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Community Oriented Policing & Conflict Management
The Jaffna Experiment
Kingsley Wickremasuriya*


 Political violence broke out in the Jaffna Peninsula in the mid-1970s. In its incipient stages, it was not an open confrontation with the state. But what started off as an insignificant political struggle by a small band of desperadoes in the 1970s has now grown into a full-scale separatist war that has lasted for almost two decades. This paper describes the backdrop to the outbreak of violence, the setting of the confrontation, and presents one case study of the strategies used by the police to contain the conflict successfully when political violence commenced in the late 1970s. 




Sri Lanka has a complex, plural society with three important ethnic groups, and as many as four of the world's major religions. [1] The Sinhalese constitute 74 per cent of the total population of 15 million. [2] Over two thirds of them are Buddhists. [3] Sri Lankan Tamils constitute 12.7 per cent and Indian Tamils another 5.5 per cent [4] of the total population. [5] Sri Lankan Tamils (Tamils), a majority of them Hindus, constitute politically, the most significant minority. Sri Lankan Moors, approximately 6.5 per cent of the population, maintain an identity distinct from the Sinhalese and the Tamils, based largely on their adherence to Islam. The other ethnic communities - Indian Moors, Malays and Burghers, are too small to constitute a major force in politics. [6] According to one scholar:

The Sinhalese are the predominant community throughout the island except in the North and the East. Outside of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Sinhalese make up 80% or more of the population. In the administrative district of Jaffna, the Tamils constitute 95.3% of the population (with Sinhalese accounting for 0.6% and Sri Lankan Moors 1.7%, [7] the balance being Indian Tamils). The Tamils have lived for many centuries in and around the Jaffna Peninsula at the northern tip of the island. In the other two administrative districts of the Northern Province, the Tamils form the majority. [8]


Sinhalese [9] vs. Tamils [10]


Until the advent of the British, the two peoples (Sinhalese and Tamils) lived apart [11] . This explains the concentration of Tamils for several centuries in and around the Jaffna Peninsula. [12]   With the unification of the island by the British, however, the two communities came into contact with each other once again. [13]

Under the British, the Tamils took advantage of the educational opportunities provided by the Christian Missionary schools and began to occupy positions in various professions: law, public service and politics; and with positions came authority. By the late-1930s, the Tamils were occupying government posts disproportionate to their numbers. The Sinhalese resented this. [14] Consequently, the Sinhalese began to harbour perceptions of deprivation despite being in a majority. This gave rise to a minority psychology from which sprang their defensive aggressiveness.

With Sri Lanka gaining independence in 1948, the Sinhalese began to demand a special status for their language, Sinhala, and their religion, Buddhism, and a full measure of opportunities proportionate to their numbers. [15]

  As competing political parties began to mobilize mass support, the relative positions and the sharing of power among various ethnic groups within the new political arrangement assumed a strong ethnic character. Gradually, ethnic identities became sharp and interest articulation gained assertive forms, [16] bringing to the surface and intensifying the latent group consciousness. [17] The political process of those times helped to reinforce these trends further. Immediately after Independence, the majoritarian position of the Sinhalese made it possible for them to turn the tables on the Tamils in the halls of power with vehemence, threatening the power-wielding grip they had on the administration. A sense of relative deprivation at the loss of an advantageous or a privileged position in the new political situation after Independence, and a perceived threat to their ethnic identity from the political, economic and cultural policies of the government of the day contributed to the aggravation of these feelings. This aggressive assault on their power drove the Tamils towards a heightened ethnic cohesion. 

A clear division on ethnic lines and the resulting lack of empathy and understanding heightened the 'we - they' quality of the conflict and made it more difficult to resolve (as in Trinidad and Guyana, a parallel case in point). [18]

The Tamils began to mobilise themselves along ethnic lines and sought to redress their grievances through parliamentary debates, agitation and sit-ins. This inflamed the militant sections among the Sinhalese, who began to suspect the motives of the Tamil elite. As a consequence, communal riots broke out in 1958 and 1977.

