By Malinda Seneviratne –
The area around the Borella Kanatte turned into a battlefield one late afternoon in late April, 1993. Crowds attending the funeral of the assassinated Lalith Athulathmudali turned violent. The Police responded with tear gas. There was a pitched battle with enterprising individuals tossing half empty teargas canisters back at the Police. At one point an Army truck arrived. The crowds cheered the Army.
There has been for a long time a negative view of the Police. In contrast the Army (as well as the other forces) has been viewed positively. Discipline and courtesy are not associated with the Police; the personnel of that department are treated with suspicion and even derision. They are seen as uncouth, bribe-taking, arrogant persons out to make things difficult for the general public.
No organization is made of saints of course. Even the Army has had its share of bad eggs, bribe-takers, commission-hawks and even common thieves. And yet it is the Police that have built a reputation for being anti-people. The indiscretions of soldiers, sailors and airmen, going by incidence alone, seem almost random and negligible.
DIG Vass Gunawardena’s arrest has raised some very pertinent questions regarding the state of the country’s Police Department as well as a culture of apathy where high-rankers have a free hand. The man is alleged to have put together a team of contract killers. As of now this team is suspected of being involved in at least 7 murders. These are early days of the investigation and it is speculated that many other cases may be re-visited in light of the evidence being unearthed.
Vass Gunawardena has demonstrated his arrogance in no uncertain terms when he not only confessed to being a murderer but vowed to ‘take care’ of those who are investigating the murder that led to his arrest. He is in fact implying that he is confident that the courts would determine in his favor. Now this could also indicate that people above him are also complicit and therefore have a stake in treating the man with kids’ gloves. The confidence also casts suspicion on the integrity of the judicial process.
If he was indeed involved in 7 other murders the question is begged as to why the law did not move to arrest the man a long time ago. It has been reported that his son was wont to throw his weight around, using his father’s position as insurance against complaint. It is baffling that those in positions of power did not take any action but instead turned a blind eye to the transgressions as well as the abuse of office.
The question will be asked: ‘Who has been protecting him all this time and why?’
This is not a Vass Gunawardena story but a Police story or rather a police-culture story. The Police have a considerable reputation for beating up those in custody. There have been numerous incidents of ‘custody deaths’. Inquiries and the occasional meting out of punishment in the form of transfers have not stopped this trend. Bribery and the exacting of protection fees or ‘kappam’ are seen as part and parcel of police operations. It has not helped that the constitution as well as the institutional arrangement has conferred power to politicians in magnitudes that place them above the law or allow them to bend the law with impunity. The relationship between politician, police officer and criminality is well established. It has come to a point where an honest police officer sticks out like a sore thumb, ironically, with the best in the Department who do not wish to partake resolving to look the other way.
This is not about Vass Gunawardena, let us reiterate. It is about the Police not being free of political interference. It is about the Police operating in an environment where standards don’t matter. In any system lacking adequate checks and balances it is natural for excesses to flourish and become norm. It is not about cleaning the stables. It is about re-constructing the building with adequate measures to ensure that the Police Department actually serves the public interest, maintains law and order without fear or favor and recovers even a semblance of the glory it often claims its history is made of.
As of now, though, the Police appear like a hit team for hire. It will take a lot to recover image, respectability and operational relevance. A lot has to happen within the Department. A lot has to change in the political culture. A lot of repairs have to be done on the institutional arrangement. Indeed it may very well be that rebuilding from scratch is more cost-effective, considering the levels of dilapidation.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com