We do need O.S.M. right now
Posted on August 29th, 2009

By Garvin Karunaratne , former member of the Administrative Service

O.S.M.Seneviratne , the magistrate at Matara in 1959 was a legendary figure. In my eighteen years’ service in the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, which began as an Assistant Commissioner and ended as the Government Agent at Matara, I have had to appear before many magistrates, prosecute people and work with State Counsels in prosecutions. I have seen many magistrates in action, but OSM beats them all.

On the two recent instances of police brutality reported at Angulana and the IT Institute at Malabe people are worried and bringing back the hangman has even be suggested. All that is not necessary. What is required is a few OSMs to handle the judiciary.

 To introduce OSM , I quote from one of my Papers written in 2001:

It will be rather easy to get efficiency into the administration than tackling the question of law and order in Sri Lanka today. We have among us judges that can tackle this situation. One such Justice is O.S.M. Seneviratne who was a legend even as a magistrate in Matara in 1959.As young administrators it was great to watch him dispense justice. Any witness that dared to tell a lie was charged for perjury.

He gave a careful hearing to the accused but once proved no one could walk away paying a ridiculously low fine as happens today. It was very often the maximu m punishment and even police officers who were inefficient were taken to task. There are a few OSMs that can tackle this situation.(From How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka and Alternative Programmes of Success.(Godages, 2006) It will be appropriate for me to narrate a few instances of OSM on the bench as I can recall because this happened five decades ago, in 1959.

I was only an Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services at that time and one of my areas of work was the Paddy Lands Act, where I had to prosecute landowners who had evicted the tenant sharecropper. I had to hold an inquiry and record statements that laid bare the facts of the case- the circumstances in which the tenant farmer was evicted. If as the Inquiry Officer I was satisfied with the evidence, I had to enter an order that the tenant had to be restored and if this was not done had to prosecute the owner. In that process I used to visit the Magistrate’s Court at Matara frequently. We officers tried had to be well dressed, to be on our best behaviour- never to speak loud etc.

There was always pin drop silence when OSM came on the bench.

 Once I can remember a jeep driver of the kachcheri being charged for negligent driving. There were a few witnesses. The first two witnesses gave evidence and the second witness was at times contradicting. OSM knew that something was fishy. He ordered the two wi tnesses to be kept separate and they were actually incarcerated by officials. The witnesses were questioned by the counsels and the evidence was concluded, with the prosecution thinking that they had won the case, when OSM took over the questioning himself . He recalled the first witness and questioned him in detail about what the witness had said earlier. Then he sent him away and got the second witness and questioned him. They now went back on some statements they had made earlier and it was evident that they had lied. OSM was fast- he immediately discharged the accused. The witnesses were walking away.

Drama was to unfold when OSM sent the police chasing after the two witnesses. They were lined up and OSM told them that they would be charged for giving false evidence and I think were locked up till they were bailed out. He made a scathing attack on the police for prosecuting the driver based on false evidence. It was a tense moment and we were worried that OSM would lock up the policeman that prosecuted. OSM was magnanimous.

If OSM sensed that any witness was telling any lie he took over the questioning himself. There was no way that any one would cook up evidence for any purpose. OSM was feared by every policeman. We government officers were also dead scared.

On another occasion, I remember a young lady counsel coming in well draped in a flashing saree, gliding in, parading herself. while he was on the bench. OSM told her, ” Did you think this was a beauty parade”.

Once in 1961, I was attending his court in Morawak Korale. It was I think at Morawaka.

Before our case was called, the police prosecuted an old woman for possessing an unlicensed firearm. It was clear that she was not the owner but she pleaded guilty. OSM was of the opinion that she was not the owner and he said in undertones We shall find the real owner soon.

OSM was always very jovial and had a good sense of humour. The question was as to what amount should be fined. OSM checked up and imposed the maximum amount that could be fined. There was an uproar and the woman pleaded that she did not have so much, hoping that OSM would fix a lower amount. How much do you have, asked OSM. There was no answer. The woman was hesitating. After a few minutes the woman looked towards a man who appeared from the crowd at the back. Now we see the real owner, quipped OSM in undertones. Answer my question, OSM said again. The man came up to the woman and opened a bag. OSM gave a smile and a small laugh. OSM ordered the Court Sergeant: Go and find out the full amount of money in the bag. Out went the Court Sergeant and found out the full amount in the bag which was almost the fine already levied. OSM then decided that the full amount found in the bag would be the fine to the surprise of the woman. She went away crying. I think the gun was also confiscated.

