President J.R. Jayewardene had, only a few days before, on July 29, 1987, signed the controversial Indo-Sri Lanka pact with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India. Most observers take the view that Jayewardene fighting a JVP insurrection in the South and an LTTE insurgency in the North had little option but to sign this agreement [...]

Sunday Times 2

How a President and a PM of Sri Lanka escaped assassination by five seconds


1987 Parliament bomb blast: The white patches showed the places where the grenades exploded

President J.R. Jayewardene had, only a few days before, on July 29, 1987, signed the controversial Indo-Sri Lanka pact with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India.

Most observers take the view that Jayewardene fighting a JVP insurrection in the South and an LTTE insurgency in the North had little option but to sign this agreement railroaded on Indian terms very much.

The LTTE was determined to win a separate state of Eelam for the Tamil people even at the expense of a long ferocious war spurning all Government efforts at coming to a peaceful solution offered to it. The JVP’s second insurgency had created almost a near anarchy in the South. There was no possibililty of engaging in war on two fronts and Jayewardene signed the agreement which brought the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) here.

In signing this agreement, Jayewardene had not consulted his Prime Minister or his Cabinet colleagues, possibly only Minister Gamini Dissanayake had known about it. After signing the agreement at Republic Square that day, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was accorded a guard of honour. A naval rating who was part of the guard of honour assembled oppposite President’s House, struck a heavy blow on Gandhi’s shoulder with the butt of his gun. Fortunately, Gandhi was not seriously hurt but possibly suffered only a few bruises.

Immediately Indian security and Sri Lankan naval security personnel pushed the Indian PM forward to escape the severity of the blow and took the naval rating into custody.

This single incident captured headlines all across the world. If the blow ended in the death of the Indian Prime Minister, the consequences would have been even too terrible to comprehend.

Just two days later, President Jayewardene was due to attend a session of Parliament and before that to address his own UNP Parliamentary Group in Committee Room 1 to explain to the Members why he signed the agreement. Parliament was scheduled to sit the same afternoon for its regular business – President Jayewardene had arrived at the Parliamentary premises that morning around 9 a.m. and was due at Committee Room 1, the longest committee room in Parliament with a seating capacity of almost 150.

Around 9.45 that morning I received a message from the President that he wanted to see me.  Initially I was reluctant to go to the Committee Room as it was a meeting of only UNP Government MPs and I felt it was not prudent and correct for me in my position as Secretary General of Parliament to attend such a meeting. But since it was the Head of State and Government summoning me, I felt obliged to go.

Both President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Premadasa were seated at the polished table with Premadasa on the President’s right and Chief Government Whip Vincent Perera on his left. More than 100 government ministers and MPs were seated facing the President, the PM and the Chief Government Whip. When I went there, he inquired from me what business was due to be taken up that afternoon.

Fortunately, I had taken along the Order Paper for the day and together we went through the 25 items of Government business listed on it – once this was over, I went back to my office on the second floor.

Not even haf an hour later, my peon rushed into my room saying excitedly “Sir, the Prime Minister is calling for you.” In blissful ignorance of what was in store I rushed to the ground floor. At the very entrance to the lift I met Prime Minster R. Premadasa with his national dress partially raised, excitedly exclaiming to me, “Nihal a bomb has exploded in the Committee Room. Search the room and have the Police surround the building.” As I rushed into the Committee Room, I saw President Jayewardene being hurriedly escorted out of the room and the building to a vehicle parked outside the Members’ entrance.

When I went to the Committee Room, it was in complete shambles with the room full of smoke and splintered glass from the doors and shrapnel all over the place. Some members were lying prostrate on the floor trying to protect themselves. I then saw Minister Lalith Athulathmudali on a stretcher, bleeding heavily and being rushed to an ambulance which I had arranged to be at the Members’ entrance. He was rushed immediately to the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital through the back entrance of Parliament. For security reasons this gate was closed but we kept it open on sitting days as it was only a mile away from the Sri Jayewardenapura Hospital.

Sadly, the only casualty that day was MP Keerthi Abeywickreme, MP for Akmeemana, as a result of being hit by shrapnel on his temple. His widow later told me that she had asked him to be careful, but he had replied that he was only going to Parliament which was safe and for her not to be worried.

As at that time I did not know how the explosion had occurred. I immediately rang my University colleague Frank de Silva, IGP, and asked him to come immediately and to provide adequate security by surrounding the precincts of Parliament to prevent anyone from leaving. I then ordered the Parliament Sergeant-at-Arms to ensure that no Member or staff member or visitor be allowed to leave the building. At that time an MP told me that someone had thrown the bomb from a backdoor of the Committee Room and said all he saw was a hand with long white sleeves throwing something at the head table.

Immediately I ordered the 950 Parliament staff on duty that day not to leave the building. Even after the Police contingent arrived, no one was sure whether it was a bomb and how it exploded or whether it was some other missile. I, for one, then began speculating whether it could be one of my own 950 staff or whether it was even a member of the President’s staff who had accompanied him and did not know whom to suspect.

|The IGP in his conversation with me mentioned that it may have been a gunshot from a pistol and then asked me to get everyone that day to have both their hands checked for possible traces of gun powder remaining on their hands. A search for a weapon was then undertaken by the Police. Everyone’s hands were scanned for gunpowder traces and no one was allowed to leave the building. It was past 9 p.m. when the meticulous checking was over. A few members then told me that all they saw was this hand clothed in a white sleeve throwing something onto the polished table at which the President and the Prime Minister sat.  It was almost midnight when I left the building.

The very next morning I asked the Sergeant-at-Arms to check whether all the staff had returned to work. All were present except for 4. One was in hospital, two were on approved leave but one was missing and that was Ajith Kumara, a sweeper I had recruited. Police searched his house around Kadawatha and found it closed. Neighbours then had told the Police that the chief occupant had left the house at night taking his family with him. So all suspicion then centred on him and Police started a nationwide search for him.

After a few days we were able to pull the pieces of the puzzle togther. It transpired that Ajith Kumara had come that morning with a hand grenade hidden in his shoe. The police at the entrance had missed it. The President’s Security had checked all the rooms and doors leading to the Committee Room, locked it on. It then transpired that Ajith Kumara using a false key he had made had opened the room and hidden behind a big painting standing on the ground.

It transpired then that he had opened the door leading to Committee Room and aiming at the President flung the hand grenade. The grenade ricocheted off the polished table at which the three VIPs sat and landed under the chair Lalith Athulathmudali was sitting on in the front row. The grenade had then exploded blasting a large hole on the ground and severely injuring Lalith’s entire back.

When he was recovering at the Sri Jayewardenpura Hospital I called on Lalith and chatted for a while. He was full of praise for Dr. K. Yoheswaran, an eminent surgeon who operated on him, saving his life. He told me he had particularly wanted Dr Yoheswaran to undertake the complicated surgery which was done so successfully.

Later on, after Lalith recovered, he walked into my room and discussed the incident with me. He told me that Ajith Kumara had made the fundamental mistake of hurling the grenade after the pin was released. With Lalith’s deep knowledge of defence matters and arms, he said that after the pin is pulled out, one has to count, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand and then throw the grenade. If this had been done, the grenade would have exploded on the polished surface and all the VIPs would not have survived. So the President, the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip escaped instant death by just five seconds. Instead the grenade ricocheted off the polished table and injured Lalith so badly.

Six months had passed by and the Police were still looking for one of the most wanted men in Sri Lanka for nearly assassinating the President and the Prime Minister.  It so happened that the Police in the Kegalle district had come to a paddy field searching for those distilling kasippu, a local brew. Ajith Kumara had been in a village shed and on seeing a Police team, he had fled. The Police, seeing a person fleeing, gave chase and arrested him. All that time, they did not know at all that they had caught the most wanted fugitive from justice. When the Police contacted me, I was able to confirm that the person caught was none other than Ajith Kumara himself.

A week later, Ajith Kumara was brought under heavy security to Parliament. He then had confessed to his crime and explained in detail how he had brought the grenade in his shoe – and how he had hidden behind the painting, and after the Presidential Security had checked that very room, used a false key he had had made surreptitously to enter the room. He confessed to throwing the hand grenade.

Two days later, Speaker E.L. Senanayake and I were summoned to appear before Cabinet. The Speaker diplomatically refused to go saying that it was incorrect for him to appear before Cabinet.

That left me with no option but to go before the Cabinet. I nervously walked in since I had never before been summoned like this – I felt like the Christian being thrown to the wolves in Roman times. I knew they would cross-examine me as to how I recruited Ajith Kumara, so judiciously I went with a Police CID report which had cleared him and allowed him to be recruited.  Armed with the file I sat before the entire Cabinet in the middle.

Minister Montague Jayawickreme pounced on me asking how I recruited him and I politely showed the clearance file issued by the CID. Many other questions were fired at me and I politely answered them. I was then allowed to leave.

It later transpired that after the clearance report had been issued by the Police, the JVP had secretly recruited him as they found in him the ideal person to carry out the mission of assassinating the President and the Prime Minister since he was already working in Parliament and had access.

A few days later, I had a request from Mrs Jayewardene herself; to see the room in which her husband escaped assassination by seconds. She was accompanied by two grandchildren, Ravi’s two sons. They inspected the polished table from which the grenade had bounced off. I was moved by her presence and the gracious lady moved on without making any comment.

This saga has had a strange ending. When Ajith Kumara was produced as an accused before Court, his counsel took up the defence that the Police relied only on his confession and he was acquitted. Regrettably the Attorney General’s Department had mishandled the prosecution and the Judge acquitted Ajith Kumara who left the Court a free man.

Only history will record how a President and the Prime Minister escaped death by a few mere seconds.

(The writer is a retired Secretary General of Parliament)


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