by Merril Gunaratne,
Rtd. Senior DIG
This writing was inspired by the topical essay of Kingsley Wickramasuriya, retired Senior DIG, which dealt with the impact of politics on the police, and the pithy observation made by Rajan Phillips in his column in the Sunday Island of August 20 where he had, whilst discussing dangers that may affect provincial policing under the 13th Amendment, stated “Nothing can be done provincially unless everything is reformed nationally”.
Stature of IGPs
For a long time, total blame for political interferences has been placed at the feet of politicians. But such interferences do not occur in a vacuum. The IGP and his seniors are the guardians of the law. A sacred duty is cast upon them to resist interference with the law, and to discipline officers who seek to help extraneous forces outside the law. After all, it takes two to tango. This essay would therefore examine whether those in the highest police echelons have stood firm against transgressions.
How political interference occurs
Upto the advent of the UNP to political power in 1977, interference with the police were relatively less. They were times when both sides protected their turfs, and did not wish to “cross the line”. Those in power structures were conscious that the service had to work within the law. A few exemplary officers such as Osmund de Silva, Sidney de Zoysa and Eleric Abeygoonewardene were strong bulwarks against intrusions. As a result, interference was just a trickle.
From 1977, after the three stalwarts had left office, the trickle became a torrent. Many of those in power structures considered it their inherent right to acquire police acquiescence in order to harass political opponents, employ violence at by-elections, and prevail upon the police to favour supporters detected for crime, vice and violence.
Police were expected to turn a blind eye to blatant transgressions, and even in some instances watch passively whilst being present at scenes of lawlessness. In order to ensure that the police fell in step, pliant officers were recognised and posted or promoted as Officers in Charge of Stations (OICs), ASPs, SPs and DIGs. They were provided scope and space to achieve promotions in violation of the line of seniority. Those who failed to oblige political masters were not considered for plums and promotions. This tactic proved an effective bargaining chip to ensure police acquiescence for violations of the law.
This strategy over time, found permanence, and accelerated the decline of the police. All governments which followed the UNP, not only continued the adoption of this strategy, but even went to further extremes.
Examples of bad behaviour
There were countless instances where those in the highest echelons of the police submitted to interferences. I had first hand experience of the high handed conduct of political heavyweights immediately after 1977 in Kelaniya and Kurunegala. These experiences have been narrated in three books I had written in retirement. The IGP of the time did not even make contact and provide some solace for the manner in which I upheld the law.
A senior DIG who later became IGP, had said, “Merril is causing problems to headquarters”. In recent times, SSP Shani Abeysekera, who had conducted investigations against political heavyweights for the alleged disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, and the abduction of Keith Noyahr, was hauled up before a Presidential Commission and questioned about the manner in which investigations had been conducted.
These inquiries were reviewed as if the CID had conducted investigations with prejudice. Shani was an upright officer whose findings would have been approved by police headquarters at the time of the investigations. A retired IGP, Chandra Fernando, who sat on the Commission, should surely have been embarrassed, for he would have known about the calibre of SSP Shani Abeysekera as an investigator.
Shani was imprisoned on a questionable charge of fabrication of evidence in another case. Seniors in police headquarters abandoned a fine officer who in jail even feared for his life. Despite his incarceration and harassment, the IGP and the seniors in headquarters failed to rise in his defence. Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne alone commiserated with him.
The period 1988 to 1995 saw large numbers of officers receiving promotions in gross violation of the line of seniority. They were favourites in whom politicians had confidence to promote their interests. Cyril Herath who became IGP in 1986, alone sought to resist interferences which had taken firm root. When the government rejected his recommendations for three DIG promotions, and instead promoted two very junior officers, he resigned in protest.
Possibly because of Cyril Herath’s recalcitrance, the government removed the IGP’s prerogative to recommend promotions to the DIG rank, and instead vested the Ministry of Defence with authority to hold interviews for promotion. This policy also helped the promotion of favourites. IGP Ernest Perera fell in line without protest.
In the late 80’s, three DIGs were retired – Rajaguru, K Wickramasuriya and Iddamalgoda – in a government bid to pave the way for a junior to be promoted IGP. The IGP did not take a strong stand against this unjust government move as well.
When the war with LTTE resumed, the IGP ordered 600 policemen in the Eastern Province to surrender to the LTTE. The latter massacred them. The IGP consulted Foreign Minister Hamid before ordering the surrender. It was not a matter for him a to have consulted the government to invoke a political direction.
Police, in the absence of directions from IGPs’ in the early 80’s, passively permitted government orchestrated mobs to torch the Public Library in Jaffna, and engage in communal violence in all parts of the country.
In the early 90’s when DB Wijethunga was President, IGP Frank de Silva obliged the request of the former for the DIG cadre to be enlarged to over 40 from a modest number. It was believed that the President wanted his Security Officer, Mahinda Balasuriya who was a junior SSP, to be promoted a DIG. The President had first made the request for a number of DIGs to be posted in police divisions to be responsible for “welfare”, to DIG HMGB Kotakadeniya. This was a ruse to expand the DIG cadre. Kotakadeniya had refused, whereupon the President had made the request to IGP Frank de Silva. The request was implemented without a discussion in police headquarters. This expansion has caused irreparable and irreversible harm to the service.
