2 December, 2023


Politics Of Policing 

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Police departments all over the world are a symbolic power of the state over its citizens. The morale argument of law and order has never been a reality as police departments work under political and intuitional power structures essentially are hegemonic. Unlike the military such oppressive state ideology are often mobilized by police and CID departments under clear political leadership. It is for this reason that police often mounts its brutality against the most marginalize and peripherialized sections of the society. It is the female sex worker who already stigmatized by the ‘religious’ moralities that the police is eager to arrest not the male – with disposable income on sex. It is the street pick pockets the police will hunt down – not the white collar robbers at commercial banking system who even charge us for using an ATM machine to withdraw our own money we had deposited. It is the street corner drug addict the police are after not so much the drug baron who is often is well connected and powerful. Gay communities all over the world still experience less human treatment at police hands. Police brutalities against the Blacks in the US and Dalits in India are often reported but quickly forgotten. The text book terror politics of LTTE first sprang against the subhuman (mostly Sinhala speaking) policemen under pro south politicians like Jaffna major Alfred Duraiappa (major and SLFP organizer) on 27 July 1975.

For the state- police is the agency of social coercive discipline at taming the civil spirit. It is for this reason that the police departments are powered to inquire into the minute social life of civilians from ‘correct parking’ to ‘correct park behavior’ especially in a state like Sri Lanka. The police are empowered by the state to dictate to me how and where I should (not) kiss my lover.

In Sri Lanka the every form of authority has come under ‘abnormal anti-social normalcy’ during the last 35 years of war and its emergency rule. Excessive, draconian and brutal anti liberal acts such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has become the norm than the exception. The entire law enforcement structure has developed a culture of brutality and sub human services under Emergency Regulations. It is no secret that majority of police stations in Sri Lanka has records of arbitrary arrest and torture and even murder under custody. I do not think any serious research study has been done to detect this sub cultural control culture. It is not merely the police department alone. I have relatives/friends who had held very senior positions in the department. They confess that is the entire system that needs an overall reshaping. Every successful government in power had used the department and its subservient officials to advance its oppressive rule on the liberty of the people and the last ten years under the Rajapaksa regime it touched the zenith. Protecting corrupt politicians and their horrible act of rape, murder and violence against unarmed civilians and even visiting tourist became common incidents.

Foucault was one philosopher who experienced and theorized this police state at first hand in its brutality against the marginalized communities in Los Angeles. Out of his analysis came Foucailt’s influential thesis on “Discipline and Punishment’ where he argued

But, although the police as an institution were certainly organized in the form of a state apparatus, and although this was certainly linked directly to the centre of political sovereignty, the type of power that it exercises, the mechanisms it operates and the elements to which it applies them are specific. It is an apparatus that must be coextensive with the entire social body and not only by the extreme limits that it embraces, but by the minuteness of the details it is concerned with. (Foucault, 1977: 213)

Meaning of Minimum Force

Extreme limits as ‘minimum’ force ( or as per the new SLPD spokesperson) ‘necessary forces’ ( from අවම බලය to අවශ්‍ය බලය) as witnessed on last Friday broad daylight in the very heart of the capital Colombo and minuteness as in case of the school boy arrested over child Seya Sevandhi’s rape and murder only because he had a picture of the said child in his computer. This is the structural violence that state embarks on its own civilians. It is now evident that it is the case of the SLPD that is it refusing to return to normalcy from it is ‘military’ role as done during the war and post war Rajapaksa regime. Empowered with ‘detect and destroy’ orders, the police department has lost its moral consciousness as well as the fear of law it is paid to promote and protect. Police officers from mere traffic controlling duty to the most highest have developed a less-nuanced capacity to respect the civil law. They have become a ‘state within a state’ within their well guarded stations. It becomes easier for officers to bluntly catalogue any civilian without political power as someone should deal with respect or not , and to move aggressively against the latter group. Such aggressive mentalities and actions are supported by a culture of militaristic machismos. This is most blatantly displayed by the way the SLPD’s reliance upon water cannons, tear gas, baton and rubber ( or live bullets ) than dialogue and conflict resolution as first step of calming volatile situations. The arrogance of lethal and uniformed power is a symbol of the state attitude towards is citizenry

