Picture courtesy Hirunews

The police treated them most inhumanely when they marched to the University Grants Commission with their grievances on October 29. Photos and video clips of this ruthless and inhuman police attack on HND and university students stole the day on both traditional and social media, and suddenly jolted the Colombo middle class from their comfort zones. Since electing a new President and government they expected them to be at least decent and civilised in their rule.

The demand now is to have an “impartial inquiry” and punish those who are responsible for this intolerable police action. To find out who is responsible for the order to have riot police out in Ward Place and go after the students in a savage way. In the chaos, the Minister of Higher Education made certain he was no different to his predecessor, who also hails from the Kandy district. For him it was an unnecessary protest. He claimed he met with student leaders and agreed to have their demands met, implying, such unwanted protests are destined to meet with police repression. Challenged by the student leaders, who denied any meeting with the minister the Higher Education Minister was on a “mission impossible” two days later, trying to salvage his tattered image. An official was made a scapegoat this time. Had the official informed students of the Minister’s decision to remedy the error in the Higher National Diploma certification, that unnecessary incident could have been avoided, the Minister said. No more claims of meeting student leaders, but he condemned the police attack instead.

This irresponsible attitude of the political leadership promoting the concept of “Yahapaalanaya” leaves much to be desired even if inquiries are held. This is no different to what we have been hearing during the Rajapaksa era, with calls for impartial inquiries and reports handed over to President Rajapaksa, and then the next tragedy ‘investigated’ the same way. The string of brutal attacks on protesters and agitators during the Rajapaksa era include the deaths of Roshen Chanaka in Katunayake, Anthony Warnakulasuriya in Chilaw, and three including one student in Rathupaswela between 2011 May and August 2013. In between, many protests and agitations were ruthlessly suppressed on the streets of Colombo, at times even using men with rods and poles, wearing civilian clothes. Dozens were treated for injuries each time. The police spokesperson went on record a few days ago to justify all such excesses as within the law, with journalists merely copying what was said.

It goes to prove this is an issue that needs very serious and far reaching reforms and not just inquiries, reports and scapegoats to tell the public that the students were served justice. A statement issued by university academics and artistes thus stressed “…the need to conduct these investigations impartially and make their findings public and that police officers, and those who issued orders to the police to act the way they did, are held publicly accountable.” The statement also required the President and the PM to “…reveal their stance on how the government plans to deal with dissent and public protests in future and explain to Sri Lankan society how they plan to prevent incidents like this from being repeated.”

The government is clearly disturbed, not so much over the police attack, but over widespread outcry for justice. Especially when urban groups who backed them on two consecutive elections announce they feel let down. We thus have the Foreign Minister issuing a statement condemning the police attack while suggesting it could well be a conspiracy. We also have the Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission and a Prime Ministerial committee consisting of 5 members investigating the police attack, with the Minister in charge of the police department billed to make a special statement to Parliament. Too many Commissions taking over investigations into just one incident and throwing out conspiracy theories shows the government is not seriously into investigations.

The sincerity of that statement signed by academics and experts expecting some decency in governance notwithstanding, this alone will not end impunity and repeat instances, for the issue is far more complex. In addition, the factors contributing to the heavy decay of the law enforcement system are far too deep rooted for an incidental cure. Multiple inquiries and solemn pledges from this government to bring an end to police excesses and brutality would therefore end as cosmetic treatment of an “elephantiasis limb”.

Leaving aside reservations on this hybrid government’s sincerity and commitment, this country needs disciplined, efficient and responsible State agencies before everything else on democracy. The police department comes out ahead of all others in needing far reaching reform. From all that we have seen in the media, the past few months alone prove that this police department is a heavy burden and an unwanted intimidating weight on the people. If one reads news reports from end to end, police inaction in delivering a decent, efficient service has resulted in unending torture, coerced statements, fabricated evidence, unjust detention, custodial and contract killings, accompanied by quite lavish bribes and extortions. This brutality of the attack on HND students is therefore nothing new to the police and only the latest incident until the next “breaking news” alert in a long endless list of such reported ruthless attacks on protests, on individuals, on both Sinhala and Tamil detainees, on women and even on mentally handicapped youth.

The major reason is that the police department, which is meant to, and indeed has to function as a civil department is no more. The police department has moved away from its social responsibility in functioning as a civil department. Since the 1970’s this growing deformity was evident and society has to take blame for not intervening early enough. Socio-political life in the 45 years since the failed JVP insurrection in 1971 left the country to operate under lengthy periods of Emergency rule. All governments were happy ruling with Emergency powers rather than without them. While the North-East was gradually slipping into armed politics, the South dominated national politics. The socially powerful organised Sinhala society in urban life and its representatives never took emergency rule as one that had to be opposed. Not just Rajapaksa but all governments justified emergency rule among the majority Sinhala constituency by projecting the armed conflict with Tamil “separatist rebels” gradually turning them into “Eelam terrorists” waging a violent war against the (Sinhala) State.

Sinhala dominance in all political decision making therefore allowed the PTA to be included in law enforcement. When the Rajapaksa regime transferred powers from emergency regulations to the PTA after the war was declared over, that too was not challenged in Sinhala society with the then opposition UNP pandering to the Sinhala majority vote. In short, over the last few decades, Sinhalese society accepted all extra powers the police were vested with in the name of “national security” and as against “Tamil separatism”. With that the police department was turned into an auxiliary force that assisted the security forces fighting a “separatist” war.

We thus have a civil department that should police society instead acting and behaving as a para- military force. Unlike the security forces, that police department over the past decades have been heavily politicised to the extent local politicians decide transfers and promotions. Every single employee now serving in this decayed and degenerated police department has joined the department during the past 45 years that allowed all this chaos. They have been trained and posted to serve in a gradually dying service. Emergency powers and the PTA are what they know of and have got used to wielding in their job. Impunity for them is part of their job description, coupled with a political establishment that believe it should be so. It is therefore now about a common “psycho” that has nothing to do with law and order, ethics and morals but one that consents to using physical power the way they (the police) wish.

This was briefly touched upon by Kishali Pinto Jaywardne in her ST column “Focus on Rights” on 01 November (2015) where she rightly says, “What Sri Lanka needs now is well thought out structural reform of deeply corrupted systems and institutions, including most importantly, criminal justice reform encompassing the three institutions of the police, the Attorney General and the judiciary.” We need those structural reforms to have the police department back again as a civilised and efficient law enforcement agency. Again the big question is, “can the Independent Police Commission stand up to such responsibility and are they mandated for such work?”

Despite wishful thinking that ‘all should go right now’ with the Police Commission in place, I beg to differ. The Police Commission is only there to look after administration; appointments, promotions, transfers and disciplinary work. Therefore requests for complaints should not be interpreted as complaints that could ask for reforms. Nay, they are complaints any one could have made to the IGP or to a senior SP against a police constable or an officer, even before the 17A was in place. The only new thing is that complaints can now be made to a Commission that is expected to be “independent”. Yet this government is not in any way serious in having them operate as independent and efficient. There is not even a permanent Secretary General appointed to a Commission that to date has no secretarial staff and an office, no website or an official email ID for communication. The very approach and commitment of establishing “independent” commissions by this supposed “Yahapalaanaya” promoting government smacks of “Rajapaksa flavour” and should be challenged too.

Therefore it is time to use this savage attack on HND students to go beyond demanding inquiries and reports and in a loud collective voice ask for well thought out structural reform that would take up the whole justice system including that of the police department. For the police department alone cannot be reformed and certainly not by the Police Commission on its own.