The result of the assertiveness and aggressiveness on the part of militant Sinhalese sections was a rapid transformation of perceptions among the Tamils. The transformation was from one of a minority operating in a pluralistic society into the concept and ideology of a separate historical polity with a territorial base and distinctive manifestations of race, religion, and language. [19]

These mutually conflicting perceptions not only resulted in stereotypes being established on both sides, but also contributed to a breakdown in the understanding and communication between the two communities.  Even as the adoption of the English language or the Christian religion blurred the lines of separation, identification with the ethnic community generally remained sharp and clear. [20] The result was the shift of relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils towards a collision course. [21]

The atrocities committed during the communal riots and the violent uprooting of Tamil families from their homes in Sinhalese areas, in 1958 and 1977, left deep wounds and bitter memories. [22]   In the midst of these humiliations, perceived threats to the ethnic identity from the political, economic, and cultural policies of the government; perceived grievances of a political or economic nature, or both; and a sense of relative deprivation at the loss of an advantageous or privileged position, separatist sentiments emerged. This resulted in militancy among a section of the Tamil youth in Jaffna. [23]

This contributed to a further heightening of ethnic cohesion and a sense of ethnic identity. Geographic and demographic characteristics reinforced these tendencies. [24] By the mid-1970s, these developments had led to a radicalisation of the political scenario and the emergence of violence in Jaffna, making a political rupture between the Sinhalese and the Tamils imminent. This led to separatist tendencies, which , in the course of time, erupted in political violence. Political violence broke out in the mid-1970s in Jaffna, the northern city of Sri Lanka.

It was, however, not an open confrontation with the state when it initially broke out in 1972. It consisted of, more often than not, carefully orchestrated symbolic acts of violence against persons (at the beginning they were Tamils associated with the government) and state property. This was the familiar pattern of political violence that emerged in the northern peninsula.

The 'Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam' (LTTE), or Tigers as they came to be commonly called, were the militant group that claimed responsibility for this violence. Once political violence erupted, politically motivated-armed robberies and open intimidation of potential or actual witnesses of these acts became a feature of life in the Jaffna Peninsula. By violently reacting to any one who opposed them, the 'Tigers' communicated the chilling political message that any opposition would be met with frightful consequences. The strategy was so effective that it ultimately built a wall of silence among the people. [25]

The 'Tigers' moved from one spectacular incident to another with impunity. With slim chances of identification by witnesses, the police were largely unable to cope with these threats of violence, murder and robbery. The ‘Tigers’ thus, rendered the normal police procedures and the legal machinery ineffective. On May 22,1978, the government reacted by proscribing the LTTE. Undaunted, the ‘Tigers’ continued with their activities. [26]

In July 1979, the government responded by declaring a ‘state of emergency’ in the Jaffna Peninsula. This was followed by the dispatch of an Army Brigadier to the North to co-ordinate operations against the ‘terrorists’. He carried a mandate to ‘eradicate terrorism in the North’ by 31 December of that year, the date the emergency was to end. [27] It was in the wake of this development that the Inspector General of Police posted this author (a Senior Superintendent at the time) to Jaffna to take charge of that Police Division.


The Police in Jaffna


The police in Jaffna comprised a mixture of Sinhalese, Tamil and other ethnic groups. The ratio of Sinhalese police officers to Tamil officers was approximately 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Nevertheless, there had always been Sinhalese police officers of all ranks serving in police stations in the Jaffna peninsula, and they were not unwelcome there. On the contrary, in the caste-ridden society of Jaffna, they were looked upon by some sections of the population as a sobering influence, particularly during caste conflicts. They had earned the confidence of the general population as impartial arbiters. [28]

But as political violence progressed, perceptions changed. As security operations in the region intensified, the police came to be perceived as a part of the state's security network devised to keep the Tamils suppressed. [29] The Police, perceived as an army of occupation, was driven by the inescapable logic of their ambiguous position in Jaffna to behaving like one. [30] This was further complicated by historical, political and ethnic underpinnings. Torn between duty and group loyalty, the police were pressed into a conflicting role and on occasions were driven to take hard decisions, manifestly for political reasons.

