Clobbering Rajiv Gandhi as Chastisement in 1987: A Guti Dheema

Michael Roberts

When Vijithamuni Rohana de Silva upended military discipline and attempted to clobber the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the head as the latter was inspecting a guard of honour on 30th July 1987, he was indulging in an act of chastisement – a guti dheema in Sinhala parlance. As such, in my tendentious elaboration, Rohana de Silva was administering a medicinal pill in the vocabulary of archaic Sinhala – a vocabulary that has resonances within the term beheth guliya. [1]

The emphasis on guti dheema was a conjecture I presented way back in 2002.[2] In my reading now, one that Retd Commodore Somasiri Devendra does not share, the intricate details provided recently by Retd Lt KH Perera confirm this set of musings.

 Indo-Lanka Accord about to be signed on 29th July 1987

As the officer in charge of the Guard of Honour, Retd Lt. KH Perera was among those who pounced on, arrested and hustled Rohana de Silva to the CID offices not far away in the Fort, Colombo. Perera also notes that during the court-martial trial that eventuated Rohana de Silva indicated that “even if it was a broomstick he had in his hand, he would have hit him with the broomstick.”[3]

 de Silva’s blow hts Gandhi on shoulder

Vital to this conjectural thesis is the fact that (A) rehearsals for the parade had commenced four days earlier; (B) that the placement of all individuals in the two rows was fixed from the outset; and (C) that, in the appraisal provided by Perera and Retd Commander Devendra, Rohana de Silva “must have planned the move and perfected it.”[4]

This critical assessment arises from the fact that “the blow that was delivered was by swinging the rifle in an arc backwards and over, to hit the target on the way down. This require[d] both hands holding [the rifle] by the muzzle. It also require[d] the legs to be apart (not at attention). Therefore, Rohana had, in a split second moved his legs (left leg forward or right leg back), while bringing the left hand across his body.”

This is where I insert my vicarious schoolboy knowledge of warfare. In this reading any commando trained in close quarter combat standing in such a parade would have used the bayonet to burst Rajiv Gandhi’s guts if he was intent on punishing/killing the Indian leader. That type of action called for three moves, not four or five. It would have been unstoppable and thus more pragmatic if the intent was to kill.[5]

Nor would Commander Ananda Silva been able to interfere with the rifle blow via a quick reaction with his right hand that interfered with the rifle’s punishing path (to what extent is impossible to determine).[6]

But a bayonet thrust is not a guti in any quintessential sense. Guti demands slapping or clobbering or braining. Since Rohana was from the brawling violent arena of Ratgama, braining and clobbering would have been a familiar action in the local arena. Given the widespread resentment in Sri Lanka to the Accord that was being forced down the island’s throats, Rohana de Silva’s anger seems to have been so intense that he simply had to direct a violent blow to the head or face — not a mere slap nor a killer thrust to the stomach.

One can further surmise that Rohana de Silva had been in ferment for several days …. and that he was seething with fury. His intensity of hate, nevertheless, seems to have been concealed because no other rank colleagues or attendant officers (Silva, Mendis and Perera) seem to have had any inkling that such a momentous strike would be attempted.

In this depth of anger Rohan de Silva was not alone. The resentment at the Indian intervention was as deep as widespread throughout the armed services and the populace at large. I turn here to clarify the reasons for these currents of political hostility – currents that also contributed towards the relative leniency of de Silva’s ultimate punishment by a high-profile judicial process.[7]

The Path to Seething Anger in Sri Lankan and Sinhala Circles

There is a great void in our information about when, where and how the Indian central government in Delhi, and its security agency RAW, became engaged in supporting the Tamil militant youth who had set up such clandestine outfits as TELO, LTTE, PLOTE, EPRLF et cetera. India was aligned with USSR and thus hostile to the UNP government’s leanings; while Indira Gandhi is said to have been incensed by JR Jayewardene’s disparaging reference to her and her son Sanjay on one occasion.[8] The general consensus is that the support from Delhi (as distinct from that sourced in Tamilnadu) began after the pogrom of late July  1983.

