situation where Prime Minister Bandaranaike vacillated.
A state of emergency was declared at 11 a.m. on September 25 by Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleka and the Army, Navy and Air Force units including volunteers were mobilised and placed in readiness throughout the island. Later events demonstrated that Sir Oliver’s anticipation of trouble and declaration of emergency was indeed commendable.
What happened was that Bandaranaike after surgery was admitted to the Merchants’ Ward. He issued a message to the nation from his hospital bed in the Merchants’ Ward. In the message the Prime Minister was extremely magnanimous towards the man who had shot him. Instead of referring to him directly as a Buddhist priest, SWRDB described him “as a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. The premier also called upon the government and authorities to “show compassion to this man and not try to wreak vengeance on him”.
This well-intentioned magnanimity may have had unintended, dangerous consequences but for the prompt action of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who had declared emergency before the statement was issued. Anticipating another round of 1958 type of violence the Governor-General issued strict instructions to the police to be vigilant against any sign of violence erupting.
Given the prevailing political atmosphere of the time where anti-Tamil feelings were running high the immediate suspicion was that the assassin was a Tamil. News began spreading that the name of the man who shot the premier was “Somaraman”. A Tamilised version of Somarama. So when Bandaranaike spoke of a “man dressed in the robes of a monk” rumours started to circulate that a Tamil had dressed up as a Buddhist priest and shot the Prime Minister.
Tamils in Colombo were very nervous then but thanks to the police being vigilant nothing untoward happened. Thanks to Sir Oliver the media was “advised” to reveal very clearly without delay that the assassin was not a Tamil. The anti-Tamil feelings began subsiding. A replay of the 1958 anti-Tamil violence was averted at that point of time.
Surgery for five hours
Some of the top doctors in Colombo performed surgery on Bandaranaike for more than five long hours. Dr. M. V. P. Peries, Dr. P. R. Anthonis, Dr. L. O. Silva and Dr. Noel Bartholomeusz were the doctors in the operating theatre. Dr. L.O. Silva was quoted by the media later as observing that “the first 24 hours after the operation was very crucial.”
Early signs after the surgery seemed rosy. The Prime Minister had recovered consciousness a few hours after the operation and was cheerful. He had joked with the doctors and nurses around his bedside. He had asked one of the nurses “How am I doing?” She replied “You are doing fine, Sir”. “Yes I am an old man and have undergone a five hour stomach operation but I still have guts,” the PM had declared. He had also dictated a message to the nation from the hospital.
Things however took a turn for the worse in the early hours of the morning. Three senior doctors – Dr. P. R. Anthonis, Dr. T. D. H. Perera and Dr. M. J. A. Sandrasagara were on hand doing their best but there was no improvement. The fourth Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon passed away on September 26, 1959 exactly twenty-two hours after he had been shot.
The official bulletin issued after his death stated as follows “The condition of the Prime Minister suddenly took a turn for the worse about 7 a.m. There was a sudden alteration of the action of the heart and his condition deteriorated very rapidly. He passed off peacefully about 8 o’ clock.” It was signed by Dr. P. R. Anthonis, Dr. T. D. H. Perera and Dr. M. J. A. Sandrasagara.
Subsequently a verdict of homicide was recorded by the City Coroner J. N. C. Tiruchelvam, J. P. U. M. at the inquest. He said “death was due to shock and haemorrhage resulting from multiple injuries to the thoracic and abdominal organs.”
“Sanga, Veda and Guru”
The tripartite forces who campaigned effectively for Bandaranaike in 1956 were Buddhist priests, Ayurvedic medical practitioners and teachers. It was said that “Sanga, Veda and Guru” were responsible for installing Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. The bitter irony was that Bandaranaike’s assassin was a “three-in-one” personality representing all three. Somarama was a Bhikku, an Ayurvedic doctor and a lecturer in the Ayurvedic College. The tripartite forces who brought SWRDB to power were now personified in the man who killed him.
After Bandaranaike’s death, the Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake had been sworn in as Prime Minister. Detectives from Scotland Yard in Britain were brought down to assist the Ceylon Police in the investigations. The then DIG-CID, D.C.T. Pate, SP Rajasooriya, S.S.I.K. Iyer ASP, IP Abeywardena, IP A.M. Seneviratne and IP Tyrell Goonetilleke were responsible for the intensive Police investigation.
