It was as usual a sunny morning in Sri Jayawardenepura – Kotte in August 1991 when Anil Moonesinghe, MP, walked into my room and sat down. He opened his conversation by saying, “Nihal, you will be at the centre of a big controversy very soon”. I was quite puzzled by this remarks and asked him [...]


Some insights into the attempt to impeach President Premadasa

Parliament's former Secretary General Nihal Seneviratne, recalls the events surrounding what was then the most closely guarded political secret

It was as usual a sunny morning in Sri Jayawardenepura – Kotte in August 1991 when Anil Moonesinghe, MP, walked into my room and sat down. He opened his conversation by saying, “Nihal, you will be at the centre of a big controversy very soon”. I was quite puzzled by this remarks and asked him “why me of all people?” Anil smiled and said “you will know soon” and walked out of my room. I continued to be puzzled by his remark. Anil happened to be a cousin of mine and was in the habit of coming to my room for a chat off and on. I could not understand why he made this remark but soon forget about it and continued my daily parliamentary routine.

That night around 10 p.m. when I was about to go to sleep, the phone rang. When I answered, I was surprised to hear President Premadasa’s voice. He asked:

“Nihal, have you seen this impeachment motion?” I replied “which impeachment motion, Sir?” He replied saying Speaker Mohamed had sent him a few hours earlier a motion of impeachment against him. I was quite categorical that I had not seen it at all, which was the truth. He shot back, “Is it not the duty of the Speaker to discuss the motion with you?” I had to safeguard the Speaker too and replied, “He normally discusses these motions but on this occasion he hasn’t done so.” The President continued, “That means you have not seen this at all?” I promptly replied “yes, Sir,” and he rang off. I realised that the Speaker had sent him the motion by hand without showing it to me.

The next morning I found Parliament all agog with Government members, streaming into the chambers of the Speaker. I was told that President Premadasa had arrived there and had summoned all 125 government group members to meet him. I was also told that the President shook the hand of each MP individually having asked whether any of them had signed the motion. I learned that all of them had said “No” including possibly a few who had signed. By noon the MPs had left the Speaker’s chambers but he did not tell me what this was all about.

After the members left the Speaker’s chambers, Minister Lalith Athuladmudali walked into my room. I asked him, “Lalith, why are you rocking the boat?”  His instant reply was “don’t ask me that question? Address it to your Speaker.” I remained silent.

Under provisions of the Constitution, Article 38(1) specifies that such an Impeachment motion must be signed by not less than two thirds of the Members of the House. Article 70(1)c continues to specify that once such a motion is received by the President he shall not dissolve Parliament. Having been prevented from dissolving Parliament, the President used his right to prorogue Parliament, his legal entitlement, re-summoning Parliament on Sept. 24.

I must say here that the circumstances relating to the preparation and drafting of the actual motion of impeachment was one of the most closely guarded secrets ever. That was what prevented Anil Moonesinghe from elaborating on what he was talking about when he came to my room and made that puzzling remark. As far as I know, in all my 34 years of parliamentary service there has never been such a closely guarded secret. The closest such event was when 17 government MPs led by C.P. de Silva crossed over to the opposition to topple the Sirima Bandaranaike government by a single vote at the end of the throne speech debate on the press takeover attempt. It was believed that J.R. Jayewardene planned this move and kept it a secret as far as possible.

As for the impeachment motion, I have not to date seen the actual motion or even a copy of it but it is believed that it was contained in two to three A4 pages and that several copies of it were made available to those members who were entrusted the task of getting the necessary signatures. Regrettably our parliament records do not have a copy of it. I was not given a copy of the motion so that I could have included it in the order book as is the practice.

In the meantime, the Speaker and a few MPs had been invited by the Inter Parliamentary Union to attend a conference in Delhi but we had not received permission from the President to leave the country. Soon after, the President rang me and said to inform the Speaker and members of the delegation that he had given permission for the delegation to proceed to India, which we did. Just before emplaning, I advised the Speaker not to answer any questions about the impeachment matter raised in India since the local and international press had given it wide publicity. I advised him to politely say “No Comment” whenever confronted with this question. This he did many times during our short stay in Delhi.

By this time members were quite perturbed and excited about the circumstances that led to the sudden prorogation and were in a confrontational mood. The opening of the new session of Parliament was fixed for Sept. 24. We escorted the President to the robing room of the House and he stayed there until it was time to enter the chamber. I recall telling him that since he was presiding over the sittings of the House, he must be cautious and careful in tackling the members since I believed that many were planning to heckle him. I felt that it was my duty to warn him of a possible uproar in the House and that we Secretaries at the Table were ready to advise him about any problem that might arise. He swiftly responded, “Nihal don’t worry. I know how to tackle them.” The sitting was brief and the President left the building after his opening address.

In his address to Parliament that day he mentioned at the outset: “Apart from the fact that an impeachment motion is sought to be brought against me, no misconduct on my part has been established. It is the practice in our country that a person is considered innocent until he is found guilty of any offence. We all know that no person is considered guilty of any offence merely because a charge has been levelled against him. It is therefore necessary that the accused has to be considered innocent till he is proved guilty. You all know that I have not been found guilty of any offence.”

It is believed that ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and the Speaker himself possessed copies of the motion for which they began collecting signatures starting with members of the opposition and later persuading members of the government to sign. It was rumored that one member signed the motion without even reading it, having been made to believe that he was signing a motion to get parliamentary pensions increased! Another is believed to have signed since he was unable to refuse a leading minister who had lectured to him at the Law College and whose student he had been.

The next day, on Sept. 25, the Speaker made the following statement at the commencement of proceedings. He said, “I wish to inform the House that I have been given notice of a resolution under Article 38(2) of the Constitution. Having satisfied myself that the resolution is in order I decided to entertain it. Subsequently written and oral representations have been made to me questioning the validity of the signatures on the resolution. I am looking into this matter at present. My decision will be conveyed to the House soon”.

Time had passed and the President believing that it was the Speaker who had been one of the prime movers in bringing this motion took different steps to confront the Speaker. He is even believed to have advised a Royal dignitary in the Middle East to refrain from supporting some of the Islam-related projects the Speaker was sponsoring here. The Speaker’s family was also known to have owned a company importing motor cars from India. It was believed that the President had asked the Inland Revenue Dept. to check and scrutinise all documents pertaining to that business.

It was only much later that the Speaker summoned me to his chambers and then sought to discuss the contentious motion with me. He told me then that he believed some of the signatures of Members were not genuine and were forgeries. I recall telling him instantly that if he had consulted me at the time he accepted the motion originally, I could have readily helped him to check the veracity of the signatures by comparing them with the signatures in the volume we maintained for members to sign when they took their oaths. The Speaker only smiled and then asked me to draft a letter to the President telling him that in these circumstances he was not entertaining the motion he had forwarded to the President earlier. We understood then that the motion lacked the 150 valid signatures of Members which is required by the provisions of the Constitution.

After the lapse of a month or so on October 8, 1991, at the start of the sitting of the House the Speaker made the following statement:

“Further to the announcement made by me to the House on Sept. 25, 1991, regarding the notice of a resolution under Article 38(2) of the Constitution, I wish to inform the House that having inquired into the matter, I am now of the view that the resolution does not have the required number of valid signatures, and therefore it cannot be proceeded with”.

With these historic words, the saga of the impeachment motion came to an end.

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