I was seated at the back of the Court, enjoying OSM on the bench- which was always a marvel to be watched. It was entertainment at its best, far better than a cinema. Then he looked sharp in my direction and recognized me.

I see some senior officers wasting their time at my court house. Have I not told you senior officers to mention your presence to the Court Mudliyar and get the case called soon. Senior officers should not have to waste their time in my court.

I wondered what he would say next. It was a tense moment. I was worried. I got up from my seat. I am sorry sir, I did not want to worry the Court. I was happy when OSM ordered: Court Mudliyar Get Mr Karunaratne’s case next.

It was a Paddy Lands Act case which I had decided on when I worked as the Assistant Commissioner at Matara. I was transferred to Kegalla District and I was summoned because I had made the decisions in the case. This was decided to be a difficult case and the Department had obtained the services of the Attorney General’s Department and a senior Counsel, was also present. The case was called up. The Counsel and I got up and moved towards the table and the landlord too came forward . The Counsel commenced the oration deta iling the case and it was clear to me that OSM did not like to keep listening. I had watched OSM for hours on end and could fathom what would happen next from his very looks. The Counsel said that I had held the inquiry about the eviction and called me to give evidence. I grabbed the file and moved forward waiting to answer the questions I would be asked. The Counsel asked me a question about the inquiry and I commenced answering when OSM barged in.

I do not want to hear the Assistant Commissioner speak. I want to hear the landlord and why he evicted the tenant.

The Counsel was not amused. Please let me lead the evidence. Mr Karunaratne was the Assistant Commissioner who held the inquiry under the Paddy Lands Act and that was why I am using him to give evidence.

OSM barged in: I do know that this is a Paddy Lands eviction case. I know that Karunaratne held the inquiry. The landlord evicted the tenant.

The Counsel replied: But please let me lead evidence as we normally do to prove that the landlord did evict the tenant.

OSM spoke: I want to hear the landlord and what he has to say about the charge.

The Counsel :But sir, beg your pardon, Please let me prove the case. I have three witnesses and I will prove the case beyond doubt.

It was clear from OSM’s face that he was getting angry. Normally on the bench, he was jovial, cracking a joke here and there, sm iling with us. There was none of this on his face.

Sit down, learned counsel, this is my court and I deal with cases as I like .I do not deal with cases in the manner that you decide. I have no time to be wasting listening to details. I know how to get to the point fast.

The Counsel said again: Your Honour, Please let me lead evidence and prove the case to you.

OSM looked very stern. I was worried as to what was happening. I could not tell the Counsel to stop talking. I could not speak because though I was a senior officer in the Department in a court hearing the Counsel that came from the Attorney General’ office was a specialist and he had the prerogative to deal with the case in any manner he decided. OSM was very sharp and rough. It was an order.

Do take a seat. I am not here to do my work as you please. I have my own methods. You will see for your self what I mean in a few minutes. I do not believe in listening to various witnesses when all that is required is as to whether the tenant was evicted. My court will not hear the evidence today and again postpone hearing for another day and another day. That is not this court.

OSM addressed the landlord.

Did you evict your tenant?

Yes sir, he replied

Do you know that you should not have evicted the tenant, asked OSM

Yes sir, the landlord replied.

Do you agree to hand over 0ther paddy land for cultivation back to the tenant.?

 Yes sir,

OSM ordered Hand over the field back to the tenant at the end of this season and report to this Court when that has been done. Court Mudliyar fix a date for the tenant and the landlord to appear in court and inform me that this has been done.

OSM was then in a jubilant mood. He looked at the Counsel and said;

See how we have decided this case within a few minutes. I have no time to listen to witnesses again and again sitting on this chair for hours and going on for days and days and you people creating work unnecessarily. The case is over.

