By Emil van der Poorten –
When the 1970 election came along, I was sufficiently disenchanted with our sitting Member of Parliament and his conduct, not to want to participate. However, I was reminded by a friend of what would be the consequences of a Dudley Senanayake defeat in 1970 and decided to work for Ottupaal Banda again, if not with the same vigour as five years before.
Part way through the election, I had some of my village contacts complaining that thuggery had extended to boulders and logs being rolled on main roads, preventing sick people, irrespective of party affiliation, traversing the roads of our rural part of the world after dark in search of hospital treatment.
I decided to do the obvious – seek police intervention of some description – and went into Kandy to see a friend who was considered one of the major “movers and shakers” in the area and a respected medical practitioner to boot, Dr. C. D. L (Derrick) Fernando. He thought the best way to deal with the issue was to see the Superintendent of Police whose position was much farther up the Police hierarchical ladder than is now the case. I distinctly remember the meeting with Merrick Gunaratne who inquired whether it was my contention that the totally unacceptable blocking of public roads was the doing of SLFP supporters only. I answered in the negative and told him that I was seeking police intervention to prevent a totally unacceptable state of affairs continuing and that the miscreants needed to be caught, appropriately prosecuted and punished, irrespective of party affiliation, something that, in recent times would be treated as the ultimate in heresy! My recollection was that the situation improved significantly after my complaint because of beefed-up police patrols etc.
What I meant to be the last gesture of loyalty to the late W.M.G.T. Banda, brutally disemboweled by the JVP during their second insurrection, turned out to be an unknowing step in the direction of my virtual banishment from Sri Lanka.
In those days, after the polls closed on election day, the ballot boxes were collected from the polling stations and brought into the counting place – the Kandy Kachcheri in our case – escorted by the election officials and representatives of the candidates such as I.
On our way into Kandy there appeared to be efforts to waylay the UNP part of the procession on the main Kandy-Kurunegala road. No stones hit us or our vehicles but there were efforts to obstruct or at least slow us down so that the hooting and jeering we were subject to would be more effective!
We reached Kandy “in one piece” and went into the tedious, night-long process of watching the counting of the ballots.
Quite early in the night, it was apparent that we were headed for defeat and when we walked out of the Kachcheri at daybreak Tikiri Banda had lost the Galagedera seat and the UNP had lost government.
We now had facing us the, then relatively long, drive back to the electorate. The now ex- MP made the (sensible) suggestion that we take the back way into the electorate and our homes to avoid what would be awaiting us from the thugs who had already given evidence of their intentions when we had encountered them on our way in. However, those of us who insisted on going back through the “front door” from which we had emerged the evening before prevailed.
On a hunch, I asked a young man who was a “creeper” (an apprentice planter) with me to contact the Kandy police and secure some sort of “armed escort.” He was successful and we had, before our departure from the Kachcheri premises, a policeman astride a Speed-Twin Triumph motorcycle with a World War 1-vintage bolt-action Lee-Enfield .303 rifle across his lap to protect our returning little cavalcade!
And a good thing too because the knots of opposition supporters that had jeered us on our way into town had grown in number and aggressiveness and would certainly have done us some harm but for the presence of our “armed escort.” Today, politicians, certainly those of the previous regime, wouldn’t dream of going for so much as a daylight stroll without, at least, a battalion of assault-weapon-armed soldiers! At the time, however, we thought we had done well in obtaining the police protection we had!
Back we went and our little convoy parted company at the famous and still-standing Bambara gaha (Rock-bee nesting tree) junction above the Galagedera police station, yours truly in the direction of Kurunegala and the rest in that of Rambukkana.
If I thought this was the end of the story when I got home, I had another think coming and very soon!
First, I learned that those threatening violence both on our way into Kandy and back were, the SLFP’s storm troopers who were flexing their muscles in anticipation of what turned out to be the 1971 Che Guevara insurrection which itself was driven by their disenchantment with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s promise of egalitarianism which had turned into one that amounted to a change from the Senanayake gentry to that of the Bandaranaikes and Ratwattes, as one of their leaders told me just prior to the April 1971 Che Guevara insurrection! Incidentally, the story of that man, who hailed from the Kegalle-Mawanella area, and insisted he owed his life to me and my wife for facilitating his surrender to the army after that “revolution” fizzled out, is still alive. That, most fascinating tale that few fiction writers would have been able to concoct, will have to await another column, unfortunately!
From my eyrie, built by my grandparents, I saw and heard noisy little processions along the highway below for the rest of the day. Apart from the usual drunken louts that get loudest at times like this there was, I was told, a coterie of potentially very violent young people from ranks of the JVP who were treating all of this as a dress rehearsal for what was to follow in April 1971, as it transpired.
Rumours of widespread violence directed at villagers identified, no matter how flimsy the evidence, as UNP supporters was all over a constituency that never had a reputation for that kind of thing before. This was obviously more than just conjecture because, soon, a man who identified himself as the Headquarters Inspector of the Kandy police turned up at our front door in search of some place where he could shower and, perhaps, have a decent meal while he did his stint in Galagedera. We obliged and, in typical Sri Lankan fashion, we discovered that he was a neighbor of one of our closest Kandy friends and that his political leanings were towards the recently-defeated party!
Once he was satisfied that we would not spread the news, he told us, in so many words, that there was what in today’s terminology would be described as a “contract” out on prominent UNPers in the area and that I had been identified as one of them. He said he had been issued clear instructions not to intervene in any of the mayhem that was to be visited upon UNPers but that he would do whatever it took to protect me, my wife and young family from any intruders into our home as long as we stayed in our house which was about two kilometers from the afore-mentioned Kandy-Kurunegala road,.
If memory serves me right, we were holed up in our house for about two weeks and the young man who was “creeping” (apprenticing) as a planter would run into town to deliver the eggs that our chickens produced and other farm produce and to do the marketing for our household. We were, simply put, under siege for a fortnight!
Once this period was over, life returned to relative normalcy and even though we ensured that we kept our vulnerability to a minimum we tried to resume our lives from where we’d left off.
Keeping our heads down and “not making waves” did not, as it transpired, provide us with anything resembling normalcy in what was soon to prove a curtailed residence in the land of our birth.
*That chapter will have to wait for another instalment of this saga