After the advent of President Kumaratunga to power, three officers who had resigned from the police previously, were reinstated and promoted to the rank of Senior DIG. One of them who was junior, and who had resigned for reasons other than political victimisation, was promoted IGP. He was a favourite of the government. It is generally believed that the decline of the service accelerated with him.
Two IGPs who served during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, were later found to have tampered with investigations into the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga. Such partisan conduct by IGPs in recent times is confirmation that police seniors are now far more willing to be complicit with machinations of those in power structures, than in earlier times. On May 9, 2021, an apathetic police were present at Galle Face Green when government inspired mobs attacked unarmed protestors. To add insult to injury, the IGP and Senior DIG (Western Province) accused each other for the police failure to prevent violence.
A system that has been entrenched for countless years, has a tendency to resist changes. The pattern of favourites being recognised, has grown in intensity since the 1970’s. IGPs’ lost control over subordinate officers, for the latter looked to politicians to help the advancement of their careers. The National Police Commission (NPC) was established in a bid to achieve the independence of the service. The NPC in recent times had been more preoccupied with efforts to pamper seniors with material benefits.
DIGs retiring from service are automatically promoted Senior DIGs, a step unheard of in any part of the world. An abortive effort was made by the NPC for retired Senior DIGs and the IGP to be offered “valets” masquerading as security officers. Three DIGs, over 20 years after retirement, were promoted Senior DIGs. The NPC did not challenge the principle or lack of it that helped these promotions.
Senior DIGs and DIGs who stand implicated in inquiries into the explosions on Easter Sunday in 2019 are yet holding office and enjoying promotions. The NPC and the IGP had not considered it necessary to enforce provisions of the Establishment Code, and place them on Compulsory Leave or under interdiction. It is unlikely that this omission has even been influenced by politics.
The print media had recently reported that the NPC would soon be responsible for appointment, transfer, retirement and disciplinary control of police officers, commencing from OICs of police stations. It is doubtful whether these changes will help the service to regain it’s independence if the performance of the NPC in recent times is an index. It is unarguable that the achievement of police independence will be an onerous task, with those in power structures finding clever ways of overcoming whatever mechanisms are introduced to achieve it.
Just as much as the political opposition cries for the abolition of the presidency but permits its continuance if they gain political power, they may similarly like to enjoy the benefits of a complicit police if in power, despite clamouring for an independent police when in opposition.
The pernicious strategy of governments cultivating favourite police officers by helping them with promotions outside the line of seniority may have been circumvented by pointing out that “individual interests” cannot be given precedence over “service interests”, if catering to individual interests affect the efficacy of the service. This argument may have been convincing to many of those in power structures.
One definite change that could seriously be considered is for all seniors from IGP to DIG to retire at the right time without extensions. IGPs also have a tendency to look for postings after retirement. With such goals influencing them, the result would be that they would be less inclined to stand their ground against interferences. Cyril Herath stands out like a beacon for being the only IGP who voluntarily left office on a matter of principle. He even refused an ambassadorial post.
If the National Police is in the throes of a serious crisis with police officers looking more to political masters than the IGP for advancement in their careers, it is hardly likely that the provincial police would be any better. Seeing the proximate links forged by senior officers in the national police with influential politicians, it is difficult to foresee whether provincial DIGs’ under the 13th Amendment would do any better.
The nexus between the Chief Minister and the DIG is likely to be formidable. There was wisdom in the policy in practise up to the early 198’s where provincial DIGs worked from police headquarters to achieve a distance between political heavyweights in the provinces and Range DIGs. This way, the strain on police independence was far less.
The IGP’s relationship with the DIGs in the provinces may, be tenuous, with many provincial DIGs emerging as factotums of Chief Ministers. Rajan Phillips has rightly pointed out that the “National Mess” should first be remedied, prior to refining the Provincial Policing System.
Combatting subversion and terrorism
Interests connected with National Security may also suffer under provincial policing. The constable in a police station has potential to procure information because he moves with the people and has his ears to the ground. Each police station may have an intelligence cell, with the provincial police Special Branch coordinating them. The provincial police divisions would also have investigation units to inquire into subversion and terrorism.
Whilst all these cogs have to be coordinated by the provincial police DIGs and SPs, the system has to be locked effectively with the SIS, CID which combat threats nationally. Such coordination and control may have to depend to a considerable degree on the goodwill and willingness of provincial units to respond to the Centre.
Control would best be served by a central or unitary command, with national and provincial police cogs effectively coordinated. It may also be necessary to be conscious that conditions in the North and East maybe dissimilar to those in the other provinces; therefore national agencies connected with National Security may find the task of reaching up to provincial counterparts more difficult than with those in other provinces.