Photo courtesy of Daily News

Devolution of power to the periphery has successfully curtailed demands for secession in a number of countries. There are significant differences in the level of devolutionary powers offered by each country. Canada has a federal system of governance with a clear division of powers between the centre and the periphery. The provinces are vested with full powers for dealing with Provincial Crown land using specific laws enacted by provincial legislatures. The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation with a constitution that has a list of powers vested in the centre and the rest in the periphery. Land powers are effectively vested in the states.

Likewise, there are many police forces in the world where a central police force co-exists with local police forces in each province, state or territory without controversy. In Australia, France, India, Japan, Spain, UK and US there are state, territory, provincial and central police forces operating under authorities of various political shades and hues. For example, there are 48 civilian police forces in the UK: 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales, a national police force in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and three specialist police forces (the British Transport Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence Police).

But for over seven decades many chauvinist political parties, groups and individuals in Sri Lanka have kept on spreading misinformation and disinformation about the devolution of power and toyed with the fearful psyche of the ill-informed population to reap cheap political mileage. It is the denial of some form of autonomy for the Tamil speaking people in the North and East since 1949 that led to the war for a separate state. During the same period, the constitution of India (1950), which defines India as a union of states, has caused the country to flourish as one of the world’s most economically prosperous nations despite its size, diversity and occasional calls for secession.

Intrinsic nature of the state

The police in Sri Lanka under any regime had been an instrument of dominance and suppression. It had remained a body of persons empowered by the state to enforce the law that the ruling elite desired. On the other hand, the police are also responsible for ensuring the safety of citizens and their properties, resolving disputes and preventing crime and civil disorder. Yet enforcement of the law is only one part of policing, as they are engaged in many activities under different circumstances, particularly when tasked with the preservation of order by the ruling elite with the objective of maintaining the class system and protection of their private property. In all societies, irrespective of the hue of the ruling regime, the police theoretically hold a monopoly on using violence.

Discriminatory biases and attitudes against minority communities are not endemic to Sri Lanka alone. For example, the treatment of black communities in the US. This is despite many black people occupying high positions in the security apparatus at federal and state level administrations in the country. In Australia, such attitudes are common against the Indigenous population as well as the other non-majority communities such as black people from the African continent, brown and yellow people from South Asia and even Britishers and New Zealanders. In India, the anti-Islamic attitude towards Muslim people and the discriminatory practices against the so-called untouchables in the country are quite notable.

Police are usually kept separate from the military and other security organizations involved in defending the state, particularly against foreign aggressions. However, in countries like Sri Lanka, this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred.

Inherent bias

Police at all levels of devolution need to focus on consistently updating their knowledge about non-majority communities resident in the local area. Awareness training should apply to all implicit or explicit personal and group biases. The currents working toward fragmentation of society rather than nation building have established monolithic cultural units most visible in the armed forces who aspire to maintain social, cultural and economic superiority over the other. This is quite evident when looking at the nomenclature used in identifying certain units of the armed forces. The fundamental flaw in this system, which any mode of devolution will not address, is the low level professional ethic of suppressing the “other” on the basis of their background whether it is caste, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality or differently-abled people.

The pre-1950s Sri Lankan society was more accommodating of greater social interaction between communities starting from education to employment. That period ended with the onset of compartmentalisation in the 1950s.

The extent and diversity of the social mix and the type and frequency of interactions are essential to breaking down biases, negative attitudes and categorisations. I have experienced this in the social and community activities in Australia by bringing diverse communities to work together regardless of their politics that breed such biases in the first place.

Those in the security forces, including the police, ought to understand and accept the pluralist nature of our society. The type of social interaction they experience with diverse people of Sri Lanka and its frequency will have a significant impact on creating awareness about the non-majority communities’ feelings, particularly at provincial levels. To achieve this, the top levels of politicians, bureaucrats and communities need the dedication and resources to undertake such events with courage and conviction. The most significant factor, however, is the diversification of the forces within each unit including recruiting candidates from varying social and cultural backgrounds to fill higher positions in the police and other security agencies.


The Sri Lanka police force is currently more or less a mono-cultural force comprising the majority ethnic and religious population. Diversification will enable police forces to engage in complex problem solving exercises and maintain social order by applying the rule of law instead of rule by law. Bending the legislation to suit the political circumstances, as currently being done from the president to the lowest level bureaucrat, does not help the country.

In Australia, when tense situations arise due to a variety of internal or external influences, diverse groups work together to mitigate the tension quickly. For example, when tensions were high against the Sudani and other African migrants and refugees in the state of Victoria, which was caused by some opportunistic politicians desperate to gain power, the police and community leaders were able to bring together the Sudanese and other multicultural communities, bureaucrats and business communities over a meal for cultural functions. This helped to lower the social and political temperature and gradually resolve the issue in a civilised way.

Diversity awareness training should be ongoing and include building partnerships and collaborations between non-majority community groups and law enforcement agencies. Such activities will enhance awareness about the aspirations of non-majority communities and diminish preconceived negative biases towards them. This process can result in less misconduct and unprofessional behaviour on the part of police in decisive situations.

Read Part 5 here: