Policing ‘Police Powers’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Ludicrous to preposterous. The range of adjectives for describing the recent arrest of Jaffna Municipality’s Tamil Mayor, V Manivannan, by the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) can lie only with in this range.

That the arrest was later recorded only as a penal offence to be handled by lesser police mortals, and Manivannan was also enlarged on bail by the local court does not – and should not – take away the ridiculous ways the Sri Lankan State could act and react to what should have been ignored as an innocuous and inconsequential act of possible administrative impropriety, if at all.

Manivannan’s alleged act of terror for the TID should have been involved in the first place flowed from his mayoral decision to impose and collect on-the-spot fines from people on the Jaffna streets for spitting, etc. Never the ones to take orders without challenging them, fighting them and letting blood on the same, it was possible, Jaffna Tamils might have challenged the Mayor. They could have also argued that the fines at Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000, for violators was too steep, especially when trying to impose a sense of civic responsibility in the city.

That however was not to be. Instead, the TID arrested him after being alerted by the local police for putting five of the municipal staff in a uniform, which suddenly someone had divined, used to be worn by the LTTE’s ‘police force’, when it used to control territory and ran a ‘parallel administration’, with police, judiciary, banks and post offices.

Obviously, such a divine soul had not visited capital Colombo even once. It’s there in the nation’s capital, Colombo Municipal Corporation’s Traffic Wardens wear the very same uniform. It then means that successive Mayors of Colombo Corporation too should be arrested with retrospective effect. That is granting that everyone in TID had overlooked the ‘terrorist’ intent of successive Colombo Mayors, none of whom incidentally happened to be a Tamil, in a long time.

Propriety, yes….

It is still not unlikely that Mayor Manivannan’s action defied certain municipal laws, procedures and propriety. Questions arise if under the laws governing municipal administration in the country, the municipality was authorised to order and collect penalties for such ‘offences’, and if so, if the Mayor could do so suo motu without getting the clearance of the Municipal Council, and if he also needed to get formal approval from, or pass on information to, governmental authorities outside of the local government body.
If the answer is in the affirmative, then, Mayor Manivannan could have committed an illegal act – maybe.

Still, it may not lead to a penal offence as long as his office is able to provide the accounts and hand over the cash to whoever it should go – that is if his actions were illegal under the civic laws. In such circumstances, there is no question of attracting provisions of the anti-terror law.

When protestors in any rally, militant or otherwise, damage public property, there are said to be targeting ‘symbols of the State’. It is true of every other country, democratic or not. In this case, in the reverse, the State has targeted what it thought was a ‘symbol of the LTTE’ – and went overboard. It is unlike with even the recent cases of arms seizure, both on land and in the sea, which, if legally linked to LTTE lump groups, could be labelled as an ‘act of terror’ under the law.

Definitely, it is not on, under the Sri Lankan system, for mayors and municipal bodies to raise police forces. It is unlike the American law, where a sheriff has police duties. American towns and cities alone raise and maintain police forces, and above them in the federal police. Again, it is not on in Sri Lanka, if that is the linkage that is sought to be made. However, the courts may have to clarify if ‘Traffic Wardens’ outside of the police force but under the authority of local government bodies, could collect fines.

Yet, no one from the government has thus far told Parliament – and it was possibly not asked of them, either – as to who took the decision to arrest Mayor Manivannan under TID. It would be a travesty of truth to say, or believe, that a lowly TID official in Jaffna or even Colombo took the decision. The buck should stop somewhere higher, possibly a Cabinet Minister of a senior ministerial secretary reporting to him, unlike it was someone attached to the Office of either President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The government has spoken eloquently and loudly in Parliament especially on the issue, talking about the powers of mayors to raise ‘police forces’ (!). It is anybody’s guess why Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardena and chief whip, Johnston Fernando, respectively, the Foreign Minister and Internal Trade Minister, were made to speak for the government, and promise correctives in Manivannan’s case. In the normal course it’s Internal Security Minister, Rear-Adm Sarath Weerasekara (retd), who should have taken the floor, instead.

Reviving memories, but…

In a single stroke, the TID has revived memories of the ‘LTTE police’, not among Sinhalas, no. Instead, they have revived such memories in the Tamils, especially in the North and the East, who had lived with the so-called ‘LTTE administration’. Their younger generation that did not possibly know such a thing existed have been made aware of. By now, their elders would have filled them in with details.

But of greater importance should be the memories of the ‘Police Powers’ that the Tamils had sought for their (merged) Province, which successive governments in Colombo have either denied flatly, or obfuscated at best. Today, suddenly, the so-called TID initiative is talking not about police powers for Provinces but even civic bodies. And civic bodies include those not only in Jaffna and other Tamil areas, but also those in the Sinhala areas. Who knows a Sinhala group or party may demand such powers even if it does not find any immediate political backing, here and now.

In Parliament and outside, all Tamil parties joined hands to condemn what Manivannan’s estranged former party boss Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam dubbed as ‘preposterous’. To become Mayor in a by-election, Mannivannan had defeated TNA’s Arnold, who had failed to get his previous budget passed, twice in succession, and had to lose mayoralty.

Yet, when it came to the court case that followed Manivannan’s TID arrest, it was TNA’s spokesman and President’s Counsel, M A Sumanthiran, who led the legal team – and obtained a bail order from a Jaffna court. Other Tamil parliamentarians and politicians, and the Tamil media, too, have all condemned the TID action, which is laughable and condemnable, all at once.

Today, no thanks to the TID, Manivannan has become a near-household name in the SLT community across the world. Not to miss out the occasion, former Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, too, has joined the all-Tamil chorus. Already, he won the mayoralty in a hotly-fought contest, only with the support the council members belonging to the EPDP of Minister Douglas Devananda.

All of it does not mean that Manivannan could step in and seek to fill in at least a part of the perceived political vacuum that is engulfing the aging and at times discredited sections of the Tamil polity, especially in the all-important Jaffna town and district. It may be faraway from that, for sure, and for now.

But it does mean that there is one more recognisable name, emerging from the post-war scenario, apart from Sumanthiran and Sanakiyan, the latter a TNA parliamentarian from eastern Batticaloa. With that may have also been revived a new intra-Tamil discourse on ‘police powers’, which could well resonate in Colombo, not long from now.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)