police attack_1Foucault’s analyses of contemporary power structure on Discipline of Punishment insightfully demands focus on the marginalization and the marginalized rims of the sociopolitical power network. His analytical framework deploys to examine the ‘how’ of structural power from the marginalized to the centre, from the weak to the powerful. 
All the SLPD officers on duty on Friday and those who gave orders to the ‘crowd controlling’ trained violent men- uniformed and salaried by the tax payers, knew very clearly that amongst the marching HNDE students, there will not be a Daham Sirisena or Dharani Sirisena. It is all sons and daughters of often very rural working class parents, who are defenseless. It is this very reason they demand and march but it is the same reason in ascending analyses shifts focus from the center to the periphery the SLPD released a blood thirst baton army.

It is here the bloody student Friday runs its geopolitics at its points of extension. Almost in every instance the well trained well equipped and ever ready sophisticated ‘policing technology’ of law enforcement instantiates itself in to the ‘body politics’ of the weakest. It aims to destroy the collective will of the people first at physical level and then at structural level. It is for this reason that the uniformed and trained men in arms devoured the female students as their soft targets immediately because police are key social agents of ‘body politics’ in any local geopolitics. There is no doubt the state of Sri Lanka for better or worse is at critical cross roads of her structural and superstructural politics. There seems no more agency and structure contract in any normative sense. Some ideologies and conceptual notions such as ‘Yahapaalanaya’ cannot uproot the deeply enculturalized ideology of violence as a means of control. We cannot forget that Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe has been a supportive cabinet member of some of the brutal regimes in Sri Lanka from JRJ 1983 to Premedasa 88-89 bhishan periods. I suspect he has a lower level of empathy for brutal violence. But it is the role of the civic forces that shared the change on the 08th Jan and confirmed it on the 17 th August to keep this nature of state checked and call for a ‘real change’. Change in the mode of governance, change in the state-civil contract. SLPD is a good place to start such. The SLPD must change in its philosophy, recruitment, training, deployment, methodology, and in summer in its attitude towards itself and the society as a whole and the politics it is governed by.

Unfortunately some young student blood had to be shed for such alarm bell. But if we don’t respond to this with responsibility and demand the way the state of Sri Lanka treats its citizens, the soil that is just drying of the shed bloods in Lanka, may be wet again before soon.

*Reference – Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.

*Dr Suren Rāghavan, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford. raghavansuren@gmail.com
FoucAutT, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    This incident illustrates what a multifaceted problem it is.

    One face is the ineptness of the police. The Official Police spokesman declared that force will be applied in the following order:

    1) Baton charge 2) Tear Gas 3) Water canon

    But it was actually applied in the opposite sequence in this case. 1) Water Canon 2) Tear Gas 3) Baton Charge.

    This is the correct order and we have a Police spokesman who got it all wrong. That is a fine display of ineptitude by the Police.

    Mercifully. no shooting was involved. Otherwise the Spokesman would have got himself and his department in more knots by Shooting first and asking questions later.

    What was clearly lacking is the all important negotiation step, which should be the first thing to do before using force.

  • 1

    “No Female Students Were Attacked”

    This is the claim made by Police Spokesperson.

    Gives the lie to the photograph

    Thugs in Uniform., sadly like Police forces in most places. The Uniform is a passport for legally-sanctioned violence

  • 2

    Of course I may be mistaken

    The policeman in he picture above MIGHT be performing some kind of elaborate dance ????

    To impress the young woman ?

  • 0

    It looks like this Police attack is preplanned and police did it with the govt knowledge.

    Otherwise, they should baton charge unarmed people ?

  • 0

    Police DIG responsible for Colombo should be suspended until investigations are complete.

    Good incident to see the effectiveness of the Police Commission!!’

    Ranil has to respond quickly.

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