Besides, for most Sinhalese police officers, service in Jaffna was barely a tolerable hardship, being far away from their homes. Cases in which some of them were sent to Jaffna on disciplinary grounds were not infrequent. In addition, the strategies of the extremists were debilitating to the police. They killed the Tamil police officers who dared to investigate their activities, and, thereby, effectively stifled police investigations.  Frustrated and demoralized at the ease with which the militants were indulging in violent incidents, the police became bitter and resentful at the lack of public co-operation. Evidently, frustration led them to adopt violent tactics. However, for the Tamil police officers, it was a difficult task to reconcile their loyalties between commitment to duty and their own ethnic identity. [31] These conflicting loyalties resulted in a situation where they came to be viewed by their own colleagues as being either ineffective or unreliable. This situation bred distrust within their ranks. [32]

The police who initially had the responsibility to contain this violence were never a popular creation of the British Colonial Administration. It was entirely an alien organisation in the socio-cultural setting of Sri Lanka. The notoriety with which it was known during the British times as a coercive organization continued even after independence. The role that successive governments assigned to the police and the nature of socio- political demands made on the police structure failed to transform this coercive instrument of a colonial power into a socially sensitive organization of a sovereign country. The failure of the police to earn the trust and confidence of the people resulted in the people continuing to view it as a necessary evil. Therefore, one of the basic problems faced by the police in Sri Lanka is a lack of legitimacy and public approval for their actions. The lack of public confidence is one of the major impediments in the context of the effectiveness of the police in Sri Lanka. In fact, it was one of the basic problems that affected the Jaffna Police's capacity to deal with violence in the peninsula.

The author assumed office as the Chief of Police, Division of Jaffna, in August 1979. Uncertainty and fear were part of the people's psyche in Jaffna during the 1970s. There was danger and uncertainty in the air. The wall of silence that had gripped the region - the police construed it as compliance or complicity - generated fear and distrust. This aggravated the existing 'we-they' mentality that is generally characteristic of the police. As the level of violence increased, the police withdrew to the safer and more fortified confines of their stations. Contrary to the general practice, they now came to be fully armed at all times.

With the police vacating the streets, criminals struck with amazing daring. Very often, they operated under the guise of the 'Tigers', leading to much confusion within the community and police circles. It aggravated the existing atmosphere of fear and distrust. Busy securing their own safety, the police had little consolation to offer to the community. As a consequence, in spite of the heightened criminal activity and the feeling of helplessness and general despair, the community had little to do with the police for they feared the police as much as (more so since they were now armed) they feared the criminals. As fear reigned, freedom of movement decreased, resulting in a constrained community life.


Theoretical Considerations


Governing is the principal function of the police, and knowledge of the governed is essential for progress towards a safe community and a fair, more caring police. The function of the police is not to govern a reluctant people by force but to protect the public from a lawless minority. Police forces are not an arm of the state, but servants of the community whose confidence they must secure. Success in this depends upon police officers understanding the fear and apprehension of all groups of people within the community, including ethnic minorities, and doing whatever is necessary to enable all citizens to go about their lawful business. The problem of obedience is central to the understanding of government. If the police are to secure the confidence and assent of the community, they must try to strike a balance between the measures to enforce the law and the maintenance of peace. This means they have to work on the principle of policing by consent, rather than coercion.

The police perform a vital democratic function in a free society.  The police are an institution of the government that poses the most constant presence in the life of many citizens. They carry not only the burden of the law, but also the symbolic burden of all that is the government. Therefore, it is not surprising that the tension and frustration of the citizens come to be focussed on the police. Power and legitimacy are the key variables that affect the proper discharge of police functions. The way the police handle situations, therefore, can contribute substantially to mutual antagonism, disaffection with government and disrespect for the law. The capacity of the police to maintain their power and authority in their relations with the citizens depends to an important degree upon their ability to establish and maintain legitimacy. Police can gain legitimacy and maintain their authority by sharing their power with the community. Those who have been on the outside looking in, who have experienced the helpless feeling of inability to exert power within the system must, therefore, be given a participatory role. [33]


Citizen Participation


Citizen involvement in crime prevention and control is not an unrealistic expectation, since, historically, citizenship included the responsibility of maintaining peace and justice. Today, many citizens are apathetic and prefer that criminal justice specialists be responsible for keeping order, thus relieving the citizens of that responsibility.

