The Assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike: An Anecdotal Reflection
by Senaka Weeraratna on 27 Sep 2015 1 Comment
It was a Friday fifty six years ago (to be exact on September 25, 1959) at around 10.30 a.m. in the morning when I was in the classroom listening to Mr H.P. Jayawardena’s English lesson in our final year at Royal Primary School, that my eye caught a movement in the corridor adjoining the class. When I looked sideways to my left I saw young Anura Bandaranaike being accompanied by his Ayah leaving the premises. In that relatively quiet moment my classmates too saw Anura being led away but none was able to second guess the reason.


It was during the lunch hour that we got the distressing news that Anura’s father Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon, had been shot. Amidst a variety of reports streaming in of the shooting, it was not possible to give adequate attention to any classroom instruction for the rest of the day. In that very class of Mr H.P. Jayawardena we had a number of students who shot to national prominence in public life as adults. Ranil Wickremesinghe (Prime Minister), Dinesh Gunawardena (ex-cabinet minister), late C.R. de Silva (former Attorney-General), Dr Ajita Wijesundere (leading gynecologist), and Sarath Abeysundera (successful Sri Lankan entrepreneur in UK) were among them.


In 1959 Anura Bandaranaike was in Mr T.William’s class, which also had Anura de Alwis (son of Duncan de Alwis, private secretary to the Prime Minister). Both were close friends. It is said that when Anura had wanted to invite only his favourite friends to celebrate his birthday, his famous father had given him an important lesson saying ‘if you are inviting any one to your birthday party, do not pick and choose. Invite the entire class.’ To a politician alienating someone by not inviting was far more damaging than the benefits accruing from inviting a close friend.


Anura’s mother Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike used to visit Royal Primary School to inquire into Anura’s well-being as a school boy, at a time when her husband was running the country. In 1957 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the Chief Guest at the Royal Primary School Prize Giving held on February 15, 1957. Both S.W.R.D. and Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike were present on that occasion. ‘Gateway’ the Magazine of the Royal Primary School in its last issue (in 1958) has faithfully published the Annual Report of A.F. de Saa Bandaranaike, then Headmaster of Royal Primary School, where he pays a glowing tribute to his name sake the visiting Chief Guest. A.F. de Saa Bandaranaike, retired as Headmaster in 1958 and with his retirement the highly informative magazine ‘Gateway’ which he started and continued for 10 years, was discontinued by his successor for reasons that are not rationally fathomable.


Bandaranaike’s last appeal to the nation: Show compassion to my assailant


The train of events commencing from the time of shooting to the rushing of the Prime Minister to the General Hospital at Borella is well known and constitutes public knowledge.  He was operated by a team of top doctors in an operation that lasted for more than five hours. The country held its breadth during that time. Dr M. V. P. Peries, Dr P. R. Anthonis , Dr L. O. Silva and Dr Noel Bartholomeusz were in that team.


Upon being admitted to the Merchants’ Ward after surgery, the Prime Minister issued a message to the nation from his hospital bed showing extreme generosity of spirit towards the man who had shot him. He described the assailant as “a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk” and then said “I appeal to all concerned to show compassion to this man and not to try and wreak vengeance on him”.


His condition took a turn for the worse in the early hours of the morning the next day. He passed away at around 8.00 a.m. on Saturday September 26. About 13 years ago I met Dr P.R. Anthonis at a public meeting held in Colombo and had an opportunity to talk to him at leisure. To my specific question Dr Anthonis said that he was present when Mr Bandaranaike died on the bed in Hospital. He i.e. Mr Bandaranaike had asked for a bottle of Orange Barley which had been supplied to him. Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike had also been present.


After he drank a glass of Orange Barley, the body had turned ‘blue’ due to a clot in a blood vessel restricting the flow of oxygen to his brain. Soon afterwards Mr Bandaranaike had died. Dr Anthonis also gave another important clarification. He added that he was present in the Hospital until the remains of Mr Bandaranaike were taken to his residence at Rosmead Place. He had not seen any Christian priests administering last rites in hospital as falsely rumored. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike died as a Buddhist, Dr Anthonis told me.


Upon the announcement of the death over the Radio the country was plunged into mourning. The Radio played solemn music. A verdict of homicide was recorded by the City Coroner.  People started queuing in their hundreds to pay their last respects to the man who ushered in the ‘Common man’s era’ through the political revolution of 1956 which he led.


