It was 53 years ago when a disgruntled section of military and police high-ups planned a Coup d’etat on the night of January 27, 1962 against inexperienced Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s newly formed government. The conspirators believed the politicians were dragging the country to disaster through maladministration, rapid Sinhalisation and poor economic planning. The coup named ‘Mission Operation Holdfast’ was expected to be accomplished within a few hours around on Saturday night. The six leaders of the planned attempt were all high ranking officers that included both the retired and in-service Police, Army, Navy; also joined by a Senior Civil Servant.The conspiracy was hatched in Colombo Clubs by the leaders, Col F. C. de Saram, Col Maurice de Mel [Army] Royce de Mel [Commander Navy], Sydney de Soyza (Retd.) and CC Dissanayake [both DIGs] and Douglas Liyanage, CCS. Stanley Senanayake, SP Colombo, who was brought in only in the morning of the D-day by the coup leaders spilled the beans by afternoon to his father-in-law, P de S Kularatne, MP and a government supporter to be conveyed to Sirimavo and the IGP a few hours ahead of the scheduled take-over.
"Many observed the botched attempt as a last ditch exertion by the military elite to defend their eroding situation. Others saw it as the result of inbred Sinhala-Buddhist ‘extremism’ of the 1956 ‘revolt’ that controlled all facets of the state, paying no respect to the interests and aspirations of other major non-Sinhala speaking citizens"
The Coup d’e tat in January 1962 was planned to topple Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s democratically elected government. They were propelled by a dominant feeling of loss of power and the status that they enjoyed. In July 1960 General Elections, Sirimavo, the widow of Bandaranaike, headed the winning SLFP and set an eternal world record as first woman Head of State. The 29-year-old Barrister, Felix R Dias Bandaranike, her slain husband’s cousin’s son was appointed Deputy Defence Minister who happened to be her trusted lieutenant; Felix though inexperienced was a brilliant craftsmen who spoke in favour of a little bit of totalitarianism as a sine que none in the development of a nation.
Many observed the botched attempt as a last ditch exertion by the military elite to defend their eroding situation. Others saw it as the result of inbred Sinhala-Buddhist ‘extremism’ of the 1956 ‘revolt’ that controlled all facets of the state, paying no respect to the interests and aspirations of other major non-Sinhala speaking citizens. The campaign led by N.Q. Dias, the Defence Secretary championing the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ cause and the powerful Minister, Felix Dias Bandaranaike’s speech in early January, in support of an authoritarian system of government were other contributory factors.
"The first phase according to them would be the G-G running the show till the following morning then transfer powers to a junta of only coup leaders; "
Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who continued her slain husband’s language and socialist policies was considered by them as someone weak, inexperienced and unfit to govern, and therefore to be replaced in the larger interest of the nation. According to the blue print of the drama, the PM was to be arrested at a point in Deep South on her way back from Kataragama on the night of January 27.
‘They planned it …assuming that Sirimavo would be travelling that night, if she had. . .the coup may well have succeeded’-
‘Rendering unto Caesar’:Bradman Weerakoon -pp 109.
Senior DIG, C.C. ‘Jungle’ Dissanayake was to issue a “Take post” order at 10.30 p.m.; Col. Maurice de Mel was to take over and handle Army headquarters; Col. F.C. de Saram, the former Ceylon cricket captain was to position himself at ‘Temple Trees’. With Dissanayake at ‘Queen’s House’ and ex- DIG, Sydney de Zoysa co-ordinating Army and Police operations from field force HQs. ASP Johnpillai was to clear all main roads and strategically important highways of traffic, while the civilian leader Douglas Liyanage, CCS, played a silent role. Seizure of Colombo city and cordoning it off was considered important to resist an impending counter-strike.