The obligation of law enforcement and social control rests with each individual, however, and citizen involvement is necessary for the effective functioning of the system. Even though the police may be charged with the role of protecting citizens and their property, their typical duty is investigatory. Usually, police reactions to an event are post facto. The traditional expectation of the police as the sole deterrent force should at least be questioned.

Besides, citizen-participation is both an effort to implement the values inherent in democratic theory and an organizational technique to help individuals obtain a voice in shaping the policy of the affairs of government institutions that affect their lives. It is a means to mobilize unutilized or underutilized resources and energies, a source of productivity and unutilised manpower. It also provided special insight, information, knowledge, and experience, which both validates government effort and corrects defects, inequalities and false assumptions forming the basis of government policy and progress. Open responsive government can encourage citizen-participation. [34]   However, this depends on the willingness on the part of the police to reconstitute their role and adapt themselves to novel and emerging circumstances.

Personal experiences have instilled the realisation that the police were cynical about maintaining effective public relations with the Jaffna populace. It was evident that the police mission in Jaffna was clouded by parochial issues and influenced by primordial loyalties and chauvinistic considerations. The tendency of the police to adopt judgmental attitudes rendered them ineffective in terms of capitalising on the opportunities that still existed within the society to bring about social cohesion. Although the masses were eager to usher in peace, the police thought otherwise. Based on similar assumptions, the hypothesis constructed was that, if the police were to reach out to the public in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation they would reciprocate, and this reciprocity would bring about a better understanding between the police and the community. This author proceeded with the assumption that if one could get at least some public groups to demonstrate their support for closer police-community relations, then it would be able to convince the police about the virtues of more effective community policing. Moreover, this could also lead to the dissipation of violence, an appropriate solution to the deteriorating situation in Jaffna.

'The Jaffna Experiment' refers to the efforts made by the Police in Jaffna under this author's leadership to improve police-public relations in their response to the raging political violence in the region. It describes the process by which the police in Jaffna developed a community-oriented police strategy in response to the occurrence of political violence in the peninsula, and how it ultimately brought about effective police-community relations and an end to the political violence, albeit momentarily.


The Jaffna Experiment


As a first step in this strategy, the author summoned the Officers-in-Charge (OIC) of Police Stations [35] and some of the community leaders to a conference held at the Divisional Headquarters in Jaffna. During the course of this Conference, the various problems encountered by the police and the community in the peninsula were enumerated. Underlining the interdependence and mutuality of the problems, an attempt was made to define the direction of a participatory and a collaborative venture comprising the police and the community in order to explore enduring solutions to the problem of political violence in a caste-ridden, ethnically divided and iniquitous society.

Community leaders welcomed the police initiative and also endorsed the proposed changes in their relational framework with the police. But police responses were skewed due to the lack of a clear-cut programme in approaching the whole issue. The author could only offer his genuine eagerness and sincerity towards the concept of community policing. The search for answers from the side of the police led to Division-wide meetings and confabulations with the leaders of the community. These meetings directed the reasoning towards an understanding of the problems affecting the community and the police. Immediate attempts were set in motion to address these complexities and to alleviate them. For instance, language was one of the problems that surfaced repeatedly. Sections 8 and 10 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Act 15 of 1979, was immediately implemented to make administrative arrangements. These arrangements helped the citizens to register complaints in their own language. A further improvement was carried out by organising Tamil language classes for the Sinhalese officers, and by offering them incentives to learn Tamil. Simultaneously, officers were exhorted to understand the virtues of building community support structures, particularly from the point of view of their safety. In soliciting the support of the officers for this campaign, the author also explained the details of the proposals.

The positive response that the proposed campaign received in its initial phase led to a certain predicament. The community in its response was concerned with the longevity of the whole exercise in the event of the retirement or transfer of the author. Questions came to be asked whether all that was being done could be sustained after the departure of the author from the post he was then holding. This scepticism was detrimental to the campaign, and had to be dispelled.