Narayan Swamy has marked the intervention by RAW in this manner: “The training began in September 1983 at Dehradun, in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. From then on, hundreds of Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and later in trucks and buses to Dehradun to learn the art of military science from Indian trainers. It was a great moment for the Tamils and a turning point in the campaign for Eelam. The Tamil Nadu police, unaware initially of what was afoot, detained one group of Tamils just before they were to leave Tamil Nadu and recorded their names and addresses before RAW came to their rescue.”[9]

Pirapaharan, Ponnamma, Victor Fuseless, Pottu Amman et al at an Indian training camp at Sirumalai in 1983 or 1984

He indicates that the SL Tamil fighters were envisaged as a scout force ahead of a more forceful Indian intervention. This intent may have been sidelined by the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31st October 1984; but India’s active hand was further displayed when they facilitated an extended set of discussions between the Sri Lankan government and a combined delegation of the principal Tamil militant organisations in July-August 1985 (sidelining the TULF) at Thimpu in Bhutan.[10]

TELO seems to have been the militant force most favoured by the Indians in these early years. However, on 30th April 1986 the LTTE led by Kittu launched an attack on their principal camp in the Jaffna Peninsula and in the next 5-6 days the TELO fighters were decimated and Sri Sabaratnam, their leader, was dead.[11]

In the meantime, the SL Army was gearing up to extend its control in the Peninsula – encouraged by bombastic claims of “annihilation” mouthed by President Jayawardene and Minister Lalith Athulathmudali.[12] Though codenamed “Operation Liberation,” this campaign is generally referred to as the Vadamarachchi Operation and was directed towards gaining total control of this eastern segment of the Jaffna Peninsula.[13] This military thrust commenced on 26th May under General Ranatunga and with several of the Army’s most renowned commanders at the helm. By the 3/4th June they had achieved their objective and cleared the arena of Tiger (and other?) fighters; while the SL Navy is said to have sustained an effective blockade of VVT and environs.

General Kobbekaduwa in the field at Vadamarachchci

India was not prepared to tolerate this. They intervened with an air drop of supplies to the Tamil people and twisted Sri Lanka’s arm forcibly. India was going to dictate to Colombo how the Tamil people should be treated. Jayewardene and his government had to eat humble pie and agree to India’s diktat. By the terms of the “Indo-Lanka Accord” signed on 29th July 1987 Sri Lankan troops were withdrawn to their barracks and the government agreed to a devolution of power to the provinces, while it was stipulated that the Tamil rebels would surrender their arms to an Indian Peace Keeping Force.

It is known in retrospect that the Tamil Tigers had reservations about this intervention; but it is only too evident that the intervention was a massive dent in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The anger would have been most pronounced in the ranks of the armed services and police. Indeed, Gunnery Instructor KH Perera’s account indicates that the police officers and CID who took charge of Rohana de Silva that momentous day 30th July were quite sympathetic towards him. The infuriation was also quite pronounced in the ranks of the intelligentsia and among the Sinhala radicals in the JVP. Therefore, Vijithamuni Rohana de Silva’s fury was not idiosyncratic. The media reportage and photographs of the public signing of the Accord on the 29th July would have dominated many a mind that day and the next.

The next big event was the blow aimed at Rajiv Gandhi’s head. That picture is now indelibly etched in world history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Retd. Lt. KH Perera’s Account of the Background, Circumstances and Immediate Aftermath of the Assault on Rajiv Gandhi, on 30th July 1987

Bechert, Heinz 1978 ‘The beginnings of Buddhist historiography: Mahâvamsa and political thinking’, in Bardwell L. Smith (ed) Religion and legitimation of power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg: Anima Books, pp. 1-12.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1972 ‘Language and Sinhalese nationalism: the career of Munidasa Cumaratunga,’ Modern Ceylon Studies 3: 125-43.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1992 Language, religion and ethnic assertiveness. The growth of Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1999 ‘Buddhist interests, activists and pressure groups’, in Gerald Peiris et al (eds) History and politics: millennial perspectives. Essays in honour of Kingsley de Silva, Colombo: Law and Society Trust, pp. 217-36.

Eller, J. D. & R. Coughlan 1993 ‘The poverty of primordialism: the demystification of ethnic attachments,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 16: 183-202.

Godakumbura, C. E. 1961 ‘Historical writing in Sinhalese’, in C. H. Philips (ed.) Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 72-86

Gunatilleke, Godfrey 1999 ‘Comments on “History as dynamite”,’ Mss for 4thWorkshop, Marga Project on Ethnic Reconciliation.

Hellmann-Rajanayagam, D. 1994 The Tamil Tigers: Armed Struggle for Identity. Franz Steiner Verlag.

Kemper, Steven 1991 The presence of the past, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kiribamune, Sirima 1999 ‘The state and the Sangha in pre-modern Sri Lanka’, G. Peiris & S. Samarasinghe (eds) History and Politics: millennial perspectives. Essays in honour of Kingsley de Silva, 1999, pp. 201-16.

Kohn, Hans 1965 Nationalism: its meaning and history, New York: Van Nostrand.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 1995 Tigers of Lanka: from Boys to Guerrillas, South Asia Books.

