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Standing up to politicos in Kurunegala in 1978-79

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Excerpted from Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne’s “Perils of a profession”

I rode into storms and tempests in Kurunegala from mid-1978. What happened in Kelaniya paled into insignificance when compared with encounters with politicians in Kurunegala. The ugly pattern of constant interference with some politicians interfering at will, helped by a compliant police, had taken firm root. Kurunegala division consisted of 14 electorates. I had no difficulty interacting with D. B Welagedera of Kurunegala, S.B Herath of Hiriyala, Sirisena of Bingiriya, Alawathuwala, Wanninayake, and Jayawickrama Perera of Pannala.

MPs Ratnayake of Panduwasnuwara, M Premachandra of Mawathagama, Abeyratne of Yapahuwa, D. M Jayathilake of Kuliyapitiya and Sunil Ranjan Jayakody of Polgahawela were difficultas for they expected the police to dance to their tunes. My SP’s were Dudley Von Hagt and Boyagoda in Kurunegala, ASP Buckley Silva in Kuliyapitiya and ASP H. A Wickramaratne who later became IGP in Maho district.

 

Meeting President Jayewardene in Kurunegala in 1978

Not long after assuming duties, President J R Jayewardene visited Kurunegala to view a drama produced by MP Sirisena of Bingiriya at the Town Hall. He arrived at the residence of MP for Kurunegala, D. B Welagedara, to await the time to leave for the Town Hall. I remained within the residence, but out of the view of the president. His security officer, ASP Camillus Abeygoonewardene told me that on the drive to Kurunegala, the president inquired about my background and the accusation that I had been politically partisan in the conduct of my duties at Kelaniya and Kurunegala.

I was reassured that the ASP had denied the accusation saying I was merely performing my duties correctly. A short while later, D. B Welagedara left for the Town Hall to await the arrival of the president. Thereafter, a servant of the household informed me that the president wished to speak to me. I entered and found only the president seated inside the drawing room. He asked me to take a seat, on my greeting him with a salute.

Without wasting time, the president asked, “Is there political interference?” I replied, “Yes, Your Excellency”. He then asked me for details, and I bared all my conflicts with some MPs. The president appeared impressed, and said, “don’t let them interfere; report them to me if they do so again”. I found his sincerity encouraging. It was this experience with the president which later emboldened me to report the Yapahuwa MP Abeyratne to him through the IGP which culminated in the MP apologizing to the entire staff of Maho police station.

 

Confrontation with MP Panduwasnuwara

Not long after taking charge of the division, I ran into difficulties with MP Ratnayake of Panduwasnuwara. My predecessor, T. B Talwatte, who retired from Kurunegala had agreed to recommend to police headquarters a request by the MP that the entire Panduwasnuwara electorate be brought under the autority of the Hettipola police station. When the file came to me, I studied it intensely and considered that it was not possible to recommend the proposal since on the basis of the MP’s thinking there could be only 160 police stations in the island for 160 electorates. The Panduwasnuwara polling division at the time was covered by four police stations. It would have been impossible for one police station to cover such a vast area. In fact on an objective basis, even four police stations would have been inadequate to provide effective policing for the entire Panduwasnuwara polling district. I therefore reported to DIG R. Sundaralingam in police headquarters that it would not be possible to agree with the proposal. He approved my recommendation and returned papers.

The MP had on his own found out that his proposal had not found favour. Therefore, when I telephoned him to break the news, he spoke to me rudely; but I did not agree to help him with regard to his proposal. I served in Kurunegala for exactly one year before being transferred out, and during that period, the MP’s relations with me were extremely cold. On conducting discreet inquiries about the obsession with his proposal, I gathered that OIC Hettipola was a pliant type, and that the MP wanted him to control the entire Panduwasnuwara polling district so that he could be used to make life uncomfortable for all his political rivals within the district.

 

Confrontation with MP Abeyratne of Yapahuwa.

Not long afterwards, I encountered difficulties with MP Abeyratne of Yapahuwa. His usual habit was to call up police officers including the ASP and abuse them in public. Some officers in order to lessen their mental pain, had made entries at police stations about such instances. I called for extracts of entries made by police officers who had suffered insults in public leveled at them by the MP and made a report to IGP Ana Seneviratne revealing details of his excessive conduct. I also requested that the report be forwarded to the president.

MP Abeyratne had found out through his own sources that I had despatched a report to the IGP to be forwarded to the president. Not long afterwards, the IGP telephoned me one morning and requested me to meet him in his office in Colombo. He further said that the MP would be present and he was prepared to apologize to the police if he had hurt them. I immediately left for police headquarters, and on entering the office of the IGP, found that the MP had already arrived there. I explained to the IGP that I was not prepared to allow my officers to be bullied in such a manner. The MP then said that he was prepared to apologize to the police officers of Maho police station and that he would not harass them in future.

