A memorable evening with General Sir John Kotalawela, Part II

Neville Jayaweera, courtesy of the author and The Ceylankan where this essay appeared as part of a series entitledSir John, Dudley and the Abortive Military Coup of 1962″

In Part 1 of these reminiscences I recounted Sir John’s colourful account of Dudley Senanayake’s, and of his own involvement, in the planning of the attempted  coup-de -tat  of 1962. Although much of Sir John’s narrative was laced with his racy vocabulary I do not doubt that he was speaking the truth.  As the dramatic narration progressed through the evening I stopped him halfway and said,

“Sir John, what you are telling me now opens a new window on the history of those times and I think that they should be preserved for future historians. Will you therefore  agree to my ghost – writing your autobiography, or at least to writing up that part of it that has to do with the  attempted coup”? 

To which he replied in characteristic fashion: “What is the use men! Dudley is dead and it will not be fair by him and many of the other fellows  still living,  may not like my spilling the beans” .I responded, “Then, would you mind my taking down notes and writing them up some time in the future?”  He not only assented but agreed even to speak into a tape recorder provided it will not be made public  except posthumously, which led a few months later, when Sir John returned to Sri Lanka for his winter holiday that year, to the Marga Institute recording his whole story on tape. It was during that holiday that he invited me and my wife round to one of his famous egg hopper breakfasts at Kandawela, his Ratmalana  estate, and in the presence of several other invitees proceeded to regale us with the comedy of how Dudley hid under a table-cloth, fearful of a police raid on the plotters!  Indescribably  hilarious  though Sir John’s  demonstration  of the incident  was, it helped to add  flavour and credibility to the whole Dudley story.

The attempted coup – the basic facts: I am digressing now!  It is my intention in Part 2 of these reminiscences to relate how Sir John claimed to have influenced  the Privy Council of the UK to get the coup detenus acquitted. However, before I get there I think I should dwell a while on the   attempted coup story as a whole, so as to provide  a backdrop to a proper appreciation of Sir John’s  claim to have intervened in the legal process at the highest level.

I will not give a nuts and bolts account of the attempted coup but  refer readers to several excellent accounts of it that  appear on the Internet  under the browser  rubric “ Attempted coup in Ceylon 1962 “,  particularly the Wikipedia  account for a factual narration,  DBS Jeyaraj’s excellent article   titled “Operation Holdfast” for a  minutely detailed day by day account, and another by R. K  Balachandran of the Hindustan Times under the title “ “Significance of the abortive 1962  military coup in Ceylon” for a critical evaluation.

For the purpose of this article I will merely say that the  coup  was an attempt by a caucus of about 26  army and police officers and 3 civilians to effect a change of personnel in the government at the highest level. That was it! There was no revolutionary mass movement to back it up with, and neither were there any economic or political blueprints  for a new political or economic order. It was just an attempt to oust key personnel from seats of power and leave events to take their course thereafter!!

It is hardly credible that intelligent adults, and mind you among whom  was an Oxford graduate and several senior army and police officers, would have been capable of such a farcical adventure. It was devoid of  imagination, it  lacked  any understanding of what the political/cultural/social upheaval of 1956  was all about, and  worst of all, as an initiative launched by military men, was quite amateurish,  in that,  it had no contingency plan, or a plan “B” to be put into operation if plan “A” went awry.  In the event, plan “A” did go awry, but the counter strike by the coup leaders was to go home and climb into bed!

The basic operational plan was to   arrest the Prime Minister Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike and some senior members of her cabinet, hold them incommunicado in various  comfortable locations,   hand over  the government  to the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, set up  a Ruling Council which was to include Dudley Senanayake and Sir John, and then go home to their erstwhile billets!. No one was to be shot at dawn, there was to be no violence whatever, none of the plotters were to hold any office, and the arrested personnel were to be treated with utmost respect, and even be served with meals specially ordered from Galle Face Hotel.  By any criteria it was a most extraordinary coup! Rather more like a match played at Lords cricket grounds than a military takeover of a nation’s government. 