November 26, 1959 saw seven persons being charged in the chief magistrate’s court of Colombo on a charge of conspiring to murder SWRD Bandaranaike. They were
1. Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero
2. Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena
3. Pallihakarage Anura de Silva
4. Talduwe Somarama Thero
5. Weerasooriya Arachchige Newton Perera
6. Vimala Wijewardene
7. Amerasinghe Arachchige Carolis Amerasinghe
In addition to this Somarama Thero the fourth accused was also charged with commitment of murder. Incidently Somarama Thero had confessed to committing the murder in his statements to the Police and to the chief magistrate. However he changed his position at the Supreme court trial. “I did not shoot the Prime Minister. It is untrue that the 1st and 2nd accused or either of them requested me to do so. If I said so to the Magistrate, it is false. My statement to the Magistrate was not made of my own free will. I am not guilty,” stated Somarama in the Supreme Court later.
Within a short time the seventh accused A.A.C. Amerasinghe (Kolonnawa urban councillor) received a conditional pardon in terms of section 283 of the Criminal procedure code and thereafter became a witness for the prosecution. Non-summary proceedings began and after a long magisterial inquiry, the sixth accused Vimala Wijewardene was cleared of all charges of conspiracy and deemed innocent of any complicity. She was discharged on July 15, 1960. Vimala Wijewardene was the first woman cabinet minister of the country and had served as Minister of Health in SWRD Bandaranaike’s Government.
The Magisterial Inquiry under Colombo Chief Magistrate N.A. de S. Wijesekara went on for 124 days with 193 witnesses testifying. The Chief Magistrate committed the first five accused to stand trial before Supreme Court on charges of conspiracy and murder.
Supreme Court Trial
The Supreme Court trial began against the five accused on February 22, 1961 before Justice T.S. Fernando QC OBE. The foreman of the seven member English speaking jury was D.W.L. Lieversz snr. Ninety-seven witnesses testified and were cross examined. The Solicitor-General A.C. Alles along with deputy solicitor-general A.C.M. Ameer conducted the case on behalf of the prosecution with senior crown counsels R.S.Wanasundara and R.I. Obeyesekera assisting.
The third accused Anura de Silva was acquitted with the jury voting unanimously in his favour. The fifth accused Newton Perera was acquitted on a divided verdict with five voting in favour of the accused and two against. The trial concluded on May 12, 1961 after fifty-five days of hearing. The proceedings were well publicised and extensively reported in the media. Within five days the Jury returned its verdict.
The Jury found the first accused Buddharakkitha Thero, second accused H.P. Jayewardena and fourth accused Somarama Thero guilty by a unanimous verdict. Death sentence was pronounced on all three of them. All three faced death by hanging. During the trial Somarama had stopped wearing the yellow robes when appearing in Courts.This led to Justice Fernando observing that Somarama “had a streak of conscience as he did not attend court in his saffron robes.”
All three convicted persons appealed against their death sentence to the then Court of Criminal Appeal. The five-judge bench presided over by Chief Justice Hema H. Basnayake comprised – Justices M.C. Sansoni, H.N.G. Fernando, N. Sinnetamby and L.B. de Silva.
It was argued on behalf of Buddharakkitha and Jayewardena that the maximum punishment for the offence of conspiring to commit murder was rigorous imprisonment for life. E.G.Wickremanayake, QC, submitted that the Act which re-introduced the death penalty for murder did not in specific terms re-introduce such penalty for conspiracy to commit murder.
The Criminal Appeal court concurred with the submission.The appeal of all three were dismissed but courts amended the sentences imposed on Buddharakkitha and Jayewardena from death to rigorous life imprisonment. Thus both of them were saved from the gallows due to this legal loophole.
Hanged in Welikada
Talduwe Somarama Thero prepared himself to face death. He thanked in open court his counsel Lucian G. Weeramanthri who had appeared free for him “I thank my counsel who defended me at this trial like a true lion.” Weeks before his execution Somarama was converted to Christianity and was baptised in his cell by an Anglican Priest. He was hanged in the Welikada gallows on July 6, 1962 at the age of 48. The hanging was undertaken by State executioner Lewis Singho and his assistant Subatheris Appu.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com