The IGP requested me to accept the MP’s terms. I promised to pick up the MP at his residence the next morning at 8.00 am, and directed ASP Wickramaratne to assemble all police officers of Maho police station, over 50 in number, to enable the MP to address them. I collected the MP the following morning and we arrived together at the police station. I first addressed the officers and said that while standing firm on matters of discipline, I will protect them against insults hurled at them. I further said that the MP had arrived to say “sorry” for what had transpired, and to accept the apology in good grace.

The MP then rose from his seat and said, “Niladhariwaruni, mage athin waradak wuna nam mama avankawa, nihathamaniwa, samawa illanawa” (“officers, I honestly and sincerely request you to forgive me if I have done some wrong to you”). The police officers clapped, and one of them rose from his seat and thanked the MP for his apology. I then took the MP away and dropped him at his residence. The officers of Maho were so relieved that they adjourned to the Rest House and enjoyed themselves. The MP obviously did an ‘about turn’ because he did not wish my report to reach the president. From that day until I left on transfer, the MP left police officers alone. But when the opportunity came his way to take revenge from me in mid-1979, he in concert with a few other MPs worked to secure my transfer out of Kurunegala.

 

Confrontation with MP Sunil Ranjan Jayakody of Polgahawala

Sunil Ranjan Jayakody had been a private in the army serving as a despatch rider before entering politics. He rode to victory in 1977 on the huge wave that brought the UNP to power. I had ample reports as I took over the Kurunegala division that he desired unbridled power and expected the police to bend to his will at all times. Somewhere in late May 1979 on a Sunday morning, I was reading the newspapers at my residence when I received an anonymous telephone call on my landline. Mobile phones were unknown then. The caller said that there was tension of an unusual nature in Polgahawela where a Buddha statue had been placed at the gate of a kovil on the road leading to MP Jayakody’s residence. I was also told that the police were partisan, and that Sinhalese people, offended about a possible desecration of the statue, had gathered outside the kovil. I realized that communal violence may occur.

I made efforts to contact Dudley Von Hagt, ASP Kurunegala, and was informed that he had left for Polgahawela. OIC Polgahawela, Inspector Henry Dissanayake too had left for the residence of the MP, according to officers of Polgahawela police station. He was a pliant factotum of the MP. I immediately left Kurunegala and arrived at Polgahawela police station. Officers of the station informed me that the ASP and OIC were at the residence of the MP. I think I took one or two constables in my car and left for the Kovil which was on the road leading to the house of the MP. A Buddha statue, about 2ft by2ft, was lying on the steps leading into the kovil. A fair number of Sinhalese had gathered outside. Their comments reflected their hostile mood.

The first thing I did was to have the statue despatched to the police station in my car. Simultaneously the assembled crowd was advised to disperse. I then sent the police officers to fetch the ASP and the OIC who were at the MP’s residence. I also ensured the presence of more police officers at the scene. I asked the ASP and the OIC why they were obliging the MP and consciously abetting him to cause communal disturbances. Several soldiers had died due to a landmine triggered by the LTTE the previous day in Batticaloa, and the MP wanted to exhibit his “patriotism” by creating conditions in Polgahawela for Tamils to be attacked. He obviously desired irate Sinhalese to storm the Kovil and commence clashes.

The ASP and the OIC suggested that the statue be brought back and placed inside the Kovil so that the Sinhala and Tamil communities could enter it to worship together. It surprised me that they chose to ignore the dangers that would arise from such a step. Perhaps they had been more obsessed by a desire to please the MP. I had police resources from outside Polgahawela enlisted to intensify security in the area and returned to Kurunegala. The first thing I did the next day, Monday, was to dispatch a report to police headquarters seeking the immediate transfer of OIC Polgahawela, IP Henry Dissanayake. The order of transfer came a few days afterwards.

The MPs’ who had waited patiently to have me moved out, Abeyratne of Yapahuwa, Ratnayake of Panduwasnuwara, G Premachandra of Mawathagama and Sunil Ranjan Jayakody of Polgahawela now joined hands to agitate for the retention of IP Henry Dissanayake at Polgahawela and for my transfer. The transfer order of OIC Polgahawela stood, but I received transfer orders effective from June 18, 1978 with only two days notice to move out. I had a sense of pride that I stood by professional principles and ethics and said so in my farewell speech to fellow officers. As usual, DIG R. Sundaralingam was a great source of comfort. My transfer was to an insignificant slot in Colombo, away from field work.

 

 



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Features

Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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