It was, of course, realised that existing voluntary associations in the region constituted a very significant support structure for the framework of public forums that was envisioned. It was equally necessary to build an enduring and meaningful relationship. The most effective way to achieve this was to lay the foundations within the community, since the community had permanent roots in the region, while the police, being national in character, was transitory (at least in the sense of continuity of personnel and leadership). Voluntary associations not only represented different interest groups, but they also drew upon the opinion leaders of the community. As such, these associations were ideally suited to build such a framework of relationships. Making use of this infrastructure, public forums – ‘Police-Public Relations Committees’ (PPRCs) - were created and these came to be a permanent meeting ground for the police and the public

PPRCs were formed with several objectives in mind. Broadly stated, they were designed to: (1) serve as consultative committees providing a permanent forum for community inputs; and (2) promote a collaborative effort towards making policing a collective and an effective enterprise.

The highlights of the constitution of the PPRCs which had been laid down by a Divisional Order included:

i.         the committees were designed to reflect the various shades of public opinion in order to make them more representative in character;

ii.        committee members were selected after a careful scrutiny of their antecedents;

iii.      meetings of the committees with the OIC of each police station were scheduled at least once every month for deliberations and consultations;

iv.      within a given framework, initiative, innovation and constructive criticism were encouraged;

v.       in order to encourage constructive criticism, democratic procedures governed the conduct of the meetings;

vi.      minutes of these meetings were periodically monitored by the author and his staff  and;

vii.    the committees were given direct access to the police hierarchy.

As a vehicle for discussion, consultation and interaction between the police and the community, the PPRCs acted as the nucleus of a movement designed primarily to make policing a collaborative enterprise and also to foster unity between the police and the community in the pursuit of a common goal.  Designed to bring about a lasting and a meaningful relationship, they provided a meeting ground for both the police and the community. Divisional Order Number 4 of November 1979 formally established these Committees throughout the Police Division. After a trial period of six months, this order was finally revised and replaced by Divisional Order Number 5 of June 1980.


The Program in Action


The Committees were inaugurated with great enthusiasm. Preventive activity was spearheaded and organized by the PPRCs. Organizing vigilance - neighbourhood-watch schemes - was one of their important contributions. They performed yeoman service not only in terms of preventing crime but also in the detection of crime. Besides, they also formed ‘neighbourhood justice centres’ with the encouragement and support of the police. These centres settled minor (family and land) disputes. For instance, PPRCs in Chunnakam police area settled 1,500 disputes relating to property and family matters, verbal abuse, and minor brawls over a period of three years. They were, thus, a resource to the police to the extent that they relieved the police of considerable workload. To the community, they were a useful resource acting as an important link with the police. Besides these linkages, the committees also represented a source of security and confidence. Moreover, through organized social events they provided increased avenues for social intercourse to both the police and the community, assisting them to integrate harmoniously. These PPRCs worked with varying levels of initiative and effectiveness. In terms of results, the Jaffna Headquarters Police Station and the police stations at Velvettithurai and Chunnakam seemed to have produced the best result, while Annaikottai, Chankani, and Gurunagar made significant contributions towards the programme in promoting good public relations. Chavakachcheri and others also contributed to the general team effort.

As these contacts gathered momentum, vigilance and public pressure against crime started to mount. It was not unusual for members of the public to arrest criminals and hand them over to the police, often with recovered stolen property. With the operationalisation of the PPRCs, the public willingly provided the police with information, more readily identified criminals, and came forward to testify in courts. This resulted in the arrest of several criminal gangs by the police. The impact of these developments on the activities of the criminals was paralysing. It resulted in several 'crime free' days in the Division - a rarity in the preceding period. The Jaffna City police headed the list, with a record of no felony crimes reported for an entire week in April 1980. Moreover, several persons who remained at large after committing misdemeanours during the Emergency, voluntarily surrendered to the police after the commencement of the community policing experiment. The most dramatic of the offers to surrender came to the Superintendent through a PPRC, and involved the surrender of some of the leaders of the militant group hiding in South India. [36]

In August 1979, when the author assumed charge at Jaffna, the police were highly sceptical of any exercise aimed at building public co-operation. By early 1980, however, so much had been achieved by way of good relations between the police and the public that during 'thai pongal' (harvest festival held in January) in 1980, some members of the public visited several of the police stations with the traditional 'Pongal' (sweet-meats prepared during festivities) in their natural appreciation of ‘their’ police. The police were surprised at the goodwill generated by the community policing experiment. These events demonstrated to the police the increasing and unprecedented sense of acceptance they had come to enjoy among the community.

