“The Prime Minister is Dead” was the striking headline in extra – large, bold letters of a special edition published by the now defunct “Times of Ceylon” on the morning of Saturday, September 26th 1959. Though I was only a little kid at that time and sixty years have passed since, I still remember this heading vividly as the newspaper was among copies of newspapers with important news that were kept by my father for many years. The “Times of Ceylon” in those days was an evening daily with a first edition published at noon. But on this day the paper had brought out a special edition in the morning itself with the powerful headline.
The headline of course referred to S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike the prime minister of Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then. I was five years old then and studying in the Lower Kindergarten class. I could not read English then as we the Tamil and Sinhala medium students started learning English only from the Upper Kindergarten at S.Thomas’ prep school, Kollupitiya. However I did understand what the headline meant when my father read it out loudly. The news was somewhat stale because I had already heard all about it over the radio earlier. “Radio Ceylon” was also airing special bulletins about the shooting . Later the radio played mournful, melancholy music over the air waves to denote the death of the prime minister on the 26th .
The morning’s “Daily News” had details of how Prime Minister Bandaranaike had been shot on Friday September 25th. This was read and explained to me earlier by my father. Bandaranaike was hospitalized and was seemingly out of danger . The situation had taken a turn for the worse in the morning and the country’s prime minister passed away between 7.45 – 8.00 am. This necessitated the evening dailies like “Observer” and “Times of Ceylon” to bring out early special editions in the morning.
The murder and death 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. Though too young to understand its implications fully at that time, I can still recall being kind of overwhelmed and dazed by the sad news then. Though I was unable to realise it then , the death was an event of great historical importance. It was the first ever assassination of a major political personality in the Island nation at that time. Thereafter September 26th 1959 got etched as an important date in the post-independence history annals of Sri Lanka.
In later years , political assassinations became a regular feature in Sri Lanka.These killings proliferated when the armed secessionist conflict in the North –East and the attempted insurrections in the South were in progress. Among those assassinated have been an executive President, a leader of the opposition as well as a former leader of the opposition, cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers, Parliamentarians and former Parliamentarians, provincial council ministers, ex-heads of district councils and local authority heads. A head of state survived an assassination attempt but lost an eye.
Against this backdrop of myriad assassinations during different phases of conflict, the solitary assassination that occurred sixty years ago may seem insignificant to some. As stated earlier what has to be remembered is that the incident was the first of its type in independent Sri Lanka. The impact of that single assassination was tremendous at that time.Besides the political background to that assassination is of relevance in the current context too. It is pertinent therefore to delve into that assassination sixty years later.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, (SWRDB) the fourth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon was elected to office in 1956. As premier , he occupied 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” at 65, Rosemead Place, Colombo 7. SWRDB was in “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 25th 1959.It was a Friday. The monk was a lecturer at the Govt College of Ayurveda or indigenous medicine in Borella. Somarama Thero was attached to the Amaravihare.He 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 27th 1915 to Ratugama Rallage Dieris Appuhamy and Isohamy. Weris Singho was educated at the Talduwe Ihala school and in Dehiowita. He donned the yellow robes on Jan 20th 1929 at the age of fourteen. Somarama was ordained in Kandy on June 25th 1936 at the age of twenty-one.
“Tintagel” Front Verandah
The premier of the nation was in the front verandah of his “Tintagel” 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 waiting outside.SWRD Bandaranaike was proud of having ushered in the age of the common man. His Govt 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.
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 then Health Minister AP 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 PM 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.
.455 Webley Mark VI Revolver
When a shocked Ananda Thero got up from his chair, a thoroughly excited Somarama then 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 chambers. 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 .455 Webley Mark VI revolver to fire the six shots including the fatal ones.
Meanwhile there was pandemonium as 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 PM. 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.
Realising what had happened , enraged people now 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 (now National Hospital) at Borella and taken to the operating theatre .
Tragically , Bandaranaike never suspected any threat to his person and was unbelievably unconcerned about personal 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 60 years ago. 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.
“People’s Prime Minister
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 people’s Prime Minister” felt a sense of embarrassment at being protected by
With law and order deteriorating the Government passed a bill in 1959 amending the Public Security Act thereby expanding executive powers to deal with breakdown of civil disorder. Speaking on that occasion Bandaranaike had said that twelve Jet bombers would be procured for the Air Force and that two Frigates and several motor boats will be obtained for the Navy. Ironically the deadline set by him for tenders to be called was September 30th 1959.
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 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 Govt and opposition left the house and made a beeline to Borella to see how the Premier was faring.
