Policing the People, Policing for the People

“Ask the Tamils, and they will tell you how it all started in the mid-Seventies and went on till the early Eighties, when the LTTE ambushing of 13 soldiers whipped up the 'anti-Tamil pogrom' of 1983. There is of course some truth in the counter-argument that such interventions and occasional excesses become unavoidable and inescapable in the prevailing situations.”

by N Sathiyamoorthy

(August 25, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whatever be the results of the Provincial Council polls in North-Central Province and Sabaragamuwa, charges and demands on the role of the police in ensuring free and fair elections cannot but be expected in their wake. Arguments such as those available on the Government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse that had some validity at the time of 'democratisation' of the Eastern Province are not relevant now. This, in turn, could revive the national discourse on the distribution and devolution, if not dilution of the policing powers that are now exclusively left to the hands of the central government.

Even without all this, 'policing powers' for the Provinces has been one of the corner-stones of the power-devolution package demanded by the Tamil community as part of a possible solution to the ethnic strife that has eaten into the vitals of the Sri Lankan State system. The Tamil-speaking Muslim community is broadly agreed on the need for such devolution, but the process should address their concerns, and serve their needs and demands. The traditional Tamil concerns are their concerns. The post-'90 LTTE attacks on the Muslims dictate their needs. Any possible solution should thus address it all.

'Policing powers' for the Provinces was also a unanimous demand that the Council of Chief Ministers reiterated after the newly-elected Eastern Province Chief Minister, Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan took over as its Chairman a couple of months back. Considering that the Tamils have only one Chief Minister in the effective eight of the total nine as things stand in the era after de-merger of the North and the East, the Tamils', it should be understood, is not a cry in wilderness.

That way, 'Sinhala nationalist' parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which swears by the 'unitary State' otherwise, apart from the Opposition UNP, of course, may have now found the occasion and justification now after the polls, to distinguish between the constitutional concept and the institutional mechanism. If nothing else, the devolution of 'policing powers' on the Provinces need not be at the cost of Sri Lanka remaining a 'unitary State', or vice versa. The greater focus is on making police more accessible to the people and accountable too, at all levels. This may acquire greater relevance and importance in any post-war situation. A police force that has been functioning under the Defence Ministry that too under the Emergency provisions and under the existing ground situation needs to be democratised, humanised and made responsive. One way to achieve this is to make the force identifiable with and accountable to, local communities, though here again, there are greater chances of their abuse, by and for the decentralised leadership at the grassroots-level.

The instances of 'white van abductions' in which the police seen as a silent bystander, if not the perpetrator or co-conspirator, needs to be erased in the kind of democracy that President Rajapakse says is being ushered in the East. The rest of the nation too could do with a whiff of that fresh air, and the Sri Lankan State cannot escape the responsibility for causing such a need.

Ask the Tamils, and they will tell you how it all started in the mid-Seventies and went on till the early Eighties, when the LTTE ambushing of 13 soldiers whipped up the 'anti-Tamil pogrom' of 1983. There is of course some truth in the counter-argument that such interventions and occasional excesses become unavoidable and inescapable in the prevailing situations.

Yet, the reference to similar and worse excesses against the Sinhala youth in the name of the Sri Lankan State fighting the 'JVP insurgency' in the late Eighties should not be a proffered as a justification for such excesses. Instead, it is a reflection on the wide-spread need for reviewing the system .It is unfortunate that the democratised JVP, which through some stage in the recent past, enjoyed political clout with ruling dispensations, did precious little to remedy the situation. Like many others, its excessive attention to the LTTE as the reference-point got priorities wrong for the JVP. Less said about the UNP, which was also duty-bound to erase the wrongs of the Eighties, the better.

It is this history that needs to be re-visited and reversed, as much as there is also the attendant need for the Tamil-speaking community wanting to have police and revenue officials who are capable of comprehending their petitions and applications that are written in the mother-tongue of the locals.Much water has flowed down the Kelani Ganga since the Tamils began questioning the 'Sinhala Only' law on this count, and also on the basis of denial of jobs in the Government. Larger issues of 'community consciousness' have replaced 'personal preferences' on either side of the ethnic divide since.

