By Rajan Hoole –
We pause here to describe the atmosphere of repression and insanity that prevailed during the run-up to the infamous Referendum which in many direct ways set the stage for July 1983 and for the JVP’s insurgency of 1987-90.
The 4th Amendment over extending the life of parliament was submitted to the Supreme Court by the Attorney General Shiva Pasupathy in early November 1982. The AG maintained that the Court had no jurisdiction over the Amendment if it had the backing of at least two-thirds in the House and was approved at a referendum.
Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon then asked why it was referred to the SC if the SC had no jurisdiction over it.
The Attorney General replied that such a ref- erence was mandatory under Article 122 of the constitution.
CJ asked: “What do you want me to do?”
AG : “…to say that you have no jurisdiction.”
When one comes across such an exchange in the highest court of the land over a major amendment to the Constitution, it was a sign that a black comedy was being played out in the affairs of the nation.
In challenging the 4th Amendment S. Kanagaratnam appeared for C.V. Vivekanandan and Felix Dias Bandaranaike (FDB) appeared for himself. A key point in FDB’s case was proviso (a) to Article 75 which said: “Parliament shall not make any law suspending the operation of the Constitution or any part thereof.” (Sun 4.11.82)
To an ordinary layman this was a clear pro- hibition against not holding elections and ex- tending the life of parliament, as ought to be the case in any decent constitution. However, the Supreme Court of the new era approved the Amendment by a majority of 4 against 3.
FDB then came back with a second challenge to the Amendment citing Article 123(3) of the Constitution: “If the Supreme Court entertains a doubt regarding an urgent bill, then it shall be deemed to have been determined that the bill is in- consistent with the Constitution.”
FDB argued that the narrow majority by which the Supreme Court gave its approval en- tailed a doubt. This turned out to be of no avail.
In presenting the 4th Amendment to Parliament on 4th November, Prime Minister Premadasa declared that “the Bill seeks to ensure a prosperous and righteous society!”
On 3rd November 1982, the day before the 4th Amendment was presented to Parliament, the Communist Party paper Aththa, the only effective opposition daily, was sealed at 8:30 PM. The next issue had already been printed, and its editorial was titled, ‘The dictatorship of J.R. Jayewardene is already here’.
The sealing of the Aththa was raised in parliament by Sarath Muttetuwegama the next day. He pointed out that under the sealing order made by the Competent Authority Douglas Liyanage acting for the Ministry of State, no time limit had been given.
Anandatissa de Alwis, Minster of State, replied that he would not enter into an argument on this matter, but would merely point out that the Competent Authority has decided that this paper [Attha] violates security and causes public disorder. This reply made a mockery of accountability before Parliament, where ministers are answerable. It was as though Parliament had abdicated to shadowy officials. As to Competent Authority Liyanage’s democratic credentials, he was a leading figure in the coup attempt in 1962!
Prime Minister Premadasa added his own argument: The Aththa was sealed under Emergency Regulations, and since Muttetuwegama had voted for the emergency, he has consented to the sealing of the paper!
The sealing of the Aththa, the passing of the 4th Amendment, and the unprecedented repression that ensued and lasted until the end of the Referendum, were orchestrated by the UNP in the most unscrupulous manner. The pattern had a plan and organisation reminiscent of the man- ner in which the July 1983 violence was staged.
There is little doubt that Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe had a major role as a hatchet man in this conspiracy. The very first speech in parliament giving racy, but totally unsubstantiated, details about the alleged ‘Naxalite Plot’ was made by Wickremesinghe, minister of education, on 28th October 1982. Such being his position in Jayewardene’s regime, it raises an interesting question about what he was doing during the violence of July 1983.
The SLFP was then in disarray with Mrs. Bandaranaike, owing to her ‘legal’ disability, unable to be fully effective as leader. Being a party that was broadly Sinhalese nationalist, which had no clear principles, ideas or vision, it was set to crumble along personal differences. It appears to be the case that Ranil Wickremesinghe picked up some gossip in the form of wild conjectures from his classmate Anura Bandaranaike, who was evidently wary of his sister Chandrika and her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, whose inclinations were towards the Left. VK was also potentially more enlightened on the Tamil issue. Anura’s faction were either unconvincing, lacklustre or pro-UNP during the presidential election campaign and then the crucial Referendum issue.
