Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian
One of the arguments raised against devolving police powers to provincial councils is that while a Cabinet Minister is in charge of the central police force, police units in each province controlled by different Chief Ministers are more likely to be politicised. Another reason cited is that if police powers are devolved the national security of the country would be compromised.
In fact, the politicisation of police force started in the 1950s, three decades prior to the establishment of provincial councils. The Bandaranaike regime employed police units to violently suppress the democratic right to peaceful protest, particularly during the satyagraha campaigns led by several respectable Tamil leaders in Colombo and in the North. This political, ethnic and religious manipulation of the police force has now expanded to unacceptable proportions.
Under colonialism, Sri Lanka’s policing and judicial systems were developed to safeguard colonial privileges and interests. The skewed system has continued with minimal changes, mostly by additional protections provided through enacting new legislation and otherwise reinforcing the privileges and interests of the ruling elites. The need of the hour is to amend and democratise various police acts, emergency powers and anti-terrorism legislation so as to make those who implement such legislation more accountable and transparent. But those who oppose the devolution of power continue to remain silent on these existing detestable police powers that have been plaguing the country for decades.
Originally, the Provincial Council List explicitly devolved limited police powers to the provinces as follows:
Public order and exercise of police powers, to the extent set out in Appendix I, within the province, but not including national defence, national security and the use of any armed forces or any other forces under the control of the Government of Sri Lanka in aid of civil power, and not including the city of Colombo, Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte and their environs the limits of which shall be specified by the President by Order published in the Gazette. But Constitutional Amendments 17, 18 and 19 have made inroads into the powers devolved to the provinces under law and order. However, special recruitment of Tamil police officers to the North and East can be undertaken utilising existing provisions of the constitution.
The Department of Police became an object of ridicule a long time ago due to its attitude of pleasing the political masters of the day and their goons. Rather than performing their professional duties, the police officers are compelled to yield to the demands made by the political goons and thugs who give illegitimate instructions to carry out. If the officers resist the wishes of the politicians or the actions of their goons, then they will be penalized for doing their duty. When the National Police Commission was functioning, this situation became slightly better. But when the politicians realised that the Commission and its members were not yielding to their requests for transfers and other matters, the politicians came forward to change the constitution itself.
This is evidenced by the way the political elite and bureaucrats have employed police units and other security forces to fulfill their whims and day to day needs. Sri Lanka has been exposed to this type of politicisation from the days of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and now President Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was particularly visible when the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime used violence against the Aragalaya campaigns last year to hound some of the protest leaders and lock them under harsh conditions for longer terms utilising political and judicial manipulations. Hence, saying that the police force will become politicised if it is decentralised to the nine provinces is a moot point.
Last year there was a news report which stated that police transfers, particularly higher level officers, are made to certain electorates in response to requests made by the political authorities of such electorates.
If devolution of police powers is unacceptable because of the potential for political interference in maintaining public order, how do we address safety and security concerns in areas inhabited by non-majority communities? To make the system better, the way police appointments and transfers are made and complaints made against the police are dealt with, needs to change. Such changes can be implemented through panels of independent personnel who possess wide experience and knowledge in law, management, human relations and social services. And the independent personnel could be drawn from the judiciary and academics of law, in consultation with the Chief Justice of the land. The independent Police Commission needs to be truly independent and impartial. The establishment of a separate impartial and non-partisan authority to handle complaints against police is necessary.
President Wickremesinghe disregarded a recommendation made by the Constitutional Council with regard to the appointment of the Inspector General of Police, who was given the third service extension. These types of incidents highlight the need for establishing a separate independent and non-partisan authority to handle complaints against police.
For community participation in policing, police administration needs to be more transparent, accountable and participatory. This has never been the case in Sri Lanka. Since the 1950s, the situation has worsened. Police harassing and intimidating the Tamil-speaking civilians continues to this day. The precarious way of bending laws by the police and the judicial system to suit the whims and fancies of politicians and other authorities endures. The lack of sufficient staff to record and deal with complaints made by Tamil civilians in majority Tamil speaking areas exacerbates the difficulties in improving community relations and reconciliation.
Since the mid-fifties, the escalation of state-led pogroms, violence and terror by thugs and security forces witnessed an increased police involvement in harassing and intimidating Tamil civilians. Prior to the Tamil militants launching terror attacks against the Sinhalese and other civilians in the south, there had been many instances in which Tamil civilians were slaughtered. The instances of brutality with which the police and security forces behaved against the Sinhalese in the south had been too many. There were occasions when entire villages, including the elderly and children, were wiped out without any impunity. How could we expect such an unaccountable security force to behave in a more disciplined way against the non-majority communities?
It is in this context that the devolution of police powers needs to be looked at. Limited police powers, at least to the North and East Provinces, can improve nation building to a great extent.
Under the 13th Amendment, land shall be a Provincial Council subject, subject to certain special provisions. The 13th Amendment has land powers on its concurrent list. However, the centre has a dominant role over land through powers vested in the centre when dealing with national policies and urban development. Any land release requires the president’s approval upon request made by the relevant provincial council.
Agriculture and Agrarian Services were subjects devolved to the provinces but taken over by the centre after the dissolution of the North-East Provincial Council. The Supreme Court ruled that agrarian services was a subject devolved to the provinces, yet the centre continues to control the subject by changing the name of the relevant institutions to Agrarian Development Department.
President Wickremesinghe has stated that a National Land Commission would be appointed. Developing a national land policy is complicated as some advocate that land should be vested in the provincial councils. Sri Lanka can gain from the experiences of models used in India, Canada and Australia. India’s land powers are fully devolved to the periphery. Every Indian state has legislation in dealing with their land matters.
For over three decades, the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been discouraged from enacting statutes, and their independent administration had been severely interfered with. The district administration, inclusive of all Divisional Secretaries and Grama Niladharis, need to be brought under the purview of the relevant provincial council. This is a matter that needs to be given serious consideration it deserves to improve countrywide economic development and nation building.
Read Part 4 here: https://groundviews.org/2023/10/16/nation-building-is-possible-with-full-implementation-of-13th-amendment-part-4/