Personal memoir


On a personal note I wish to mention here that I visited No. 65, Rosmead Place in the company of my father, mother and brother at around 7.30 p.m. on Saturday September 26. We did not join a queue. We were ushered into the main house. I saw the inside of the house full of black ebony furniture and the bullet holes in the glass panes. I met both Anura and one of his two sisters, probably Chandrika, and conveyed my condolences. My parents and brother did likewise. Anura recognized me but he was too dazed to engage me in a conversation. Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike was inside a room naturally in a state of deep grief.


I had occasion, rather my father, to speak very briefly to the driver of the Cadillac car who drove the injured Prime Minister to the Hospital. His name was Miskin. He was a Police Sergeant. Around the time we were paying our respects to the late Prime Minster at his residence, I remember seeing very clearly Mr Sydney de Zoysa, then a senior DIG, slowly circling in measured steps the coffin with both his hands inserted in his trouser back pockets while hundreds of mourners were filing past the remains of the late leader in despair. The poignant scene at the Bandaranaike household which I visited and saw in the evening of September 26, 1959 in the capacity of a tender age school boy will always remain etched in my memory.


The story is not over yet. On Sunday September 27, 1959 morning at about 10.00 o clock I was travelling with my father and uncle in our car and near Cambridge Place we switched on the Car Radio and I heard the last few sentences of a sermon praising the late Prime Minister and the Radio Announcer thereafter saying that it was a talk delivered by Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero as a tribute to the late Prime Minister. On reaching our Shop at Maradana that morning I met Mr Egerton C. Baptist, the well-known author of several Buddhist texts, for the first time. He had come to meet my uncle. His son Randolph Baptist was my classmate at school.


The next day Monday September 28, 1959 was the day that Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was scheduled to leave the country for the United Nations to address the General Assembly. Instead his remains were taken, carried on the shoulders of his cabinet ministers, from his residence to the top of Rosmead Place where the coffin was placed inside a hearse and taken to the Parliament. I was an eye witness of this procession as I was seated on a wall adjoining a piece of land in Rosmead Place where my uncle was building a house whose first tenant was incidentally Dr Mackie Ratwatte, Mrs Bandaranaike’s brother.


In that procession of cabinet ministers carrying the coffin on their shoulders was Mrs Wimala Wijewardena (then Minster of Health). I can still remember her clad in a white sari using one hand to keep up the coffin while using the other hand to adjust her sari pota which was constantly dropping down. The role played by Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero in the conspiracy to assassinate the late Prime Minister is well documented. Mrs Wimala Wijewardena was an accused in the political assassination inquiry into the death of the late Prime Minister.


My class at Royal Primary School was taken by bus to pay our last respects to the late Prime Minister when the remains were kept on display in the Parliament. To us schoolboys the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was somewhat of a nerve racking event from many points of view. His son Anura was our classmate whose funeral also I attended a few years ago at Horagolla, together with several of my RC 1960 group friends.


Anura: An enigma


Anura’s life was shattered by the assassination of his father at such a young age. He never received the guidance of a father figure. He became reclusive in the first few months following his father’s death. He was always dressed in white and was no longer the bubbly boy. He had more security whenever he came to school intermittently. We all felt very sorry for him.


Anura was no ordinary boy. He had a deep voice. A commanding voice which I had not come across in any other school boy of his age. He had a liberal spirit and was very much inclined towards the West. In year 1961 when I was the class monitor in a class conducted by Mr T.D.S.A. Dissanayake (famous author and diplomat) there was a debate held after hours presided by the late Mr Upali Attanayake (dramatist). The topic of the debate was Capitalism or Socialism. It was the time when President John F. Kennedy was the US President. Anura, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Vijitha Kuruwita (later a well-known vet) spoke and defended Capitalism while W.S. de Silva, Chitta Ranjan de Silva (Bulla )and myself spoke on the merits of socialism. The debate was well attended. We were not hesitant in adopting positions that we had faith in at that point in time.  


I have shared these thoughts as they relate to several schoolboys, my class mates, who have later become national figures and whose life stories have become part of the national story. I would like to end this anecdotal account by quoting Voltaire who said as follows:

“Who so writes the history of his own time must expect to be attacked for everything he has said, and for everything he has not said: but those little drawbacks should not discourage a man who loves truth and liberty, expects nothing, fears nothing, asks nothing, and limits his ambition to the cultivation of letters.”         

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