By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
50th Anniversary of Attempted 1962 Coup D’etat – 2
“Operation Holdfast” was the codename given by a group of conspirators to a plot devised to overthrow the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Government headed by the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike through a bloodless coup d’etat in January 1962.
“Operation Holdfast” was not implemented as planned because the chief architects of the conspiracy called it off at the eleventh hour due to some details of the plan becoming known to the Govt a few hours before the envisaged H-hour.Incidently “holdfast” is the code signal for the Engineering corps within the army.
Fearing that such premature revelation of the conspiracy could result in unanticipated bloodshed the top five “masterminds” who drew up “Operation Holdfast” took a vote among themselves and decided 3-2 to abandon the project just a few hours before it was to be activated.
Even though the chief conspirators called “operation Holdfast”off and the coup d’etat plan was never put into action, the Govt of the day cracked down hard. This was to be expected as no democratically elected Govt could ignore this type of challenge to its legitimate authority.
A number of persons were arrested or questioned. Most of them were from the Armed Forces or Police. Some were sent on compulsory leave. A few were retired compulsorily.Ultimately 24 persons were charged in courts for the attempted coup of 1962.
The full names of the 24 Defendants charged in courts were:
(1) DON JOHN FRANCIS DOUGLAS LIYANAGE
(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
(7) WILMOT SELVANAYAGAM ABRAHAM
(8) BASTIYAMPILLAI IGNATIUS LOYOLA
(9) WILTON GEORGE WHITE
(10) NIMAL STANLEY JAYAKODY
(11) ANTHONY JOHN BERNARD ANGHTE
(12) DON EDMOND WEERASINGHE
(13) NOEL VIVIAN MATTHYSZ
(14) VICTOR LESLIE PERCIVAL JOSEPH
(15) BASIL RAJANDIRAM JESUDASON
(16) VICTOR JOSEPH HAROLD GUNASEKERA
(17) JOHN ANTHONY RAJARATNAM FELIX
(18) WILLIAM ERNEST CHELLIAH JEBANESAM
(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
Among those charged thirteen were from the Army comprising Colonels,Lt.Colonels,Majors and Captains; seven were from the Police including a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police, a serving Police DIG, Superintendents and Asst. Superintentendents of Police;one “suspended” Navy commander undergoing disciplinary inquiry;one high –ranking civil servant and two planters.
Of the Twenty-four persons charged thirteen were Sinhala , Seven Tamil,two Burgher, one Eurasian and one Chinese in terms of ethnicity. There were no Muslims or Malays.Religion –wise Twenty-one were Christians both Catholic and Protestant.Only Three were Buddhists.There were no adherents of the Hindu or Islamic faith.
It is of utmost importance to note at this juncture that this list of names figuring in the indictment does not reflect the true picture of what actually happened then. In the first place, two other Army officers not included in this list were charged separately at another trial at bar. They were Col.Terry Abeysinghe and Lt.Col Hugh de Alwis.Later both were discharged after the Attorney –General’s dept filed a “nolle Prosequi” in the wake of the Privy ouncil verdict in Queen vs Liyanage
More importantly twelve of those indicted in the list of 24 names were Acquitted and released during the course of the trial in four batches of four, three, three and two at different times for lack of a prima facie case against them.. One died in prison while the trial was in progress. The remaining eleven were convicted but discharged and released later after the Privy Council in Britain upheld their appeal.
It transpired during the trial that not all of those charged were complicit fully in the conspiracy. Some had knowledge of a proposed coup d’etat but were not fully aware of the details. Some had been assigned specific tasks on a need to know basis. Some were under the impression that tasks assigned to them were lawful orders. A few had absolutely no involvement but were wrongfully implicated through circumstantial evidence.
“ESPIRIT DE CORPS”
The trial brought out the finest tradition of “espirit de corps” prevailing among those of officer rank in the Police and armed services. Many whose actual involvement in the conspiracy was minimal and could have earned their freedom by turning crown or state witness chose not do so. They perceived such conduct as betrayal and dishonourable. They preferred to suffer in silence than “sneak”.In some cases their spouses encouraged such “noble” conduct.
If these acts influenced by the English public school spirit of “ not letting the side down” occurred on the one hand there were also acts of “ratting” on the other. Many who were involved got away by turning crown witness. Some went to the extent of allegedly fabricating evidence and testifying falsely to incriminate their erstwhile comrades at arms. A few of these witnesses found their concocted evidence torn to shreds by defence lawyers.
A key element in this aborted coup is the fact that a large number of persons from different walks of life were “involved” to some extent in the project but were not charged.Many were not even investigated.These ranged from those holding very high office to personnel from the administrative and defence sectors.Some high ranking political leaders were also compromised in this. Though some of the names were spoken about widely none were charged.
