Of policemen and politicians

In the past few weeks, we have had occasion to comment in these columns about the stupefying excesses of the Sri Lanka Police, and lament on how the standards maintained by the agency tasked with enforcing law and order in the country, have denigrated to bottomless depths.

These observations were, of course, necessitated by the events culminating in the assault of a student in Malabe, the killing of two young men at Angulana and the arrest of a top police officer for aiding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Then, when just about everyone was pointing their fingers at the police, last week saw an event where Minister Mahinda Ratnatilleke, allegedly, entered the Kaltota Police Station and forcibly removed two suspects detained at the station.

This skirmish may be trivial, as far as bizarre happenings in the Sri Lanka Police are concerned. However, it is also a symptom of a greater malady afflicting the police, that of political interference, which borders on the ridiculous, and for which, a cure must be found now more than ever.

It would be a fair comment to say that political manipulation of the Sri Lanka Police came into being with the introduction of the Republican Constitution in 1972. If the legislative changes in 1972 gave birth to this monster, the introduction of the Executive Presidency in 1978, combined with a landslide majority in Parliament for the United National Party (UNP), ensured that it came of age. A culture of political interference with the Police Department was soon entrenched.

The relationship between the policeman and the politician is a particularly symbiotic one. It operates at several levels. At the grassroots level, what is often observed is that the local Member of Parliament is in cahoots with the Officer-in-Charge of the Police Station of the area. At a higher level, top ranking police officers deal with ministerial types.

This interaction is, more often than not, mutually rewarding. Politicians expect the police to engage in assorted tasks, especially during election time, when the long arm of the law is expected to turn a blind eye to various malpractices. In some instances, the police will, in fact, actively support a candidate, who, more often than not, is from the party in power.

But every action has a reaction, and in return, the police solicits many favours from those in power. These may come in the form of promotions, deferring transfers to ‘difficult’ areas and the active cooperation and connivance of politicians in corrupt deals.

The sad truth is that, this vicious cycle of the cohabiting policeman and politician is well established now, so much so, that it is virtually unthinkable for one to envisage its existence without the other. Today, it is almost an unwritten edict, that the ruling party politician expects the policeman to do his bidding, and that the latter takes for granted the protection and privileges that he receives in return. The end result is the kind of incident that Minister Ratnatilleke triggered last week.

Ratnatilleke is, of course, not the first politician to have an altercation with the police; we can say with equal confidence that he will not be the last. Such is the impunity with which middle level politicians act in this day and age of political gung-ho. The question then is what could be done to stem this unruly tide.

There was a public and media outcry over the incidents at Malabe and Angulana, and perhaps that contributed in no small measure to assurances from no less than the President, who, as the Minister of Defence, is also the subject minister for the police. The President went so far as to receive the aggrieved parents of the Angulana victims at his residence, express his condolences to them and offer them compensation.

While that is indeed a commendable gesture, which sends a message to the black sheep in the Police Department that their actions are not condoned, it would be better if remedial measures can be effected so that such incidents are not repeated.
For this to become a reality, it must logically follow that politicians who practice their gamesmanship via the police must be reined in. That is where the political leadership must send a loud and clear message to all those misfit ministers, that their misdeeds will not be tolerated. Again, it was reported that the President took a rather dim view of the entire Ratnatilleke saga.

It is also heartening to note that in the Ratnatilleke incident, the Minister was promptly produced before courts and granted bail, while some were to comment sardonically, that the Police were able to produce the minister sooner than they were able to produce the wife of a top police officer!

The government has an unenviable task before it. Elections - both general and presidential - are looming. The collective opposition is baying for the implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution that would bring with it the creation of an independent Police Commission. The Police Department seems hell bent on cutting its nose to spite its face by various acts of disgrace and debauchery. And some ministers are not helping by trying to take matters into their own hands.

It takes courage for a government to deal with such a situation and emerge unscathed. This government though has the advantage of riding the crest of a wave of popularity. If nothing at all, that should convince the powers that be that this is as good an opportunity as any to discipline both the policeman and the politician, before they both fall from their presently not so high pedestals.