The Counsel had to eat humble pie and I was happy that I did not have to face grilling questions from the learned counsel that will question me in detail about the commas and full stops on my inquiry record. I was used to that type of questioning at other court hearings.

 OSM is what we need now. The hangman comes only after a case is decided on. OSMs are live bodies that do instil into the police that they should not impose the rule of jungle beasts. OSMs are also institutions that assure the public that they will be looked after.

Further in every establishment be it in the police or in administration the higher level officers have the sacred duty of ensuring that the public is served.

Not long ago, I read in the newspaper of a slovenly dressed=2 0man who turned up at the Dehiwala Police Station at midnight to make a statement. He was chased away by the constable who was at the entrance wielding a gun. The man insisted and pleaded of the cop to be chased away again.. The person was no other than my friend Edison Gunatileke then the SP in charge of the area and I am fairly certain that the cop was punished. High level officers are entrusted with their areas, provided with government vehicles and if the officers in charge at DIG and SP level had done their job, the Angulana incident could not have happened. Working in the Agrarian Services, I used to go at all hours of the night to my stores, to see whether the watchers are on duty and whether they are drunk. Once I was at the Mutur Paddy Stores early in the morning and there was no watcher on duty. I performed the watcher’s duties till he merrily walked in hours later. I told him that he could go home and be at home for the rest of his life. It was a standing sack. I covered the Trincomalee District from Anuradhapura at that time. Many a time I had visited my sub offices, parked my car far away and walked in unknown to see what was happening. My officers did know what their fate would be if they were found reading newspapers or shouting at members of the public.

To get back to police atrocities, this is nothing new. It is not a =0 D creation of President Rajapaksa. In 1971 we were stirred with the murder of the Manamperi girl at Kataragama at the hands of the Army.

Lieutenant Wijesooriya and another soldier. They were held responsible and Wijesuriya died in custody. The Government Agent Hambantota, the late Sonny Gunawardena did a yeoman task in handling the initial inquiry. There have been similar instances and the news is out today that SSP Douglas Peris has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for abducting two persons in the late Eighties.

Police excesses are there but have to be controlled.

I lived back in Sri Lanka from 1995 to 2000 and am aware that in some areas no one would dare go to the police station for fear of being framed.

In my book: I have stated my encounter with a cop from Mirihana around 1999. He was waiting for a bus at a stand. I gave him a lift.

While talking to him it was disclosed that his take home salary was only around Rupees three thousand. He had a wife and two children to feed. He was a two striped cop. President Rajapaksa after he became President has sorted out salary problems by giving massive increases and today the lowest level commences with a salary of over Rs. 12,000, a fairly living wage compared to what they earned earlier. He was the one and only President to have given such salary increases.

The Police have to change face and become the guardians of the people and to my knowledge there are many good patriotic officers in the police force that can put things right .The Police has to be human.

I can narrate a live and true story. A teenager had lost his cheque book and wrote a letter to the bank to get that book cancelled. He posted the letter and went home where he found the cheque book. He then came to the post box where he had posted the letter and waited patiently till the post collector came to tell him and get back the letter he had posted. He mentioned this to the post collector who said that once a letter is in the box it belongs to the Post Office and he cannot get it back. As the mail was being collected the young lad spotted his letter. He grabbed it and tore it before the post collector could stop him. The post collector struggled to grab the letter and the lad threw him into a corner parapet. The post master on hearing the commotion rushed into the melee to be thrown in another direction. The lad hastened home while the police were informed. The Police called the lad and obtained his statement and told him he had done wrong and was asked to appear with his parents. The mother pleaded of the police not to charge him. The lad was due to enter the University that September and a criminal charge was all that was required to end a bright future.

The Police decided that the lad should apologise to both the post collector and the post master and follow it up with a solicitor’s confimation. That was a human decision. The place was Scotland and the lad an Asian.

Let us hope that our Police will also be as magnanimous and will look after the public. This change is essential.

The need is for OSM right now. With OSMs around no public officer will rule with the law of the jungle. That is for certain.

Garvin Karunaratne
Former Government Agent, Matara District.

August 28, 2009

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