Another crucial dimension is the prevailing socio-political environment of the time and the class character of those charged.All those charged came from the upper strata of society and reflected elitist values and virtues. The English speaking middle classes and upper middle,upper classes of the country were very much in sympathy towards the coup after details of it became known.
Many felt that the coup should have succeeded. In a sense the coup conspirators were only carrying out the undeclared longing among influential segments of the population that a “change of governance” was necessary to prevent the country from “going to the dogs”.There is wistful yearning for coup 1962 even now among some persons who feel that the country would not be in the state it is in today had the conspiracy been successful.
In order to understand this phenomenon it is essential to delve deep into some events that happened between Independence in February 1948 and the D-day for “operation holdfast” on January 27-28th 1962. A brief re-run of history is necessary to comprehend the motives of the coup suspects many of whom belonged to the higher echelons of the Police and armed services.
Focusing on the role of the army in post-Independence history is particularly important to understand the coup conspiracy of 1962 because military officers were the pivotal force behind it.”Operation Holdfast” was essentially an Army exercise and planned with military precision. The “brains” behind it was a distinguished army colonel.Thirteen of twenty-four persons accused in the coup case were from the army.
What impelled these officers and gentlemen ,most of them from the privileged classes who believed firmly in “duty,honour and country” to violate their oath of allegiance to the democratically elected government of “her Majesty” and technically “wage war against the Queen” who at that time was the titular head of state? By the same token why did senior Police officers conspire to bring about a regime change through a coup d’etat?
A simple answer would be that the 1962 coup conspiracy was the culmination of a series of events that progressively alienated them from the ruling politicians and inculcated in them a zealous fervour to save the country by resorting to such drastic action.
Sri Lanka or Ceylon got a modern,indigenous army during British rule of the Island. Different volunteer units were raised from early nineteenth century. In 1910 they were unified as the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) and placed under the general officer commanding the British forces in the Island. The army was considerably enhanced through voluntary enlistment during world war 2.
After the war 645 officers and 14,247 personnel from other ranks were de-mobilised from the CDF. After Independence in 1948, the Army Act No. 17 of 1949 was passed by Parliament on April 11, 1949 and formalized by Gazette Extraordinary No. 10028 of October 10, 1949. Thus October 10th marked the creation of the Ceylon Army and the date is observed as Army day.
Initially the army consisted of a regular and a volunteer force. The volunteer force known as the Ceylon Volunteer Force (CVF) was recruited mainly from de-mobilised CDF personnel.
By 1951 the embryonic regular army numbered 154 officers and 1,955 from other ranks. Many officers in the regular army were also from the de-mobilised CDF and had served as officers in the volunteer units before.The regular army’s ancillary, the CVF had approximately 1,500-2000 reservists. Each unit of the regulars had a parallel unit in the volunteers. By the mid-fifties a brigade size regular army of around 3,000-4,000 troops was formed.
In the early years after Independence the commanders of the Army,Navy and Air Force were all British nationals seconded for service in Sri Lanka.The armed forces particularly the officer corps followed the old British traditions and practices. Only western food was served in the officers mess. Horse riding,Golf ,Polo, Ballroom dancing, multi-course dinners in formal attire etc continued. Gradually “ceylonization” set in.
In the case of the Army the first British commander was Brigadier James Sinclair , the Earl of Caithness. After him a Scotsman Brigadier Sir Francis Reid took over. The next in line was Col.Anton M. Muttucumaru.Thereafter came Col. Winston Wijekoon. Muttucumaru was Tamil and Wijekoon Sinhala. Moreover Wijekoon’s father Sir Gerard Wijekoon was the president of the senate or upper house at the time.
There was speculation then that Wijekoon may use his ethnicity and political clout to his advantage and supersede Muttucumaru and succeed Reid as the first Ceylonese commander of the Army. But when the subject was broached Wijekoon, regarded as a perfect gentleman dismissed it brusquely saying “There is one ahead of me in the line of seniority who is perfectly capable of taking command. I will wait my turn”.
Thus Anton Muttucumaru became the first Ceylonese Army commander and served from 1955 -59.. Wijekoon waited his turn and succeeded Muttucumaru and served from 1960 – 63. This was the situation then where race and religion was disregarded and only merit and seniority was considered. A far cry indeed from subsequent events where race and religion became the criteria determining posts and promotions!
1956 was a decisive year in which the United National Party(UNP) was voted out at the polls and the Majajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) coalition led by Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike was voted in. The victory was depicted as a people’s victory and the new government described as “Apey Aanduwe” (our Govt) began ushering in what was called then the age of the common man. Subaltern social forces had realized the power of the ballot and were asserting themselves.