If one can overlook the primary  felony,  that in the very act of moving against the government, the plotters had violated the first obligation of the military and the police to be absolutely loyal to the government in power, all the plotters seem to have been  thorough gentlemen!  If I may caricature them a bit, they seem to have been gin and tonic and whiskey on the rocks gentlemen. They seem to have been bound by an esprit de corps which left no room for anything vulgar  or  coarse and their personal  conduct  seems to have  been impeccable, at least at the start. However, as the investigations progressed, a few broke rank and grovelled !!   On the other hand the senior officers, i.e. the principal instigators, had stood absolutely steadfast in fully accepting the whole blame themselves. Images of Alec Guinness in “Bridge over the River Kwai” come to mind!  Significantly, not one amongst them breathed a word either about Dudley’s or about Sir John’s involvement, although the investigators, who knew of their complicity, had done their best to build a case against them.

To many of those born in the late 1950s and in the subsequent years, the attempted coup is mostly hearsay. On the other hand, to those of us who lived through the experience as adults, and came very near to being sucked into it, such  as I and a few others, it was a significant moment in the unfolding   of modern Sri Lankan history. Even though the coup only revved up its engines and barely taxied on the runway, it was a hugely significant watershed . Let me explain why.

The attempted coup – the watershed: Basically, the coup had as its undeclared endgame to  plug, and if at all possible, to reverse, the still molten energies spewing out of the volcano of 1956.

The 1956 General Election was more than just an elections victory for the party led by Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It was a revolution without the tumbrels. It was for Sri Lanka’s history what the French Revolution had been for France and Europe, a complete turnaround in social and political values.

In the event, the plotters not only failed in their endeavour to reverse 1956,  but helped  to give the energies still spewing from it a new impetus.

The attempted coup generated in the minds of the  new ruling party, and in the minds of its social and cultural following, a strong paranoia. They now  believed, as never before,  that the  political and socio-economic  class which had held power in the country for several hundred years before 1956 , will leave no stone unturned to reverse  the gains of 1956 and ride back to power . They felt therefore that the gains of 1956 were still under threat, and that they should therefore be entrenched structurally and that mechanisms should be put in place to make a reversal to  the status-quo ante-1956, impossible. 

Accordingly, the first strategic move in that direction was to remove the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonatilleke  from office and install  in his place, Mr William Gopallawa  a relative of Mrs Bandaranaike. The second strategic move was to install Mr N. Q. Dias, a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service whose commitment to the gains of 1956  was absolute, as Permanent  Secretary of Defence and External Affairs, from where he could  control the armed forces. The third strategic move was to speed  up  nationalisation policies so as to undermine the economic base of the pre-1956 power structures, Not least, because most of the coup plotters came from Roman Catholic and Christian  schools, the schools take over policy was also accelerated.

Very quickly, N.Q. Dias got down to his task of creating a new security framework for the  post 1956  political class. Because the upper layers of the army and the police were mostly Roman Catholic or Christian he decided to carry out a massive cull to remove them and install in their places officers drawn from Buddhist schools. He redeployed army units so as to ensure that only regiments which had not been implicated in the attempted coup were  given critical responsibilities, such as mounting body guard to the Prime Minister  and garrisoning Colombo. 

Three  other  far reaching effects of the failed coup, albeit delayed by 10 years until the ruling party had won a two thirds majority in Parliament, were  the abolition of the Constitution handed down by the departing British in 1948 and replacing it with a Republican Constitution, with a home grown President as the Head of State replacing the erstwhile Governor General appointed by the Queen of England, and along with it, the repudiation of the  Privy Council’s jurisdiction  over the citizens of the new Republic.

Overall therefore, the attempted coup, far from reversing 1956, accelerated it, and also ensured that the political and social values that propelled the plotters  were irretrievably buried. If 1956 had failed completely to erase the old colonial heritage, the failed coup of 1962 ensured that it would never be resurrected. The coup attempt was the last gasp of  the ancien regime  but  it was  totally suicidal for that class. They dug themselves a hole from which they never climbed out.

The legal process: Eventually, 24 men were charged with conspiracy to overthrow   the government. Their religious and ethnic backgrounds make for interesting speculation. Of the 24 charged 21 were Roman Catholics/Christians and only one was a Buddhist. Ethnically, twelve were Sinhala, six were Tamils, and six were Burgers. When one joins the dots a pattern seems to emerge, and it was not lost on the ruling party. The reaction of the government was that the coup was a move inspired and directed by Catholic Action and by Christians as a whole.

