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A DIG as contract killer?

2013 Jul 19

This is about the arrest of DIG Vass Gunawardena, accused of being a contract killer. The accusation shakes the foundations of decency and shatters faith in the entire law and order apparatus, and for this reason deserves serious examination. 

Let us first deal with the positive side. ‘“Positive” did you say? You must be out of your mind Mr. Ex. Snr. DIG! Is senile decay setting in, on you?’ you might ask. No, there is a positive here.

It is true that this allegation of a dastardly act on the part of the Police Department is directed against a DIG and some senior officers. The Police Department has disgraced itself by the mere fact that such an allegation has ever been directed at a very senior police officer. It has seriously damaged its credibility, if it had any! It has made the law aiding citizens come out of the cocoons of their comfort zones and become despondent. And yet, there is a silver lining.

My point is, in spite of all this dark side, it is another arm of the same Sri Lanka Police, the CID, that investigated this case thoroughly and professionally against their own brother officers, one a very senior and a powerful officer at that, arrested them, produced them in courts and had them remanded, just like in any other case. They say ‘blood is thicker than water’. In police jargon, ‘police blood runs deep’. So is mine, even after retirement! But still they did it, for the sake of law and order in this country, to restore the good name and reputation of the Police, if there is any left. Having been a proud member of the CID at one time, I doff my hat to the present CID that it has maintained its hallowed tradition, even in these tumultuous conditions.


There was a time when such things were routine, but today, under the prevailing threat to professional integrity, life and safety of the investigating officers and even to their career progression, this achievement is truly remarkable. We still do not know, even if the CID successfully concludes this inquiry, whether it would get past the Attorney General who is now under the thumb of the President under the prevailing circumstances or if a conviction will be obtained. But let us also not forget that under another President, a suspect would turn up at the police station with the weapon, confesses, pleads guilty in courts and goes to jail too! We have not come to that pass yet!

The point is, in what other profession in the public or private sectors in this country, will the brother officers investigate impartially, particularly against a senior officer and take action against him? We know that it does not happen in the medical profession where so many people die in hospitals due to deliberate medical negligence. It is the same in the engineering profession, unless there is a personal animosity. With regard to the legal profession, I still recall what late Felix Dias Bandaranaike said, while discussing a criminal case against a leading legal luminary, where the AG had pronounced unfairly that there was no adequate evidence against the lawyer to be charged. FDB told me, “Look here my friend, dog does not eat dog!” 

This is why the work of the Police, particularly the CID in this case is admirable.

This also goes to show that the Police Department is still not dead, though it is on the death bed in the throes of death, under the present adverse climate. Given a change of environment and a dose of oxygen it could very well recover and thrive. It is the people who must pressure the government to create the space for this, knowing well of course that politicians on both sides of the divide would not want to commit ‘Harakiri’!

Main problem

There is a second positive. Mr. Izeth Hussain referring to an incident of Police inaction in an opinion piece in The Island, said something to the effect of ‘rule of law is not a right for the Muslims’. In the case under our discussion facts indicate the contrary. The deceased is a Muslim and the main suspect too is a Muslim with a politically powerful Senior Police Officer and other senior officers being among the suspects against whom the due process of law appears to have taken place irrespective of the fact of whatever community they belonged.

Of course, both these incidents are not adequate instances to generalize. What all such opinion makers do not seem to realize is that Rule of Law, in fact, is ‘not a right for the Muslims’ or Tamils only, but for the entire community in this country. They conclude as they have only because they wear communal dark glasses. When it came to DIG Latiff, a Malay officer who earned the wrath of the Uva Province politicians for doing his job properly, nobody bothered as to which community he belonged. All law abiding people joined together in their admiration for his daring.

Back to the main problem. To begin with, it is only the symptom of the larger disease that the Police Department is plagued with. How did this man become a DIG? How did he become an SSP, an SP or an ASP for that matter? Did he not display any early signs of such propensities? Were genuine Personnel Appraisals done on him at these levels? It is well known that he (and his family) figured in an unseemly incident of abuse of position in that incident at Malabe when he was an SSP. How did he extricate himself form that situation? How is it that such personality aberrations were overlooked when he was considered for promotion?

Who looked after him through all these troubles and tribulations? Thus, it would appear that many supervising officers, his DIGs and IG himself, as well as those who are above him, may also be held responsible. Unfortunately, accountability is no longer an operational management principle in this country at any level. So, all those officers responsible will get away with their neglect of duty, with no questions asked or answered. Incompetency will flourish.

Managerial flaws

Besides all this, there are some fundamental managerial and structural flaws in the Police. There are DIGs dime a dozen, in the Police today. Are all these necessary for the efficient running of the Police Department? The government seems to think that by posting DIGs all over the country all problems of police administration and crime control could be solved. A DIG is not a Superman. They are now posted in areas smaller than which an SP of earlier days had to handle. This is done at great financial and logistical cost. There is also a multiplicity of SPs and ASPs doing all kinds of odd jobs. All this is done owing to the non-application of the elementary management principle ‘Span of Control’. This is now a flabby organization, slow and sluggish in its movement, unable to respond to situations efficiently.

Senior DIGs are posted to the provinces. A Senior DIG sits over and above the local DIG in the provincial capital. He is thus drawn towards the ambit of the sphere of activity of the DIG, as the most senior officer present and compelled to encroach on the work. Similarly, the DIG is drawn to do the some of the work of the SSP and so on down the line with the ASP very often doing the work of the OIC. The supervisory function suffers at each level.

The OIC has little to do apart from being present whenever a VIP visits, along with the entire local hierarchy, just ‘to be seen’. The OIC doesn’t have the time to supervise his men, peruse his records and attend to court work. The snowballing effect is that most senior officers are found to be immersed in office work, working late into the night, mostly doing their subordinates’ work. The subordinates don’t acquire necessary skill, experience and maturity.

As they go up the ladder, they possess less and less experience both to do their jobs and to give appropriate directions to their subordinates. Consequently, they do not have sufficient confidence in the subordinates. So, superiors themselves do the work of the subordinates because it is his responsibility to get the job done. The subordinate never learns. The senior officers have no time to pay attention to detail or to do any creative work in their higher capacity, beyond performing their routine tasks. The norm is, to get by each day. Neither the officer nor the subordinate is tested or held accountable.


Consequently, the officer levels lose the opportunity to develop their managerial and interpersonal skills though they may acquire the technical skills required for their survival. Thus, there is lacuna in the officering skills. This is the complaint of many subordinates of their superiors. Mediocrity rises, therefore. Lacking skill and being inefficient, political clout is cultivated to facilitate upward mobility and as protection for incompetence. Hence they develop skills of ‘politician management’ as against personnel or operational management. The circumstances that led to the fall of IGP Balasuriya was clearly the cumulative effect of all this, a systems collapse.

In these circumstances the crime rate rises exponentially. It is indeed unfortunate that the government does not understand that there are no short cuts to restoring the Rule of Law. This cannot be achieved by physically eliminating criminals or by placing favorites in charge of key positions and manipulating them individually to take short cuts that are politically advantageous. It only turns those selected officers, both police and military, into criminals in uniform. The present case is the result of such mis-governance.

Rule of Law can only be obtained by restoring the independence of the Criminal Justice System – the Police, AG’s Department, Judiciary and Prisons. Will it happen?

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