Dudley’s “coup” a figment of Sir. John’s imagination
Posted on March 24th, 2013

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Michael Ondaatje told a mouthful when he said that “in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.” (Running in the Family). The tall tales of Sir John Kotelawela about Dudley Senanayake’s involvement in the coup certainly come within the category of one of those “well-told lies”. K.K.S.Perera in his response to Neville Jayaweera’s recounting these yarns (Sunday Island 17/3) has convincingly exposed the”well-told lies”.  Based on my personal experiences I wish to add my bit to confirm the conclusions of KKSP.

I was the Parliamenatary Lobby Correspondent of The Observer during this time and, as stated by KKSP in his response to NJ’s yarns, there were rumours galore in the lobby about Dudley’s involvement in the coup. But not a shred of evidence was produced either by Mrs. B andaranaike ‘s government or the Marxist left to prove it. If they had the slightest bit of evidence to nail Dudley they would have gone to town. Felix Dias Bandaranaike who was personally heading the inquiry into the coup would have made mince meat out of Dudley if he had anything substantial. But as stated by KKSP Felix could only repeat “hearsay” against Dudley in Parliament. After handling the coup inquiries from day one that is all he could say in Parliament against Dudley — mere hearsay! Besides, given the enmity between JRJ and Dudley the natural inclination would have been for JRJ to spill the beans. But  nothing transpired though rumours were floating at a gossipy level, which is a common practice among the chattering class who gets a kick — or is it an orgasm? — out of rumour-mongering. 

Sri Lankan politics has been consistently saturated with conspiratorial stories circulating at various levels. I remember a story that vilified T. B. Illangaratne. A Sri Lankan who had returned from abroad swore that he had seen a portrait of Illangaratne hanging at the entrance of a Swiss hotel and on inquiry he was told that the place was owned by the face in the portrait.  When President Ranasinghe Premadasa was living every death was attributed to him. When he was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger terrorist a story went round Colombo saying that he got himself killed by waving a white handkerchief to the Tiger assasin waiting for the signal.  Another story worth telling is the rumour that spread like wild fire in Colombo that J. R. Jayewardene, who was in his retirement in the nineties, had died. One person known to me rang to inform me that he had been to Ward Place and seen the corpse lying in a coffin. Within the next hour it was proved to be just another one of those usual con stories.

From a political point of view, Felix, who had the best information on the coup after interrogating all the suspects at “TempleTrees”, would never have hesitated to use any available evidence against Dudley. Destroying the reputation of Dudley in the eyes of the public would have been not only a coup de grace but also a feather in his cap. He was ruthless, arrogant and out to prove that he was smarter than the rest. Besides, a story of this magnitude could not have escaped the scrutiny of the eagle eyes of the Left in Parliamant. Furthermore, considering the political rivalry, bordering on bitter enmity later between Dudley and JRJ, it would have been natural for the story to leak out either directly or indirectly from Ward Place. But nothing substantial transpired from any reliable/credible source. Mrs.B’s Government also had the best opportunity of nailing Dudley by appointing a commission of inquiry. Dudley in fact challenged the government to appoint one. But no one took it up. Why? The story had no legs to run on.

Sir John and Neville share one thing in common: both are good raconteurs. Neville, the head of Radio Ceylon, Denzil Peiris, the Editor of The Observer and I were working closely with Dudley Senanayake in the 1970 May election which he lost to Mrs. B. All three of us left Sri Lanka as the post-election political environment was hostile. Neville used his story-telling skills to the maximum when he was abroad. He even convinced his Western connections. including BBC, in UK, that one fine day he was struck with a blinding shaft of light, an epiphanic revelation — something like what Saul saw on his was to Damascus which converted him to be Paul. In the Biblical tradition Neville too claimed to have been converted by a siimilar vision on his way to London and clinched a paid job in the Church with his story. 

It was a customary trait of Sir. John too to entertain his guests at Kandawela and Kent with his hilarious yarns. His yarning in salty “Singlish” idiom was legendary. Neville too has proved that he could match Sir John, yarn to yarn. For instance, Sir. John’s story, as told by Neville, about Dudley hiding under a table exposing his posterior, making it visible when the Police called on their secret meeting place, is so ridiclous that only Neville would believe it. That is the kind of stuff you get in Laurel and Hardy or Bud Abbot and Lou Costellos’ slapstick movies. It is incredible that a man of Dudley’s maturity and experience would  hide under a table, especially with his posterior hanging out, for all to see. Even kids playing hide-and-seek would not be that naive. But Neville obviously believes it.

I lived with Dudley for six months. I was embedded  with him as a correspondent for the Lake House group of newspapers from January to June 1960  to cover his two election campaigns that took place after the death of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1959. We criss-crossed the country with Dudley campaigning day and night. There were only three of us  in the car: Simon the driver, myself and, of course, Dudley. I’ve seen him dressing down candidates and other UNPers who came to him with the slightest suggestion of impropriety.  One of them was Sir. Nicholas Attygalle,  a towering figures of his time. To me it is inconceivable that he would stoop to grab power through a military coup.  

