Police Reform was the theme of a discussion organised by the Commonwealth Initiative in Delhi last week. Among the participants were senior police officers from South Asian countries including a few who are retired. Also present were many other persons interested in the issue. Throughout the discussion there was consensus that something has gone terribly wrong with the policing systems in South Asian countries and that the absence of radical reforms of the police threaten the very stability of the nations concerned.
While everyone agreed that the problems are related to the colonial origins of the institutions, everyone also agreed that the failure to take the necessary action for reform lies with the states, as well as the failures of political and civil society movements in these countries.
As this meeting was taking place, the incident that happened at the Bambilipitiya sea in Sri Lanka relating to the killing of Balavarnam Sivakumara was becoming news both in the country as well as internationally.
What is saddening about this incident, even more than the sheer brutality of the police, was the specter of a sizable crowd of onlookers that did not even try to shout at the police to stop their brutal attack. I have deliberately not used the word ‘shocking,’ simply because such an absence of protest against police brutality is so common in Sri Lanka. True, like in the incident at Angulana, some simple acts of protest could have saved the life of this young man, as it could have saved the lives of the two boys who were murdered at the Angulana Police Station. However, talking loudly against police brutality and demanding reforms of the policing institution has never been a habit of Sri Lankan society. In fact, acts of brutality happen at every police station in Sri Lanka on an almost daily basis.
In a book published last year entitled, Recovering the authority of public institutions, I presented two hundred case summaries of police brutality which have taken place at Sri Lankan police stations in the South quite recently. (Kindly see the internet version of the book at: http://www.ahrchk.net/pub/mainfile.php/books/318/). Almost every day, one or another story of police torture is reported. However, such publications do not find any kind of response from the state or from those articulate opinions in Sri Lanka. Hardly anyone demands police reforms.
Instead, incidents like the ones at the Bambilipitiya sea and the Angulana Police Station are referred to more from the point of view of the collapse of moral standards and a loss of the sense of humanity in society. In this way, it is possible to say mea culpa and forget about any reflections on the ways such brutality can be stopped. The inability to make connections between institutional failures and the brutality that permeates the country is a common feature of the protests that follows the news about such incidents.
The incapacity to link the cruelties that are allowed to happen and the failures in the institutions of the state that are usually expected to prevent such brutalities, creates a type of hypocrisy which blames the failures in moral standards on what are actually the results of failures in law enforcement. The result is that despite of moral condemnation of such acts of brutality similar acts will continue to happen.
The next act of such hypocrisy is to state that even in countries where there is a better law enforcement system scandalous incidents can still happen. In this way even incidents like those which took place at the Bambilipitya sea and the Angulana Police Station are treated as quite normal incidents that might happen anywhere and at any time.
A further step that follows from this is to claim that any attribution of incidents of brutality to the nature of the public institutions in the country is some sort of a slur on the nation. Our institutions are as good as any institution anywhere in the world, is the underlying claim. By blaming humanity for brutalities it is possible to disclaim any state responsibility for such brutalities. In this way ‘nationalism’ demands that the cruelties that take place within society should be explained away without bringing up the issue of state responsibility to prevent such brutality. Thus, despite of having to constantly confront a lawless situation society refuses to discuss the role of the law and public institutions in creating an environment in which such cruelties can be minimized.
Attempts to eliminate cruelties in Sri Lanka and the need for radical police reforms are limited. The problem of cruelty is not just a moral problem but is also a fundamental political problem. The state is responsible for the incidents at Bambilipitiya, Angulana and every act of brutality that takes place at any police station. The essential political responsibility is to uphold the rule of law by ensuring well functioning institutions of justice among which, policing is a primary institution. The failure to exercise this political responsibility should be clearly placed at the door of any government that is in power.
The media as well as the public opinion makers who fail to address the irresponsible behavior of a government that allows a policing system that generates such brutalities contribute to the maintenance of a situation that necessarily will produce further acts of cruelty.