Senior ministers including Felix Dias Bandaranaike, officials, N.Q. Dias, DIG-CID S.A. Dissanayake (Jingle) the twin brother of C.C. Dissanayake; acting Navy chief and the SP-CID John Attygalle were to be arrested by 11p.m. and detained in an underground bunker at the armoury. The blue print included the simultaneous shutting down of Central Telephone and Telegraph Exchange; and takeover of Police headquarters, CID offices, the entirety of media institutions, namely, Times of Ceylon, Lake House and the only electronic communication ‘Radio Ceylon’, completing the tasks by groups of combined military/Police units as entrusted.
Army commander Maj-Gen. Gerard Wijeykoon, Acting Navy commander Rajan Kadirgamar, Air Force Chief, John F. Barker and IGP M.W.F. Abeykoon who were entirely in the dark about the conspiracy were also to be placed under house arrest along with several key government leaders. Once the coup was accomplished the leaders were supposed to meet at Queen’s House [present President’s House] and request the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to suspend the constitution, dissolve Parliament, and take direct authority until the Junta took control by wee hours on Sunday 28th January.
The sudden cancellation in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s itinerary[planned visit to Kataragama] made the initial plan go off-centre. The conspirators were anxious fearing that Mrs. Bandaranaike had smelled the coup: they in a hurry made a contingency plan moving Lt. Col Willie Abraham into ‘Temple Trees’ - his instructions were never revealed in the course of investigations.
During their regular ‘morning walks’ on Galle Face Green, on January 27, CC Dissanayake revealed to his subordinate, Stanley Senanayake SP Colombo, some details of the coup planned for the same evening, and invited him to join them. However, Senanayake did not commit himself and promised to meet his boss that afternoon when he declined to participate in the conspiracy. CC realising that he had misjudged Senanayake, the DIG kept contemplating. There were misgivings among the principal group comprising De Saram, the De Mel brothers, Royce and Maurice, De Zoysa and Dissanayake about the feasibility of going ahead as planned. Stanley Senanayake wrestling with his conscience for hours and after much persuasion by her, spilled the details to his wife Maya, daughter of P. de S. Kularatne, a former Principal of Ananda College who was now a Parliamentarian, about the Coup. She immediately contacted her father; a shocked Kularatne spared no time in conveying the story to the IGP and Felix Dias Bandaranaike.
The tense hour
The plotters sensing something was amiss met at Wellawatte around 9 p.m. and according to unconfirmed reports, decided to call off the plan and dispersed to their homes only to be arrested within a few hours. They did not have a plan B, or a plan for retaining power. The first phase according to them would be the G-G running the show till the following morning then transfer powers to a junta of only coup leaders; next a council of ex-Prime Ministers, coup leaders and the Governor-General and then back to democracy after a couple of months, under a new constitution. Whether they would have stuck to this plan if the coup had succeeded could remain a big question mark. The smart Deputy Defence Minister soon realised the non-involvement of any Air Force men in the plot, and directed its European boss Barker to deploy his men only at all vulnerable points including Temple Trees where the PM resided, and conducted the probe from there itself.Young Minister , Felix Dias meticulously handled the investigations that commenced by 8.30 p.m. along with DIG, S.A. Dissanayake and a team of trusted CID officers, before all except Maurice de Mel were arrested by mid-night, thus averting a total disaster.
Col F. C. de Saram, the mastermind, who captained Ceylon in Cricket was a cousin of SWRD. Doulas Liyanage a cousin of Felix and Sydney the younger brother of Stanley de Soyza, former Finance Minister under both Bandaranaikes. C C Dissanayake, DIG, was the grandfather of Ravi Karunanayake, new Minister. Lastly, Stanley Senanayake was the father-in-law of Rosy, new Deputy Minister. The suspects were tried by a special courts which imposed a twenty-year sentence and confiscation of all property, who appealed to the Privy Council UK, to be freed by them.
After a protracted trial, under new special legislation introduced by Parliament, 11 out of 24 suspects were found guilty, but subsequently discharged by the Privy Council in UK, which ruled in their favour on an issue of technicality connected to the new law that tried them quoting,‘Ceylon Government had acted -Ultra Vires.’
Dudley and Sir John?
Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike in a statement to Parliament on February 13 revealed that a police officer in his statement had said that one of the leaders told him about the involvement of Sir John Kotelawala and Dudley Senanayake, two former PMs in the coup. Dudley rose at the end of the speech and vehemently denied any involvement and even volunteered to face an inquiry. Everybody including some government Parliamentarians pooh-poohed the idea as a fabrication by Felix who directly handled investigations.
Journalist H. Ludowyk, a close relative of a suspect, in a manuscript named ‘The story of a coup d’e-tat’, addressed to J.R. Jayewardene, (Manuscripts –321 JRJ Centre) states that, ‘Felix himself an interested party,. . unethically using judicial powers, investigated suspects in secret. . . , wrongfully detained, and ill-treated to destroy their integrity and morale for the purpose of extorting confessions of guilt.
The Criminal Law Special Provisions Act no. 1 of 1962, passed with retrospective effect, introducing a Trial-at-bar with three SC judges, also made Draconian provisions in accepting a statement by a suspect as valid evidence against any of the suspects indicted. However, J.R. Jayewardene, responding to interviews by Professors Howard Wriggins and K. M. de Silva, the authors of his biography, stated, (The first solid evidence), that at a meeting with Sir John on April 13, 1966, he was shocked to learn for the first time from the latter that both Sir John and Dudley had been involved in the planned attempt.
Another Conspiracy involving Dudley?
The JRJ biography referring to Dudley, says, [KMdeS/Higgins-vol. ii- pp 114],
‘Yet we have uncovered very solid evidence of his involvement in the coup. Was he driven by a personal animosity against Sirimavo so deep-rooted that he would countenance any measures to bring down her government ? Or was it that, in his view, the government incompetent in handling the country’s affairs. …. .damaged the economy, relations between Sinhalese and minorities, that he would encourage a coup once he came to know that it was being planned ? Or did he believe that Felix Dias was planning a coup of his own in association of men like N. Q. Dias, and that he would look upon this military coup as a genuine counter-coup, a very necessary measure of preventive action? He carried this secret with him to the grave and so we will never know.’
All the coup leaders took great pains at every stage, before and after the trial not to comment on the alleged involvement of Dudley or Sir John. Governor General, Sir Oliver’s reputation however suffered with his removal from office. JR kept mum without making an open accusation against Dudley who was then his Prime Minister, but he told Esmond Wickremesinghe (father of Opposition Leader Ranil ), Lake House boss and his (JR’s) political ally, who persuaded Sir John to make a written statement on January 11, 1968. (A copy of which they say is preserved at the J.R.Jayewardene Centre).
Esmond was anxious that the old man put it on record before he died. A note by Esmond to JR dated March 10, 1984, states that Sir John mentioned the involvement of Dudley, to Sirimavo in the company of Maithripala Senanayake, at a dinner in late 1969.
The two professors, who interviewed Sir John on September 15, 1979, write (pp116:vol ii) ‘He explained how the coup leaders had met him . . . far from discouraging them, asked them to be extremely cautious in what they were doing. . . . and told them to get the support of Dudley and Sir Oliver,. . . he stated that the meeting to finalise the coup took place at Kitulwatta stores, an abandoned plumbago store house in Borella, owned by him and the next at his Kandawala residence, on 26 January, both chaired by Dudley.’
The two professors, in 1979, approached coup leaders F. C. de Saram, D. Liyanage and Royce de Mel for interviews, all three declined, but after Horowitz’s work, the ‘Coup Theories and Officer Motives. . .’, that included interviews by most of them was published, De Mel broke his silence and divulged his knowledge of Sir John’s and Dudley’s alleged roles. Explaining his meetings with both at the plumbago godown in Borella and at Kandawala, he said, Dudley was billed to address the ‘Junta’ shortly after midnight on January 27, at the Independence Hall, Torrington Square, after the success of the coup.
However, in the research conducted by the writer on the issue of Dudley’s involvement in the conspiracy, it was revealed beyond doubt that this was a fabricated tale by the Kotelawalas , Jayewardenes and others who hated the Senanayakes, to sling mud at them.