A group of young aspirants to the Ceylon Police Force in 1958, were being interviewed by Asst. Director of Training, Fred Brohier, who asked them the question, “To whom is a policeman’s loyalty due?” Various answers were given, such as being loyal to the PM or to the IGP.
Then Brohier stated in no uncertain terms, that “A policeman owes no loyalty to any mother’s son but to the law of the land..”. The young candidate, Tassie, writes that he decided then and there that “the police force was the place for me.”
On reading his book recounting the vicissitudes of 33 years with the police, I wonder if Tassie ever felt out of place in his chosen profession. He gives no hint of any disillusionment and what is evident is that he always did his utmost to maintain the highest traditions of the Force, no matter what brickbats fell on his head, and that there were others who did the same.
Tassie looks back to 1956 and the first meeting of the new Parliament. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) which was interpreted to mean the “People’s Government”, marched triumphantly to the House of Representatives amid a great display of enthusiasm by the crowd gathered outside.
The mob of people stormed the Council Chamber, climbing over benches and some even sitting on the Speaker’s Chair. When the police tried to stop the rampaging crowd, they were told “to let the people have their way” and the guardians of law and order had to look on while the crowd hooted them.
Similarly, Tassie records how, during the inglorious chapter in our history known as “Emergency ‘58”, the police looked the other way, under orders from above, not to interfere. “This was the situation into which we trainees walked in when we joined the police force in 1958.”
Yet within the Police Training School at Katukurunda. to which they were confined for the first six months, the new recruits were put through their paces by a committed team of officers led by Stanley Senanayake and Fred Brohier.
Tassie has nostalgic memories of over 50 years ago, “when selection, training, transfers and promotions were the responsibility of the Police Dept., without interference from politicians.” The tone of the book is set by the early inculcation he had into the credo that the duty of a police force was to maintain law and order, no matter what. It is as astonishing (and shocking!) to the reader as it was to the new police Sub-Inspector, to learn that vice dens of the Pettah district flourished because the racketeers had the protection and patronage of “highly placed individuals”. He cites the case of a wholesale dealer of drugs, known as “Ganga Chelliah” who occupied an impressive house in Kollupitiya where “the highest in the land” were among his guests.
This man actually held an annual Christmas party for “high-ups” in a star class hotel and also gave a Christmas treat to all ranks in the Ceylon Police! Although his activities were well-known to the police, he was considered “untouchable” and his factory which employed a large staff to prepare cannabis (ganja) and opium for distribution, carried on its deadly business – until Sub-inspector Seneviratne conducted a raid on it and survived.
A whole team of determined policemen thereafter followed up with lightning raids, not only on Ganga Chelliah’s business premises, but other big-timers like him and were successful in ending their unsavoury careers. They had the full backing of SP Stanley Senanayake who was in charge of the Colombo Division.
An extraordinary event recorded by Seneviratne is the removal in 1959, of IGP Osmund de Silva who had held the position since 1955. The story recorded is that Mr. Bandaranaike, who was plagued by trade union action, especially in the port, sent for the IGP and asked him to have the trouble-makers arrested and put in jail.
Since there was no justification for such a move unless the police “cooked up” some reason for such drastic action the IGP had said that such measures, in order to break the strikes, would be tantamount to extra-legal action.
The PM is said to have replied that he expected extra loyalty from the IGP, at which the latter had made it clear to the PM that his loyalty was, first and foremost, to the law of the land.
After this interview, Osmund de Silva had called a conference of senior police officers and OICs of police stations in Colombo and the suburbs and related the incident to them, exhorting them to remember always that they were committed to upholding the law and should not resort to extra-legal action at the behest of politicians.
On April 24, 1959, Mr. de Silva was sent on compulsory retirement and M.W.F. Abeyakoon, an outsider, was appointed IGP in his place.
The coup d’etat of 1962 in which senior Police and Military Officers conspired against the Government, tested the mettle of the police and Tassie proudly records that the rank and file of the police stood firm in upholding the highest standards and that juniors such as sub-inspectors, armed with detention orders, arrested top senior officers, irrespective of their rank.
The formidable Sydney de Zoysa “who instilled fear even among his fellow officers”, was among those arrested.
As may be expected, the book abounds with incidents that imprint themselves on the mind. The author hasn’t hesitated to name “high-ups” who ignored the law.
My eye fell on a paragraph headed: “Arrest of Civil Servant M. Chandrasoma and Cricketer M. Sathasivam”. Apparently, one day a police radio-car team who were driving down Regent Street towards Kynsey Road, were confronted by a private car coming on the wrong side of the road. The occupants - Ports Authority Chairman M. Chandrasoma at the wheel and the famous cricketer, M. Sathasivam in the passenger seat - ordered the police car to get out of their way. When a constable got down from the police car and went across, Sathasivam also alighted and gave the constable a thundering slap, where upon the police team, helped by some civilians who had gathered, over-powered the two and took them to Police station.
Here, Sathasivam had again gone berserk and it took several policemen to hold him down. Both these gentleman were found to be very drunk and were put in the lock-up! When the policemen realized who Chandrasoma was, they became jittery and telephoned Sub-Inspector Seneviratne. who rather nervously called SP Eleric Abeygunawardena and exlained the position to him.
The SP fully concurred with his Sub-Inspector that the miscreants should be treated in the same way as any less influential breakers of the law and the two of them were duly produced in court the next morning where they pleaded guilty and apologized to the policemen.
Apparently, the newspapers reported the matter in banner headlines, giving the police the honours.