Speaking about the Naxalite Plot which sup- posedly was to have been hatched if Hector Kobbekaduwe had won the presidential stakes on 20th October, Wickremesinghe’s speech alleged the following: The pledge by Kobbekaduwe to restore Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights and make her president was not be honoured. Vijaya Kumaratunga would have taken over as Prime Minister in place of Maitripala Senanayake whom he had backed for that post before the elections. There were to be no ministers, but only secretaries. Prasanna Dahanayake who was discharged from the Army for alleged subversive links was to be made defence secretary. Former Air Force chief Harry Gunatilleke was to become co-ordinating secretary defence, who had also submitted a report to Anuruddha Ratwatte about the need to remove many unreliable pilots. The Communist Party cadre it was said, were urging that arms be taken away from unreliable units in the security forces. A section of the SLFP, including Mrs. Bandaranaike, was to be eliminated.
On 3rd November, Jayewardene issued a slightly more restrained communiqué about the Naxalite Plot about which, he said, he had heard on 21st October. The plan he said was to assassinate him, a few ministers, Anura Bandaranaike and the service chiefs. Mrs. Bandaranaike was to be imprisoned. The danger in holding the general elections that were due, he said, was that a large number of political hooligans would enter parliament, wreck the democratic process, and strengthen themselves to form their Naxalite government at the next general election!
The plot was becoming more and more blood curdling. It was the same day that the Aththa was sealed and the next day the 4th Amendment went before parliament. To an objection raised by Lakshman Jayakody MP, that these allegations were absurd, Gamini Dissanayake, Minister of Mahaveli, Lands and Land Development, put on a good court room performance, naming some of the Naxalites: “…the leader of the Naxalites is Vijaya Kumaratunga, the husband of the leader’s daughter (Chandrika). His assistant is her daughter herself. Then there are other groups of people who conducted the last election campaign and who were plotting before the election results were out to assassinate the President. If you want to find out who the Naxalites are, look at your own house!”
The Sunday Times, then under direct government control, referred to the speeches in the Hansard above (4th November and 28th October) and published on 14th November a list of eight key Naxalites with their photographs. They were in order: 1. Vijaya Kumaratunga, 2. Chandrika Kumaratunga, 3. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, 4. Hector Kobbekaduwa, 5. T.B. Illangaratne, 6. K.P. Silva (General Secretary, Communist Party), 7. G.S.P. Ranaweera (Editor, Aththa) and 8. Jinadasa Niyathapala.
Along with this drama, the most active SLFPers were detained to prevent their campaigning against the extension of parliament by the Referendum. According to the Sunday Ob- server of 14.11.82 the ‘Violence Plotters’ were arrested on the Attorney General’s advice. According to the Forward (CP paper), the SLFP General Secretary, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was detained incommunicado at Rock House, Mutwal.
On 29th November, the Attorney General filed indictments at the High Court against Wickremanayake and 10 other SLFPers. They were accused of a ‘conspiracy to cause damage to public and private buildings and property, and engineer acts of violence.’ And when, according to the AG, did they intend doing such things? – Way back in October 1980 as a protest against the stripping of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights! Legal history was being made. You could be hauled up before court today if someone remembered that you had intended robbing a bank two years ago, which in fact you never did.
Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was then not well, was arrested on 19th November and held in army custody. It required an appeal court order for him to see a doctor of his choice.
There were protests against what the Government was doing, notably by the Civil Rights Movement, which questioned election abuses and then later, the Referendum result. An Island editorial for example questioned the need for an emergency (under which the opposition press was sealed) in the run up to the Referendum vote, considering that the investigation against alleged Naxalites was a routine police affair, and the suspects were moreover under detention or were readily accessible. The protest was mild and politely worded, in contrast to the brazen cynicism of government actions. Jayewardene simply ignored these. No clinching thoroughly documented case was presented in this country by any organisation of note that went beyond a few instances of abuse that may have been countered as aberrations.
On the other hand, the Government was going full-steam ahead on a McCarthyite binge. Its media were full of a Naxalite conspiracy and a Red menace. Even sadder still, an influential section of the so-called Independent Press, far from protesting at the repression, joined the McCarthyite chorus. Today they may be found among the prominent advocates of media freedom, who have conveniently forgotten their betrayal of the Aththa and the Saturday Review.
Among the more sophisticated operators was Migara of the Weekend (Sun). In his column of 24th October, he attributed the SLFP’s defeat at the presidential election to its disorganised campaign: ‘Hector Kobbekaduwe was a poor national figure who had not been in active politics since the party’s defeat in 1977. The more popular figure was Anura Bandaranaike who came late in the campaign and whose speeches were more favourable to the UNP than to the party he represented. The rest on whom Hector Kobbekaduwe relied, like Vijaya Kumaratunga, D.M. Jayaratne and Tennyson Edirisooriya were not persons who commanded respect at national level.”