For instance, if one considered the Muslims as a class apart, particularly in the context of their need and demand for physical security, that too after the enforced 'Jaffna exodus' and the 'Kathankudi mosque attack' of 1990, there is an additional dimension that needs to be addressed, too. The question is also not just about drafting solutions at the APRC or elsewhere, and having them enforced. It is also about making them work, and work to the satisfaction of every community, if not every individual.

It is here that excessive demands for imminent devolution of policing powers on the Provinces, particularly the Eastern Province, could prove to be counter-productive, if not approached with caution – and care. The caution should be on the side of those demanding police powers for the Province, and the care should be taken by the central government to ensure that the scheme that is implemented did not suffer from counter-active fallouts or side-effect.

Police powers for a Tamil-speaking Chief Minister, it would go without saying, can work effectively only when there are Tamil-speaking police officers and other ranks down below in every village and town with a predominant Tamil-speaking population. For the Tamil masses to feel that their grievances would be – and has been attended to – by the police machinery, there needs to be Tamil-speaking policemen at all levels. At the moment there are not many, and the Government needs to push this programme on a war-footing. That may be among the ways for the Sri Lankan State and Government to 'win the war for the hearts of the Tamils. .

Of course, there would then be allegations about the large-scale induction of ruling TMVP militia cadres into the provincial police force in the East. Such charges are as much inevitable as the election of the TMVP as the ruling party with a Tamil-speaking Chief Minister. The fact would remain that any negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue, if and when it happened, would lead to a large-scale induction of the LTTE cadres into the police force, likewise. 'Regularisation' of militias of the kind form part of any normalisation process under near-similar circumstances elsewhere too. If at all, it is effective training and competent leadership at all levels that alone could de-politicise and democratise the police force – not that such charges of recruitment of 'politically-committed persons' into the force are new to Sri Lanka, or any other country – democracy or otherwise. The Tamils and the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka are no different. The Tamils need to understand this more than anyone else. So should the larger civil society engaged in and with such issues.

It is here that the concerns and expectations of the Muslim community need to be considered. It is easy for the Muslim community to demand political units of their own, going by their bitter experiences of the past, recent and not so very recent. This may not be as workable as is being imagined, particularly if the larger Muslim community, still spread across the North, North-West, West and the East, continues to be diffident about they having to accept a political power-house of the constitutional kind located in one or other 'corner' of the country – and they having to travel to that destination for obtaining every Government document and certificate.

If, instead, the Muslims' demand is over ensuring the physical security of the community – they having suffered, both in the North and the East, and under the LTTE and the breakaway 'Karuna faction', now called the TMVP, then a 'Pondicherry model' of power devolution may not, and need not be the answer, as is being proffered at times. The answers to their problem may be rooted in devolving policing powers at the grassroots-level. So could be 'Land' powers devolved on local governments.

Sri Lanka needs to take a leaf out of the US experience, where they have a three-tier policing system, with equitable powers devolving on the local government, the State/Province and the federal government. The demarcations are clear and have worked satisfactorily. In the Sri Lankan case, this system may also be accompanied by a scheme of ethnicity/religion based job reservations for recruitments to police and all other Government services. India has a working model that has ensured 'social justice' at all levels in a complex matrix of caste, community and linguistic distinctions, based on a constitutional/institutionalised scheme of job reservations.

Of course, the APRC or the Finance Commission under the Thirteenth Amendment should look into the 'cost of policing' and sourcing those resources, as is the case with funding development after power-devolution. This would be particularly so if 'neighbourhood funding' through local government and provincial government taxes, are not to add to the disparities in the only sector where they are now confined only to ethnicity, and not the economic circumstances of the individual.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. The views expressed here are those of the writer's, and not of the Foundation's. email: sathiyam54@hotmail.com )
- Sri Lanka Guardian