A socio-cultural revolution was in progress. This in turn led to much friction and strife where the old order refused to die while the new order struggled to be born. SWRD himself described the situation as “trials of Transition” and was mercilessly hacked by scribe Tarzie Vitachi in his “fly by night”column and lampooned by artist Aubrey Collette in his cartoons.
SWRD described by Tarzie Vittachi as “weak and vacillating”capitulated often to pressure groups and volatile individuals instead of instilling firm discipline. This went against the grain of the values and codes of conduct followed by the hierarchies of the armed forces particularly the army.
It was roughly estimated that in 1956 the officer corps in the army consisted of less than 40% Buddhists and more than 50% Christians (Catholic and Protestant). The Hindu and Islamic component was negligible. Sizable numbers of the Christian officers were Tamils and Burghers.Tamils and Burghers were overrepresented in the officer class.
As far as the rank and file was concerned roughly 70% were Sinhala of whom about 15% were Christian.Burghers were about 7 % and Muslims and Malays 11%.Tamils comprised the rest. It could be seen therefore that Muslims were grossly under represented and Malays and Burghers over represented among the non –officer ranks of the Army.
The upper echelons of the Army and Police began resenting the new regime which they perceived as disrupting disciplinary norms and undermining professional standards through “dirty” politics. They also felt the Govt with its ethno-religious perspective was politicizing issues in an undesirable manner.The first flashpoint of tension occurred in May 1956 within a few weeks of the new Govt assuming office.
Eighteen soldiers from the Artillery regiment deployed in Mannar went on a hunger strike protesting service conditions.They demanded that the Prime minister himself intervene directly and redress their grievances.Instead of letting the army top brass deal with this insubordination SWRD helicoptered down to Mannar and negotiated with the fasting soldiers.He managed to get them to call of their protest fast but seriously dented military discipline.
Worse still was the escalation of the ethnic crisis. Sinhala was made the sole official language and Tamil MP’s and activists protesting against it peacefully through non – violent “Satyagraha” on Galle Face green were set upon by thugs and hooligans sponsored by ruling party politicians. The Prime minister reportedly ordered the Police not to intervene while mobs assaulted, stoned and manhandled unarmed Satyagrahis.
Then came the communal violence of 1958. While mobs were unleashing violence against innocent civilians the Prime minister dilly-dallied and loss of life,limb and property increased..Finally the Governor –General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke took hold of the reins of governance.Sir Oliver declared emergency and gave clear orders to the armed forces. “Clear them out even if you have to sh-sh-sh-shoot them” , he instructed.The army and Navy then quelled the violence and ensured Island wide security.
Even though the officers of the armed forces discharged their duties without fear or favour and established law and order many of them were disgruntled. They felt that a communal conflagration need not have occurred in the first place. They felt that SWRD Bandaranaike’s misgovernance and meek capitulation to communal forces was at the root of these troubles. They also felt he had mishandled and aggravated the situation.
While the gentlemen officers of the army were seething with discontent SWRD Bandaranaike upset the Police force also through blatant political interference of both a political and communal nature.
Osmund de Silva the Inspector General of Police had fallen foul of the Prime Minister. This was due to the conscientious Osmund refusing to carry out inappropriate orders of the Prime minister.
So SWRD Bandaranaike wanted to oust Osmund de Silva but there was a hitch. He was a Buddhist and the first Buddhist Inspector General of Police at that. The senior Deputy Inspectors General of Police in line to step into his shoes were all Christians. There was even intense personal rivalry between DIG CC Dissanayake (Jungle) DIG Sidney de Zoysa on account of this.
The Sinhala Buddhist associations of the laity and clergy opposed Osmund de Silva’s removal on the grounds that he was a Buddhist and that his successor would be a Christian.A tremendous outcry was launched on behalf of the first Buddhist IGP.
SWRD Bandaranaike who had been born and baptized as an Anglican before reverting to Buddhism after the advent of the Donoughmore Commission was somewhat sensitive to this criticism by the Buddhist lobby.
He wanted Osmund de Silva out but did not want any of the Christian DIG’s to become IGP. His idea was to bring in someone from outside and make him IGP. His choice was a civil servant MWF Abeykoon.This was flagrant political interference in the affairs of the Police.
The Police top brass was aghast at this. Though divided among themselves the senior DIG’s were united in oppsing an outsider. The senior Police officers irrespective of racial and religious differences met together and discussed the situation.
One idea mooted was for all senior Police officers to resign en masse in symbolic protest. It was however ruled out because such drastic action could demoralize the Police service and trigger off a major calamity.