O’Ballance, Edgar 1989 The Cyanide War: Tamil Insurrection in Sri Lanka 1973–88. London: Brassey’s.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1979 ‘The vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity through time and change’, in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga, pp. 279-313.

Perera, L. S. 1961 ‘The Pali chronicles of Ceylon’, in C. H. Philips (ed.) Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 29-43.

Roberts, Michael 1978 ‘Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese perspectives: barriers to accommodation’, Modern Asian Studies 12:353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 2000a  ‘Lanka without Vijaya. Towards the new millennium’, Lanka Monthly Digest, vol 6:6, Jan. 2000, p. 27.

Roberts, Michael 2000b ‘History as dynamite’, Island Millennium 2000 Issue. Also in Pravâda, vol. 6, pp. 11-13.

Roberts, Michael 2000c ‘Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism’, in G. Gunatilleke et al (eds.): Towards Ethnic Reconciliation in Sri Lanka, in progress ….  [now Marga Monograph Series, No 20].

Roberts, Michael 2000e ‘The burden of history: obstacles to power sharing in Sri Lanka’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhalese Nationalism: Urumaya as Ur,”  24 December 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/primordialist-strands-in-contemporary-sinhalese-nationalism-urumaya-as-ur/

Sunday Times ???? “Operation Liberation,” http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090628/Plus/sundaeing ytimesplus_08.html

Wijayapala. Ranil 2007 “Legacy of Vadamarachchi -Twenty Years On,” 26 May 2007, http://archives.dailynews.lk/2007/05/26/fea01.asp

Wickremesekera, Channa 2017 “Breaking the Shackles – “Giant Step’ and ‘Liberation’,” being Chap 5 in A Tough Apprenticeship: Sri Lanka’s Military Against the Tamil Militants 1979-1987

Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam 2000 Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, University of British Columbia Press.

END NOTES

[1] In archaic Sinhala, significantly, it also referred to a medicinal pill (information from R C Somapala of the Sinhala Dictionary Office received way back in 2001 or so). The beheth guliya is a rolled-up substance, and a medicinal pill (Prāyōgika Sinhala Shabdhakōshaya, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1982, Vol I, p. 649). This metaphoric extension on my part has been vehemently rejected b both Professor KNO Dharmadasa and Vasantha Premaratne of ICES. Kandy, in the course of friendly tel-chats this last week. So, I am flying a kite here.

[2] See https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/primordialist-strands-in-contemporary-sinhalese-nationalism-urumaya-as-ur/

[3] See Perera & Devendra: “The Assault on Rajiv Gandhi in July 1987: Reconstruction of Events,” July 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] As it happens, at the court martial De Silva’s defence counsel argued that Rohana was not aiming to kill since he could have stabbed the premier with the bayonet affixed to his Lee–Enfield rifle (sic) at the time. The court martial found him guilty of attempted culpable homicide not amounting to murder and insulting the Indian Prime Minister. He was sentenced to six years in prison. However President Premadasa gave him a presidential pardon after two and a half years. This decision demonstrates the depth of nationalist sentiment in the island then.

[6] Lt. Manil Mendis, the other SL Navy Officer accompanying Rajiv Gandhi, was also to his left but a yard behind. The still camera shot shows him reacting in similar fashion to Rajiv Gandhi –leaning back and to his right.

[7] I have not been able to locate a good account of these hearings thus far.

[8] JR is said to have made a quip that referred to them as a cow and a calf – -symbols within the Congress Party (info from Chandra Schaffter); while Chandra Wickremasinghe informs me that: “I remember JR quite uncharacteristically mouthed this unkind analogy which made Indira his life-long enemy!” I have yet to pin down the date and other specifics on this event..

[9] This quotation is probably from MR Narayan Swam,y Tigers of Lanka: from Boys to Guerrillas, 2002.

[10] See https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/30-years-tamil-organisations-unanimously-agreed-thimphu-principles.

[11] See Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994: 164; O’Ballance 1989: 61; Wilson 2000: 128 and Narayanswamy 1995:191-98.

[12] See General Ranatunga’s account in http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090628/Plus/sundaytimesplus_08.html — where Ranatunga says he refused to countenance such a programme.

[13]  Vadamarachchi is one  of three historic regions of Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. The other two regions are Thenmarachchi and Valikamam. Vadamarachchi is sometimes spelt Vadamarachi.