Tassie himself had once to face a murder charge, along with two colleagues when he was serving in Maradana. I found the full story gripping. Tassie and his two colleagues were completely exonerated and their legal expenses were reimbursed. “The aftermath of this incident is that we were able to preserve the rule of law and keep thugs and other undesirables in the Maradana area under control.”
It seems unbelievable to read, however, that the three chief hoodlums – two of whom were eliminated in warfare with rival gangs, - were given “right royal funeral ceremonies organised by the underworld, but attended by “top politicians of all hues, popular film stars and artistes, bookies, business men and club magnates,” with flowers being dropped from the air over the hearse and funeral procession.
Tassie was transferred to the Bribery Commissioner’s Dept.(BCD) in 1972 and when Ian Wikramanayake took over as Bribery Commissioner soon after, we read that “the BCD became a hive of activity”. “BCD sleuths were everywhere and public servants thought more than twice before soliciting bribes”.
Tassie’s next posting was as OIC of the Colombo City Vice Squad which was being re-opened by DIG Admin, T.B. Werapitiya. Tassie makes a very pertinent point when he observes that “The importance of prevention of vice is not merely the prevention of vice per se, but more importantly, in the prevention of more serious crime that unchecked vice inevitably leads to.”
As evidence of this, he gives in detail the gory story of the “Kalattawa murders” carried out by the infamous Alfred S. Zoysa to whose earlier nefarious activities the Anuradhapura police turned a blind eye.
Horse-racing had been banned by SWRD’s government, as were the printing and publishing of any material connected with racing. But betting on foreign races went on, the necessary information being received locally by bookies via telex. Tassie, as Chief of the Colombo Vice Squad, was equal to the task of unmasking the culprits and I well remember the sensation it caused when a prominent bookie of that time, the popular and influential A.R.M. Mukthar, was arrested, along with 27 others, and produced before the Municipal Magistrate.
The CVS continued to keep gaming clubs and brothels and “those one-armed bandits known as Jackpots under strict police surveillance. Interested parties, however, were not happy about the situation. To cut a long (but intriguing ) story short, ultimately, there came an official directive from on high that the CVS cease its raids on betting and on racing. It transpired that at an emergency Cabinet meeting a decision not to `close down’ bookies had been taken. The CVS was unceremoniously dismantled and its Chairman suddenly transferred to Ampara “with immediate effect” on July 1, 1975, and another zealous officer, Police Sergeant Vincent S. Cooray, sent to the island of Delft, off Jaffna!
In that context, it is somewhat surprising to find that on January 1, 1976, Tassie was appointed Chief Lecturer (Academic Studies), at the Police College.
The book is so packed with memorable incidents that the reviewer is hard put to refrain from touching on too many of them.
Tassie writes without fear or favour in candidly recounting his first-hand experiences with politicians of every hue. So we read that after J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP won its landslide victory in 1977, the Police Central Welfare Council (CWC), “in keeping with tradition,” sought and obtained an interview with the new Prime Minister.
In the course of the conversation the core issue of political interference with the police came up and JR had asked what the situation was since the change of government.
Both the IGP, Stanley Senanayake, and the Chairman of the CWC , SP Navaratnam, had promptly replied that it had improved. But Tassie who was also present in his capacity as Chairman of the Police Inspectors’ Association, had the temerity to speak up and disassociate himself with their statement. He mentioned several instances of specific incidents in which the OICs of police stations had beentransferred at the instance of politicians, for doing the correct thing. JR checked with the IGP about these allegations and found them to be true.
Far from the police being given a free hand in maintaining law and order, however, things were to become much worse. Tassie explicitly states that “the Rule of Law plummeted when J.R. who became the first Executive President of the country, condoned the action of police officers found guilty by the Supreme Court for violating human rights. The President directed the State to pay the penalties imposed by the Supreme Court on the police officers and even granted them promotions. The worst scenario was when President Jayewardene openly condoned the stoning of houses of SC judges who had delivered judgement against errant police officers.”
A notable – and unforgettable occurrence was what Tassie calls “The Saddest Day in Police History” when in obedience to orders directly given by President Premadasa, over 600 policemen laid down their arms and surrendered to the LTTE who summarily killed the whole lot of them. This appalling tragedy is painfully recalled by Tassie whose submissions on this dark episode were recently made to the LLRC and received front page publicity in the newspapers.
Tassie’s book contains a wealth of information on internal police procedures and the functions of various committees like, for instance, the Grievance Handling Unit(GHU),of which he was appointed Director in the dark days of 1989 when the JVP was imposing its own brand of terror on the South.
He admits that the government finally overcame the JVP by inflicting terror in return. Numerous letters written by himself to various authorities including Presidents and Defence Secretaries and IGPs, on important issues, are reproduced for our edification.
So outspoken a police officer was bound to find himself in very hot water sooner or later, yet Tassie was taken by surprise when he received a letter from the then Secretary of Defence, Gen. H. Wanasinghe, informing him that he would be retired without pension with effect. from February of the following year.
Tassie was vindicated and has published the Supreme Court’s Order restoring him to the service for a further period. It is evident throughout the book that Tassie held on to the credo instilled in him by his early mentors like Fred Brohier, that a policeman’s duty is to uphold the law of the land, no matter what.
In his Foreword, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, observes that it is a book “about the Police, how it was, should be and could be” and he commends the author for his courage and honesty. What is sad is that Tassie ends his book with the admission that 15 years after his retirement in 1995, the situation in our country is worse than ever, with “authoritarian governance, intolerance of dissent, disappearances, fear psychoses, corruption, waste and blatant disregard for election laws”.
He cannot be unaware, too, that the prestige of the Police is probably at its lowest ebb. (The book is available at leading bookshops).