Remembering Cyril Herath


by Merril Gunaratne

History is best written, or people and events best assessed, by being distant in time from events and people. Three decades have passed since Cyril Herath left the police as it’s head. Perhaps because of such distance in time, combined with an ubiquitous awareness of the decline in standards of the police, it is possible to admire him more now, than then. His boldness to leave office on a matter of principle, his cherished affection for the highest of standards, had no parallel in the police, before or after him.

Perhaps in times before him, Osmund de Silva came nearest, when after the communal disturbances of 1958, he stormed into the cabinet room of Premier Bandaranaike with resignation papers in hand to say that he could not carry on due to politics affecting the police. As was characteristic of him, the premier subdued the IGP with tact and diplomacy. A decade later, the obdurate Eleric Abeygoonawardene, by performance showed of what stuff he was made. He was so strong that politics chose to leave him alone, though he would have cast his post to the wind if his affinity for his profession was challenged. But on record, in the times before Herath, there was no peer to him, for he did what others did not – leave all the comforts, recognition, and adulation, for oblivion.

It would be of interest to assess his worth between his resignation and now. The mystique about his standards, selflessness, courage to rise in conformity with his professional convictions has greater value and esteem now, when compared with events before he assumed office as IGP, for the police today is not what it was. Perhaps the exception to those who succeeded him is N.K. Ilangakoon. Like Herath, he was also not of the ilk that was prepared to dance to alien tunes.

Cyril Herath assumed office in the most difficult of times. On the one hand was the terrorist scourge, both in the north and the south. But more unfortunately, he took office at a time when police had been consumed by politics after 1977, when the hitherto trickle in political incursions had become a torrent. With favours done to politics becoming the carrots that dazzled officers to ride roughshod over the sacrosanct seniority line, IGPs lost control of their seniors because officers found it more convenient to secure promotions, plums and positions by placating those in politics than by performance. That many junior officers became seniors after 1977 through special promotions is ample evidence of this sad saga. Efforts to secure such unfair advantages have yet not stopped. Even recently, three or four officers who had retired over 25 years ago had been aspiring to advance a step up, urging one reason or another.

Herath’s assumption of office in mid 80s occurred at a time when the process of political interference had become malignant. He had to withstand politics not only from outside, but also within the service, for many within had patrons who could be influenced. It therefore became difficult for him to give expression to his convictions in a consistent context; for the crossfire had the effect of accentuating vulnerability. It was a time when IGPs lost control of men and matters. Therefore, in a sense, Cyril Herath did not exactly enjoy the highest seat in the police.

I yet like to think that his ‘magnum opus’ was being Director of the Intelligence Services Division when he was an SSP. Enjoying a clear mandate from Premier Mrs. Bandaranaike to resist politics, he performed with aplomb and poise, the master of his men and his profession. He got the best out of a very good team, produced results, and because he produced results, was considered indispensable. Efficiency and results spawn indispensability; and such indispensability made him impregnable, which is why the establishment not only left him in his seat undisturbed, but also allowed him to express his fearless views without restraint. He was never misunderstood. We who served under him then, grew with him, learning and absorbing the best virtues of his armour – to have convictions, and to stand up for them regardless of adversity. We became what we were subsequently, because we were his protégés.

The police have had a long history. Cyril Herath stands tall amidst a long line of IGPs’ because he did what no one else did – leave office on a matter of principle, unjust promotions dictated by political masters. He has to be legendary, immortal, maybe somewhat different to Sydney de Zoysa and CC Dissanayake. Perhaps he compares more favourably with Osmund de Silva, Eleric Abeygoonawardene and recently retired Ilangakoon. This elite was inspired by that indomitable spirit which helps treat unreasonable requests with disdain. Their preparedness to say ‘No’ at crucial times was a formidable bulwark against interference.

I am inclined to fit Herath into the ongoing CCS-SLAS debate. My frank view is that comparisons may be odious, for there were able officers in both. Why a CCS officer was successful if a SLAS officer in subsequent times was not, is to be explained by time and circumstance. Politics uprooted the best standards in the public service from 1977. Officers of the CCS-SLAS who were leaders of men and organisations, could subject to exception, practise their professions without fear before 1977. But they could do so after 1977 at great risk. Therefore many officers of the CCS serving after 1977 may not have practised their profession the way their predecessors did. Likewise some of the SLAS officers may have shone admirably in the climate before 1977. Cyril Herath as a leader in the public service showed his class in the most difficult of times by resigning office when he could not accommodate requests for favours. He was therefore a leader in the truest sense, showing his subordinates that courage was necessary to practise convictions regardless of adversity.

But then, have we stopped admiring such greats? Should the police not speak of deeds of Herath, Osmund de Silva, Sydney de Zoysa, Eleric Abeygoonawardene, Ilangakoon to their rookies in the training school so that they can seek to emulate them? Or would there be inherent risks in doing so? The service appears to forget such former greats, which is why it has no archives, no museum and no record of their genuine deeds. The mere narration of events as a substitute for history without giving acts of moral courage and accomplishments their due place would appear like a skeleton without the flesh. It is unlikely that the type of sacrifice Cyril Herath made will see repetition, but at least posterity should be made aware that his shining example of moral courage stands out as a beacon to encourage the service to uphold the kind of courage that should accompany convictions.

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