*****  ****

TIMELINE = 1983-to-30th July 1987

This is a basic and restricted TIMELINE of the events leading to the forcible Indian imperialist interventions in June-July 1987. The focus is on events that relate directly to the Indo-Lanka Accord. I have not been able to get specifics on one incident that is relevant: when JR Jayewardene was on a state visit to India ad made a quip about a cow and calf that was clearly derogatory to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay. It is widely rumoured that this comment generated antipathy within the Indian Prime Minister’s circles. However, the fact remains that (A) the India-Russia alliance placed Delhi firmly against the Sri Lankan leanings towards USA; and (B) that the Gandhi family had strong affinities with the Bandaranaikes.

1983

23 July 1983: LTTE ambush an army patrol identified as “Four Four Bravo” at Thinnevely and kill 13 of the fifteen men; while Sellakili (one of the Tiger leaders and a man from the Kaikular caste) also dies in the firefight ……… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Four_Bravo

24/25 July: Pogrom directed at Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere begins a week or more of burnings, killings etc ….

August onwards: Tamil youth stream across Palk Strait to join militant outfits devoted to Tamil liberation

September 1983 onwards: RAW joins in the training of Tamil fighters from different groups in 32 different camps in various parts of India – inclusive of a batch of LTTE personnel at Sirumalai near Madurai.   pic

April 1984: ENLF formed between the different Tamil militant organisations – under instigation by the Government of India

31 October 1984: Indira Gandhi assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards

July-August 1985: Peace talks arranged by Indian Government at Thimpu in Bhutan – bringing the ENLF ‘coalition’ into discussions with GoSL ………….[1] https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/30-years-tamil-organisations-unanimously-agreed-thimphu-principles

31 April-early May 1986: Kittu leads assault on TELO camp that decimates their ranks (estimated 400 killed?) ….. presaging the dominance of the Eelam struggle by the LTTE

26 May 1987: Vadamaratchi Operation launched by the Sri Lankan Army – directed by Commanders, Vijaya Wimalaratne, Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Gerry Silva, Nalin Seneviratne and Lionel Balagalle … with a strong naval blockade so that Pirapaharan and his key personnel were boxed in at VVT …

2 June 1987: unarmed Indian naval flotilla with food supplies is met in the Palk Strait and ordered back by SL Navy

3-4 June 1987: SL Army claim successful control of the Vadamaratchchi area of the Jaffna Peninsula

4 June 1987: Indian Air Force drops food to people of Jaffna in the course of “Operation Poomalai” – a clear threat and an imperialist intervention in Sri Lanka aimed at enforcing a federal devolution …. in effect paving the road for the enforcement of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Sri_Lanka_Accord

5 July 1987: suicide truck driven by Capt Miller aka Vasanthan decimates SL Army camp at Nelliyady killing a significant number of men and resulting in the capture of that site

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090628/Plus/sundaytimesplus_08.html

https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-death-of-a-struggle/

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150301/sunday-times-2/indias-sordid-record-in-lanka-138177.html

END NOTES for TIMELINE

[1] The Sri Lankan government delegation consisted of Hector Jayewardene (President Junius The Sri Lankan delegation consisted of Hector Jayewardene (President Junius Jayewardene’s brother), three lawyers and an attorney. The Tamil delegation consisted of representatives from the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

The Sri Lankan government delegation proposed draft legislation for devolution of power but this was rejected by the Tamil delegation.  On 13 July the Tamil delegation responded, issuing the Thimpu Declaration with four key demands (the cardinal principles). The four cardinal principles became known as the Thimpu principles.

 

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Clobbering Rajiv Gandhi as Chastisement in 1987: A Guti Dheema

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from a Tamil Bred in Colombo: “Many Salagama ‘boys’view Vijithamuni as a hero”

  2. Pingback: India’s Kashmir Action: Severe Implications for Sri Lankan Tamils | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Somasiri Devendra

    Considering this an “act of chastisement” is carrying the argument too far. To “chastise”, “punish”, “smack”, “give the bugger a kannay” etc. the actor has to be in a superior position to the receiver. In this case the actor was ‘low man on the totem pole’, he was a victim, seething with impotent anger. He was the worm that turned. He lashed out in anger. He was aware of his impotence, his inability to do better. He was not delivering a medicinal pill. My take is that he was a man acting under stress, not one who has planned to act according to a set norm. Which is why I disagreed with you.

  4. AN EMAIL NOTE from GEEDRECK USVATTE-ARATCHI, dated 16 August 2019: “The Sinhala word guli is written with a li pronounced with the tongue in the back of the top palate, betraying that it may be very close to guti. However, there is no confirmation in the dictionary.

    Guti has more uses than guli. Guli is more associated with something like beheth guli or pani guli. Guti has more to do with guti gahanavā, et cetera.

    However, there is one usage where guti has the same meaning as guli: oya kadadasiya gutikarala visikaranna.

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