Sri Lanka was not a republic then and 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 and hospital.Thereafter he sent a message to Parliament that the legislature should 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 had been vacillating.
Sir Oliver Goonetilleka
A state of Emergency was declared at 11 am on Sep 25th by Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleka and Army, Navy and Air Force units including volunteers were mobilised and placed in readiness throughout the island. Subsequent happenings demonstrated that Sir Oliver’s anticipation of trouble and resultant declaration of emergency was indeed commendable.
What happened was that Bandaranaike after surgery was admitted to the General Hospital Merchants’ Ward.He issued a message to the nation from his hospital bed in the Merchants Ward. In the message the PM 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 that a Tamil had dressed up as a Buddhist priest and shot the Prime Minister.
Tamils in Colombo were very worried and anxious 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 violence was averted at that point of time.
Top Doctors Performed Surgery
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 26th 1959 almost 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 at 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 at 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.” Although a murder victim there was no post-mortem.
Prime Minister Dahanayake
After Bandaranaike’s demise, the Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake was sworn in as Prime Minister. The colourful Parliamentarian became PM through sheer luck. It was Lands and Irrigation Minister CP de Silva who was the most senior minister and leader of the house. He was widely regarded as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s able deputy and potential successor. Had CP been in Colombo, he and not Dahanayake would have been acting for Bandaranaike.
But what happened was that on August 25, 1959, CP had drunk a glass of milk in the boardroom where the cabinet met. It was suspected that the glass contained some vegetable- derived poisonous substance. The intended victim was supposed to be the Prime Minister himself. CP’s condition proved so critical that he had to go to London for medical treatment. He was still in London when the assassination occurred. It was in this manner that fate played a trick on CP.
Bandaranaike had earlier been scheduled to fly to New York on the evening of September 26 to attend the UN general assembly sessions. Since CP de Silva was away Bandaranaike decided to get Wijayananda Dahanayake appointed as acting premier. On September 24, SWRD had prepared and signed the papers authorising the Governor General to swear in Dahanayake as acting prime minister. So when Bandaranaike died it was Dahanayake who donned the premier’s mantle.
Upon hearing of Bandaranaike’s shooting, the convalescent CP discharged himself from hospital despite not having fully recovered and returned home. But it was too late and by the time he arrived in Colombo, SWRD had died and Dahanayake had assumed office as Prime Minister. The shrewd Daha met CP at the airport and accompanied him to Horagolla to pay the last respects to their departed leader.
Daha then took CP to the Governor General at Queens House and got him sworn in as Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Minister. Events had overtaken and negated CP’s rightful claim to the PM’s post. But his role as Minister in the Dahanayake cabinet was short-lived. CP was ejected from office in an overnight putsch by the new Premier.
Dahanayake’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was a disaster. He did not enjoy the confidence of his cabinet. The cabinet did not trust him. Five ministers including C.P. de Silva were removed from office by Daha on December 8, 1959. Two ministers resigned their posts on December 10. Five more ministers were fired by the Premier on January 10, 1960. It was like the “off with their heads” rant by Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.
Range Of Conspiracy Theories
As news of the investigation into the killing was published in the newspapers and a wide range of conspiracy theories started floating. They gathered momentum with suspects being arrested and charged. The accusing finger was pointing inwards to prominent Sinhala personalities.
The important question however was the reason for the assassination. Why did Talduwe Somarama assassinate the Prime Minister? Who were the people who conspired to kill Bandaranaike ? In order to obtain a proper understanding it is necessary to briefly examine some of the events prior to the assassination.
The Parliamentary elections of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of the Island. The United National Party (UNP) that was in power from 1947 was defeated .The Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by SWRD Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon.
Even as the 1956 victory hailed as a people’s revolution ushered in a new government of the common people described as “Apey Aanduwe”(Our Government) the state of ethnic relations in the country deteriorated drastically. Sinhala had been declared the sole official language of the country. Non-violent protests by Tamil parties were disrupted through organized violence. There were anti-Tamil race riots. Attempts to resolve the crisis through political arrangements were aborted because of extremist opposition. Bandaranaike who rode to power by pledging many things was wanting in performance. There was growing disillusion in the country and increasing dissension within government ranks.
The MEP coalition was an assorted mix of different political persuasions. There was also in broader terms a division along the traditional right-wing and left wing politics. The “Boralugoda Sinhaya” Philip Gunewardena commanded the leftists while the duo comprising “Minneriya Deiyo” CP de Silva and “Banis Maamaa” Wijayananda Dahanayake led the rightists.