One unassailable reputation , accepted even by the opposition, was that he was the only political leader to resign honourably, in keeping with the best of parliamentaty traditions, because he was not power-hungry.  For instance, when  he was accused that he crept into the prime minister’s chair, through his father’s patronage, after his father’s sudden death, he dissolved parliament and sought a mandate from the people which he got without any difficulty. Then he resigned from premiership in the aftermath of the violence that erupted in rice price hike. E. L. Senanayake told me that the news of a man being shot in the riots reached them when they were in the enclosed lobby for MPs. When Dudley heard this he fainted, said EL. Eventually, Dudley left politics leaving it to Sir. John, a rather shallow politico who enjoyed power  the way he enjoyed women. His rationale was that power is the best aphrodisiac.  Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Governor-General, too was a manipulative power-grabber for whom Dudley had utter contempt. So why should he want to grab power through a risky and disreputable back door when he knew that he could came back the proper way through the popluar vote?  

Sir.John, on the contrary, knew that he had no chance of staging a come back through the popular vote. He was identified with anti-Sinhala-Buddhist forces, rightly or wrongly. One event that knocked him out in the 1956 election was a picture published in the Dinamina of Sir. John barbecuing a pig at Kandawela party. It was also the Buddha Jayanthi year and the image of Sir. John barbecuing a pig (the picture hinted that it was a live pig though it was purchased from Elephant House) portrayed him as a culturally alienated party animal, far removed from the people. It killed him politically. Besides, he fitted neatly into the right-wing, Westernized, wining, feasting, Christianized elite in the coup.  If anyone needed a coup to come back it was Sir.John. 

One other story that does not gell refers to Royce de Mel. His statement is cited as evidence of Dudley’s involvement in the coup. After the Privy Council decision released Royce he was in between jobs. He  had  left the Navy and was at home. When the position of General Manager Hotels Corporation came up JRJ, the then Minister of Tourism, wanted to appoint him but Royce was told that Dudley was opposing his appointment. JRJ asked him to get the approval of Dudley as he had no power to overrule the Prime Minister.

I was close to a friend of Royce who pressed me to speak to Dudley on behalf of him. Much against my will and with great reluctance I met Dudley at “Woodlands”, his residence at Borella, one morning and  told him that Royce can’t get the job offered by JRJ because he was opposing  it. He told me that if JRJ wants to appoint  Royce he had no objections. This was conveyed to JRJ who appointed him as General Manager of Hotels Corporation. Now the question that puzzles me is why Dudley should oppose Royce if he  was a part of the coup. Wouldn’t it be natural for Dudley to pay back Royce with an appointment just to keep him quiet?

KKSP with his research has done a commendable job of debunking the yarns spun jointly by Sir. John and Neville. The way Neville had spiced Sir. John’s stories also makes it difficult to decipher where Sir John ended and Neville began adding his bit to the yarns. It would be spicier if Neville could give more details of  the great vision he saw and why it never came back to him after he became a paid evangelist in the Church. In fact, like most Churchianists he also became an evangelist for the Tamil separatists. He even wrote a piece on the 150th (?) anniversary of St. John’s College,  Jaffna, egging the Tamil Christians to praise the Lord and pass the bullets. 

In conclusion, I would give him 100 marks for his capacity to yarn. But as for the quantum of truth in it I am afraid I have to give him zero, which to my mind is too much!    

3 Responses to “Dudley’s “coup” a figment of Sir. John’s imagination”

  1. Leela Says:

    Evangelist and anti Sinhala Buddhist as he is, I wouldn’t be surpriced Jayaweera telling Tamils to ‘praise the Lord and pass the bullets.’ Anyway, to say the least about this man, let me copy and paste a description of Neville Jayaweera by a writer to Asiatribune in 2005.

    He wrote; “Former Government Agent of Jaffna, Neville Jayaweera, looking more like an oily chettiar (a money-lending shark), came on BBC last night to white-wash the LTTE. He theorized that the LTTE is too clever to strike at this time. Described by the BBC as the ‘former Mayor of Jaffna’ he denied that the LTTE was behind the killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Foreign Minister on last Friday.

    Putting on an artificial accent, this pro-LTTE NGO activist and born-again Christian, argued that it could be the work of rival Tamil rebels who were out to tarnish the name of the LTTE.

    Jayaweera was the Director General of Broadcasting in 1970, when Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike defeated Dudley Senanayake at the polls. He went into hiding for a short time and later surfaced among Christian groups abroad claiming that he had seen a vision which converted him to Christianity. He had been broadcasting this mystical vision (of which there is no substantial proof) and marketed himself as the new Christian guru of a Johannine cult.

    Commemorating an anniversary of St. John’s College, Jaffna, he wrote in subtle terms urging the Tamils to wage war against the Sinhala-Buddhists. He has come to rescue the LTTE at a time when the international community is reacting sharply to the “heinous terrorist act” (Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister of Australia).

    He also said that the Ceasefire Agreement is not in danger as it is inimical to the interests of both sides.”

  2. Senevirath Says:

    Some body should come forward to expose these ”’drohiyo”’ to the sinhala readers. New generation knows nothing about these traitors.

    Gather all the facts and write a series of articles in sinhala and publish in SINHALA NEWSPAPERS like Divaina

  3. Marco Says:

    I wonder if the then Private Secretary to Dudley (who is still alive and living in the US) would agree with your sentiments.
    I took the liberty of referring this article to him.

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