Since no shots were fired and no initiatives had been taken by the conspirators to get the coup off the ground, the government felt that the current law was inadequate for obtaining a conviction.  Therefore, the government put in place a new law called “The Criminal Law Special Provisions Act of 1962” which allowed hearsay as evidence and it was given retrospective effect. The government also opted for a Trial at Bar instead of a Trial by Jury.  

However, at the first sitting of the court, the judges dissolved themselves because in their opinion they had been appointed by the Executive when it had no power to do so. The second court also dissolved itself because one of the judges declared himself compromised. The third court sat for 324 days and convicted 11 of the 24 accused and sentenced them to 10 years in jail and their properties were to be confiscated by the state.  

The convicted men appealed to the Judicial committee of the Privy Council which acquitted them all. The following constituted the grounds for the acquittal. 1. The Special act of 1962 was ultra vires the Constitution of Ceylon. 2. The Special Act had denied to the accused a fair trial. 3. The Special Act had been specifically designed to convict the accused and was therefore bad in law and 4. The accused did not have the protections that they would normally have had under general criminal law.  

Sir John’s version of the acquittal:

                                                      At this point I think I should switch to the dramatic mode.

SJ. “I had no doubt in my mind that all these poor chaps were guilty. They were as guilty as hell, but then, so were Dudley, Oliver ( Oliver Goonatilleke  the Governor General ) and I, but we were free  and they were in prison! That was not fair and we felt terrible for the wives and families of the poor blighters (sic) They were all gentlemen and now we were the bastards (sic ).  We were in the planning of this thing from the very beginning and we had  to do something to get them out. We arranged with most of the  QCs and solicitors who appeared for the accused not to charge any fees and Dudley and I even made some contributions from our private funds towards the upkeep of the families of some of the detenus. However, that was not enough.  Oliver ( i.e. Sir  Oliver Goonatilleke )  and I put our heads together to work out a scheme, somehow to get these buggers  (sic)  out. I am sure you will be horrified by what I have to tell you, but what to do men! ( sic)

NJ.  No sir! I am all ears!

S.J.  You know that I am a member of the Privy Council (PC) , though not of the Judicial Committee  of the Council. I still am, though out of office. As a member of the PC, over the years I had developed very friendly relations with many  members of the Judicial Committee. They loved attending the weekend  parties hosted by my then housekeeper Mrs. Frances and I would join them in shooting parties as well. Even before the detenus had appealed to the Privy Council I had been narrating to them, quite casually at every opportunity, while playing golf or over drinks, that Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was strongly biased against Roman Catholics, Christians and Tamils and that  the government had gone to great lengths, even to put new laws on the statute book, to convict the coup suspects. I targeted two or three members of the Judicial Committee who I knew   were Roman Catholics with my story. Of course I never referred to the appeal as such, or to any of the accused, but just let them have some background information. Eventually, even though  the accused were acquitted on the law rather than on the facts, I am quite sure that my background briefing of the PC members  had a lot to do with their frame of mind and the final verdict.

So, there! What do you think?

N.J. Sir! Pardon my saying this, but I must confess that I am absolutely horrified at what you have just told me. Personally, I do not think that the Privy Council  was swayed by your attempt to influence them because the grounds on which they acquitted the detenus were legally 100% sound and there was no evidence of bias in their judgement. Even though the verdict would have pleased you and the others it does not follow that it was the outcome  of your attempts at  subversion. It has since been established in all civilised countries that retroactive legislation can never be valid.  So, even without your intervention, the legality of the case could not have survived scrutiny by an impartial body. 

However, what does horrify me is that a former Prime Minister of my country  had tried to subvert  his host country’s judiciary at the highest level, even by trying to corrupt  its   most senior judges!  I find that quite shocking!!”

Sir John guffaws, pours me another drink and continues to lecture me on the realities of politics and government .

SJ. I say Jayaweera!, You are living in a world of your own! Someday you will have to face reality.

N.J. Well sir, I think I have already seen enough of it ( that was in 1974 ) and I hope I will never have to be a part of it.

S.J.  Ok! Ok! It is getting a bit chilly here. Shall we go in for supper?

Sir John’s butler ushers us to a table laden with a four course gourmet meal.

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