Vertical and Horizontal Tensions
The country was undergoing vertical and horizontal tensions. On the one hand there was overt inter-ethnic strife on the grounds of language while there was on the other hand covert tussles on the basis of class and ideology. Sadly the ethnic dimension was exaggerated or distorted to divert focus away from or under-emphasise the class dimension.
Bandaranaike himself had begun acting against his class interests. The nationalization of bus transport, Insurance companies and Colombo harbor etc were some of the socialist measures enacted by the SWRDB government. Since most of the vested interests affected by these measures were UNP or pro-UNP it did not matter much to the regime. But the Paddy Lands Act pushed through mainly due to efforts of Philip Gunewardena regarded as the “Father of Marxism” in the country had different repercussions. The act provided greater rights and concessions to the long suffering tenant cultivators.There was however a large segment of semi-feudal, land-owning classes supportive of the SLFP also. The Paddy Lands act hit these sections and there was resentment.
In any event the right-wingers in the party were worried about the ascendancy of the left in government and party and began plotting a reactionary counter-strike. The aim was to drive out or undermine the leftist tendency within MEP folds.The dynamo behind right-wing machinations was a charismatic Buddhist prelate Venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thero who was the Viharadhipathy or chief incumbent of the historic Kelaniya Raja maha vihara.
The priest’s influence was mainly due to his politics. He was the founder and secretary of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) representing politicized sections of the Buddhist clergy. The Bhikku Front played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the MEP during the 1956 elections. Contrary to tenets of “Vinaya” , Buddharakkita Thero dabbled discreetly in commerce and had large sums of money at his disposal. The powerful priest had spent a lot of cash for the MEP election campaign.
His clout therefore was massive with the government and the monk was in a sense the Rasputin or Richelieu of Sri Lanka. He was also a hawkish communalist and spearheaded the campaign against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact. Hundreds of Buddhist priests demonstrated against it thereby compelling Bandaranaike to abrogate it unilaterally. Mapitigama was the mastermind.
Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thero
Now it was the priest’s mission to “cleanse” the government of leftists. The annual party convention for 1959 was held in Kurunegala. Bandaranaike presiding over the sessions was trying hard to maintain balance by containing the assertive right . It was then that Ven Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thero made his move. He strode into the convention belligerently and everyone stood up. There atmosphere was electrified. Once he arrived the mood began transforming. The right wing was on the ascendant. Internal party elections saw the “leftist” candidates being defeated decisively. It was a “right” royal sweep.
This heralded the exit of the left. On may 18th 1959 the Agriculture and Food minister Philip Gunewardena and PH William Silva the Industries and Fisheries minister resigned their portfolios. Bandaranaike formed a fresh cabinet on June 9th. Senator WPH de Silva who retained his Justice ministership resigned two days later. Seven leftist MP’s quit ranks thus depleting the government’s Parliamentary strength to just 47 out of 101.
The purge of leftists and assertion of rightists was a conspiracy to shackle SWRD Bandaranaike. The intention was to transform him into a puppet but the aristocratic Oxonian though beleaguered would not give in totally to Buddharakkita’s diktat. Irritated by this the “kingmaker” priest now decided to remove Bandaranaike altogether.The flashpoint causing this change of mind was not race,class or ideology. It was sordid commerce.
Two issues rankled. One was the Prime Minister’s refusal to hand over a lucrative shipping contract to a company named Colombo Shipping Lines that was co-founded by Buddharakkita in the name of his associate HP Jayawardena to import rice from Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. The second was over a sugar manufacturing licence to start a sugar factory costing many crores of rupees. SWRD acting on the advice of Philip Gunewardena and RG Senanayake had refused to give the contract to the company resulting in great financial loss to Buddharakita and his frontman Jayawardena.
Thus Buddharakkita along with a clique conspired to assassinate Bandaranaike. Their unwitting instrument was Talduwe Somarama Thero who was an ardent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Being highly emotional Somarama was easily manipulated by Buddharakkita who convinced him into believing that the PM was a traitor to the country, race and religion and therefore should be eliminated. Somarama was a mere cat’s paw.
Tripartite Forces Personified
The tripartite forces that 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 that brought SWRDB to power were now personified in the man who killed him.
This then is the story of SWRD Bandaranaike’s demise sixty years ago. The intensive investigation launched into the Prime minister’s assassination, the arrests of various suspects, the indictments and protracted trials leading to both acquittals and convictions are by themselves worthy of a detailed article in the near future.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of September 21, 2019. It can be accessed here-