| by Frank de Silva
Courtesy: The Sunday Times
( September 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) ‘A provincial poll that is more of a battle field’ runs the headline of the column in the Comments Page in the Sunday Times, Sunday August 31st 2014 p 22. ‘A senior Minister of this government lambasted the police for failing to stop election violence at Badalkumbura...’ is the further note of Ms Kishali Pinto Jayawardene (KPJ) in this regard. KPJ adds, ‘The Department of the Police has fared the worst in this regard. Its professional command hierarchy has been rendered obsolete. Political patronage reigns supreme’.
Undoubtedly the focus is on the police when there is an outburst of violence as this is the only authority expected to deal with such breakdown of law and order. And most often there has been a failure on the part of the police to curb the violence. The role of the police in such situations then comes out as the main issue. The local police has failed and there has been a breakdown of the command structure itself. These media comments cannot be disputed and cannot be easily explained away.
The focus here is on the current Uva provincial elections. The law and order situation is so serious that the Election Commissioner has even threatened to postpone holding the elections if the violence escalates. The problem of law and order and violence unleashed has occurred elsewhere too, in other situations too, as in Alutgama, Beruwala in the very recent past, and much more over the years. And in all these situations, the role of the police and their failure to curb the violence has come in for considerable criticism. Many more such headlines were heard of before and will continue to hit the press in time to come. Possibly the same comments will follow.
KPJ has written on this from a rights perspective and bemoans this violence. KPJ asks why other police officers, apart from (SSP) Tassie Seneviratne, do not speak to these issues which affect the morale of the police in similar situations. The purpose of this article is to respond to the call for more observations and to put this matter in some sort of perspective. There is little to dispute about these comments as they are reported. However the particular perspective urged in consideration is that of the political dimension which attends these law and order situations. The point is that the political element aggravates the violence. And as seriously, the political element compromises the action of the police to deal with the violence, particularly at elections.
The system of elections.
The system of elections, one prior to 1978 and the other the many elections held after 1978 has much to do with this problem.
Prior to 1978, elections were held in the wake of a complete interregnum or power held in a complete abeyance of political structures. Then the effective political structure came up for elections with no intervening authority overseeing the process. The Parliament was then the only effective political structure and it was the Parliament which came up for elections. Till this process was complete, the existing structures were held in abeyance, taking on a form of caretaker government. During this intervening period between the former government and the new regime, the total process was held in place by the Elections Commissioner assisted by the Police and the Public Service. The police and the public officers were under the effective control of the Elections Commissioner. There was no intermeddling political authority throughout this intervening process. Violence was then less. And the role of the police did not come in for that criticism in those circumstances.
Since 1978, there were three layers of government, the Presidential, the Parliamentary and the Provincial. When elections were up for one, the others continued to exercise their power and authority. This meant that no election to one authority could be held without some influence being brought to bear on that one by the other standing authorities. The framers of the 1978 Constitution could not have been unaware of this untoward possibility, even if it were not specifically intended. In these circumstances, it is difficult for police to act independently and in disregard of these political influences. In effect, the very system of elections compromises the role of the police.
Status of police officers.
Worse still, the police officers on duty in these politically precarious situations are themselves appointed by and function under the administrative authority and control of a political appointee in the person of the Secretary. Failure of police is in respect of action or inaction in the face of violence which itself operates under a form of political direction. This is not an explanation for failure. It is a fact. But such background matters are rarely reported in the media. Only the failure and breakdown of law figure prominently in the headlines. This may be contrasted with the constitutional order in 1948 and thereafter when police came under an independent PSC to which alone police owed their career prospects.
The incongruity of the control lines have repeatedly been pointed out in express terms. The potential for the law and order breakdown by reason of such delegation of administrative authority over the police to the Secretary, Defence – a political appointee- has also been pointed out. But all that went with little avail.
These are the critical facts. All other related issues drawn out such as police morale, political patronage, lack of a professional police hierarchy and more, are simply subsidiary issues to the main constitutional issue of the system of elections and the manner of appointment of police officers mentioned above.
The problem could only be contained somewhat if the some remedy of a constitutional nature is ventured. Thus if it were possible to have all elections – Presidential, Parliamentary and Provincial- held during an interregnum of power, that all elections are held at the same time to run concurrently, then much of these problems discussed above can be obviated. However practical problems may not make this proposition feasible. Yet the principle is worth the thought.
Another possibility that was missed was in the 17th Amendment's establishment of a National Police Commission (NPC). The NPC could have functioned as a monitoring body and as an independent investigating commission to step when matters went wrong and impose sanctions. Unfortunately the NPC conceived themselves as an executive authority to completely distance the politician from the police. This was a short sighted view which lacked depth in perception and was short of conception.
The writer is thankful to KPJ for raising the issue and for calling others who may join the discussion.