He said that Kobbekaduwe put up a creditable performance getting 39% of the vote, adding that he lost due to Mrs. Bandaranaike not being in the campaign, Anura Bandaranaike and loyalists not being interested in campaigning and the defection of party stalwarts. Migara also added that Jayewardene had always stood for a national government [and even once for socialism!], and when the SLFP did not join him, he made sure that it stayed divided.
Migara wrote again on 14th November ’82 on the subject of Jayewardene always wanting a national government: “President Jayewardene has been given an overwhelming mandate to preside over the destiny of Sri Lanka for another seven years. Should this not be the time to bring all patriotic forces together?”
There is a shift from the earlier piece which implicitly admitted that Jayewardene had won obtaining 53% of the votes cast (43% of the registered vote) only by decimating the opposition and preventing it from coalescing around Mrs. Bandaranaike by unfair means. In the second quotation, it has been elevated to an ‘overwhelming mandate.’ The next shift was calculatedly mean. On 28th November ’82 Migara wrote about the role of the ‘Aththa’: “The Com- munist Party was openly anti-Mrs.Bandaranaike. They went flat out towards the latter stages of the [presidential] campaign to ensure a victory for the SLFP. They undoubtedly won the SLFP the bulk of their votes in the North and South…the orders from [the] Kremlin (Moscow) appear to be that the Communist Party should give all assistance to the SLFP sans Mrs.Bandaranaike to defeat Jayewardene at the polls.”
The title of the piece was ‘Foreign Powers Vie for Lanka.’ In one fell swoop Migara had tried to give substance to the ‘Naxalite Plot’ which he knew to be eyewash, and justified the sealing of the Aththa by associating it with, as it were, the Red Menace. The entire media and the resources of big business were at Jayewardene’s disposal to spew their vituperations either in polished Migara style or in a more unrestrained style as in the Sunday Times which was under government control.
Still Jayewardene did not take chances. During polling on 22nd December, the violence, intimidation and fraud were such that in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s family electorate of Attanagala, where family members were always returned with overwhelming majorities, the government won 67% of the votes polled and where two months earlier the SLFP presidential candidate had won 55%. Dr. Colvin R.de Silva of the LSSP called the Referendum, “a display of organised violence to cover organised mass impersonation.” The Government secured a continuation of its five-sixths majority in parliament through obtaining 54.7% of votes polled at the referendum (38% of the registered vote). The emergency continued to be in force until the poll ended.
The ease with which the UNP was allowed to get away with the fraud cost the country dearly. By its very success, the Government drove the small but effective opposition underground, outside the democratic process. In the Tamil areas the Government’s conduct during the emergency eroded hope of reaching a solution through the democratic process and the situation continued to deteriorate while the Government made threatening noises. The first media strike against the Gandhiyam was made on 28th November 1982 with very disturbing overtones, at the height of the McCarthyite putsch in the South. We will refer to this later (Sect. 8.2).
On 28th October, Jayewardene had obtained undated resignation letters from all his MPs on cyclostyled forms on which they had to sign, and the same day Ranil Wickremesinghe opened the Naxalite bash in Parliament. The party became so tightly controlled by a group around Jayewardene, that other aspirants had to wait and literally resort to threats, elimination or both to assert themselves after things moved into a flux in late 1987. The legacy of the Referendum exercise left impaired the institutions of the Judiciary and the Attorney General’s department, long beyond the UNP’s hold on power. The Army and Police, instead of being forces which upheld the law impartially, were made to function as private gangs of those in power, when they were called upon to detain and harass op- position figures on the basis of fiction concocted by the executive.
The Government in turn became a nervous and paranoid government unable to observe prudent limits in dealing with the Tamil problem, or with any show of opposition. Despite the police agencies being very busy, the actual and potential strength of an underground op- position was difficult to gauge. Such a government was set to make the miscalculations, which led to the July 1983 holocaust, and an intensification of the Tamil insurgency and then the JVP insurgency of 1987.
It was during this period that Kumaratunga made his mark as a political organiser, enabling Kobbekaduwe to obtain an unexpectedly high 39% of the vote despite inactivity and sabotage by prominent members of the SLFP. It is also notable that he was classified Naxalite No.1 by Gamini Dissanayake and eliminated from the Referendum campaign. Although he later left the SLFP and formed a new party, Kumaratunga was subsequently to play a role, that was far from being that of a minor political figure.
As a further irony, Naxalite No.2, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became President in 1994 while Ranil Wickremesinghe became opposition leader. Those who were looking for a Naxalite president were disappointed. The Press, however, kept blaming her for her ‘confrontational’ approach to Wickremesinghe! Another legacy, the Sri Lankan Press became perhaps the most chronically dishonest in any democratic country. They had to go on covering up for how they behaved in 1982 and 1983, and for the sequel of intense tragedy to all of which they lent their complicity.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here