Since the Premier was vehemently insisting that a Buddhist should be made IGP the senior Christian DIG’s in a remarkable gesture resolved to shelve their rightful claim and opt for a viable alternative. They decided to select the senior most Buddhist Police officer in service and ask the Prime minister to appoint him as the IGP and pledge to serve under him diligently.
The senior most Buddhist Police officer in service then was Stanley Senanayake who was a police Superintendent (SP). He had joined the Police force as an Assistant Superintendent of Police(ASP) in 1943.After serving as ASP in Ratnapura,Kurunegala, Kegalle and Matale Senanayake had been promoted as SP North –Western Range in 1954. Senanayake had then become in 1955 ,Director of the Police training school in Kalutara taking over from Sidney de Zoysa.
Now in a rare and exemplary gesture the senior Police officers were prepared to work under the comparatively junior Stanley Senanayake rather than work under an outsider parachuted into office. This was because they valued the service and had the best interests of the Police at heart notwithstanding their personal ambition,rightful claim and seniority.
Despite this show of solidarity by the Police top brass a stubborn Bandaranaike declined to appoint Stanley Senanayake as IGP. SWRD went through with his brazen decision to make Abeykoon the IGP. Later events demonstrated that this was a grave blunder as Abeykoon proved himself incompetent and incapable of discharging his duties as IGP efficiently
There was much heartburn within the Police top brass as a result of the new appointment. The consideration of religion over merit and seniority had upset many. Moreover Buddhist – Christian relations in the country were also deteriorating just like Sinhala – Tamil relations. It was against this backdrop that the year 1959 dawned.
The new year had an inauspicious beginning with wild rumours of a “Christian coup”gaining wide circulation. It was widely whispered that “Catholic Action” was behind the conspiracy to topple the “Sinhala Buddhist” government of SWRD Bandaranaike. Apparently a cabal of senior Catholic officers from the Police and defence services were in league together ,it was said.
This untrue “koo story”had begun when Osmund de Silva was IGP. An Ayurvedic physician cum Bhikku called the Ven.Malawana Gnanissara Thero living at Havelock road in Colombo had tipped off the IGP that Catholic actionists in the Police and armed services were plotting to stage a “Christian coup” against the Govt. According to the Thero DIG Sidney de Zoysa was the mastermind behind the coup conspiracy.
SIDNEY DE ZOYSA
Sidney Godfrey de Zoysa, a colourful robust personality , was a living legend and the subject of many stories and discussions. He was the son of Sir Francis de Zoysa an eminent lawyer and member of the State Council. Among Sidney’s siblings were Stanley the Finance minister in the Bandaranaike cabinet,Bunty the famous lawyer, Lucien the sports and radio personality and Olga ,Sri Lanka’s first beauty queen.
Sidney born in 1909 was an old Royalist and had joined the Police in 1937 as a probationary ASP after obtaining an economics degree. Among the humorous anecdotes ascribed to him is one about the interview he faced when applying to join the Police.H. Leslie. Dowbiggin, the then I. G. P. had asked him ‘How many steps did you climb on your way to this room?, Sidney’s answer was ‘I came up on the lift, Sir’.
Another related tale is a testimonial submitted by Sidney de Zoysa for the Police interview.It was from Professor Marrs the head of the University College where Sidney read for his degree.Prof Marrs had enthusiastically recommended de Zoysa for the Police saying in the testimonial “I strongly recommend Mr.de Zoysa’s application because outside the Police force he could prove to be a bigger problem”.
Sidney served in difficult areas like Tangalle and Jaffna where he had an encounter with the king of smugglers “Hitler”Kandasamy.Subsequently he became SP and Police training school director.Later he was promoted as DIG.Sidney was a larger than life personality about whom many stories and rumours abound.
So when Gnanissara Thero fingered Sidney as the brains behind a coup in the making, a secret inquiry was authorized by Osmund de Silva without Sidney’s knowledge into his activities.But even as the investigation was in progress, Abeykoon became IGP.
In what was perhaps the first of his many mistakes the new IGP handed over the file into the suspected coup investigation to de Zoysa himself for further investigation.
This resulted in Sidney stultifying the probe and launching instead an internal vendetta into those officers investigating him. He also intimidated Gnanissara Thero into retracting his original statement Finally the probe into a suspected coup was called off and Sidney de Zoysa was cleared.
This however did not deter the rumour mills working overtime. The country was buzzing with the talk that a Christian coup masterminded by Sidney de Zoysa was in the pipeline. Sidney’s reputation was such that many believed it.
The “coup story” at that juncture was a false alarm but three years later another coup d’etat cloud gathered across the political horizon. This one was for real and true to form Sidney de Zoysa too figured in that prominently
NEXT: The Driving Force Behind “Operation Holdfast”.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com