The kind of support that was demonstrated by the community shattered certain old myths about the people of Jaffna. It generated within the police circles a feeling of being wanted, and a sense of acceptance, trust, and confidence. Further, it reduced opportunities or the inclination towards malpractice, changed police attitudes and improved working standards. It also raised levels of police morale and discipline. Cumulatively, these resulted in a remarkable decrease in genuine complaints of misconduct against the police.

Amazed and encouraged by the turn of events, the police were able to return to a ‘business as usual’ scenario. Day patrols and beat patrols started going out. Gradually, night patrols began, with patrolling in pairs armed with only a baton, as was the practice in the periods preceding the escalation of violence. The police were even willing to discard their arms without specific orders, because they found that there was “more security for the police in community support than there is in all the sophisticated weaponry.” [37] It took only a gentle persuasion for them to be on the roads without being armed. More people were willing to meet unarmed police, and also approached the police stations with less fear. Incidents of crime were more readily reported. With the return of an air of security and wellbeing, legitimate political activity also resumed. Gradually, tension disappeared and the community life was well on its way to a recovery.

In May 1980, at a seminar held to review police-community relations in the region, the author reported that efforts to bring the community and the police together in the pursuit of a common goal had evolved into a successful experiment. The greatest lesson that the experience had brought was that ‘trust begets trust’. [38]

The General Secretary of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Member of Parliament and Leader of the Opposition, [39] Appapillai Amirthalingam, in consonance, admitted at the seminar that there had been better police-public relations during the period under review. [40] During the debate on the Appropriation Bill in Parliament in November 1980, he reiterated these sentiments. He said:

I wish to say that as far as the police are concerned, definitely there is a marked improvement in their behaviour towards the public. This coming from me, will, I think, go very far. [41]

Commenting editorially, Dinapathy, a Tamil national daily added,

"Crimes have been decreasing in the northern region now. The main reason for the decrease in crime in the northern region is the existence of good police-public relations." [42]


Alternative Explanations


The success of the programme, however, depended on several factors. For instance, the program demonstrated to the police that community support was pivotal to their safety. Safety, one of the basic human needs and the first in the hierarchy of needs according to Maslow, [43] was uppermost in the minds of the police. Once they realized that they stood to benefit from the programme, they relished this new relationship. Conversely, the author's reconciliatory efforts had an immediate popular appeal to the public in Jaffna.

Besides, with the responsibility of pursuing the ‘terrorists’ being transferred to the Brigadier, the author was able to reschedule police priorities at the Division. It was also an opportunity to divert the police mind off the unpleasant task of pursuing the ‘Tigers’. Further, the security operations conducted by the Army Co-ordinating Office after the declaration of the Emergency presumably led to the militant leaders flight from the country and into hiding across the seas, in South India. Their temporary absence from the island and this division of responsibility also helped the PPRCs campaign.

There were other contributory factors as well. The police could perform their duties unaffected to a large extent by external (to the police) influences disturbing the system. ‘Political interference’ was almost non-existent. This led to police actions becoming relatively fair and impartial. After the Emergency was lifted, the Armed Forces kept a low profile since there was no remaining cause for their intervention. The Press - local as well as national - played a tremendous role in relaying the clarion call of the police for public assistance. By giving the police relevant publicity for their good work (even going to the extent of making editorial comments) and bringing the programme into the limelight, the encouragement the media provided was invaluable. The Press acted as a great facilitator in the context of the reconciliation agenda.

Moreover, it was evident that the militants, a few score in number, were apparently not well organized. Their violent campaign for a ‘Tamil Eelam’ (a separate Tamil state) demonstrably lacked popular support at that point of time. Although TULF, the main legitimate political force representing the majority of the Tamil public opinion, made use of the slogan in its political campaign, it was non-committal as far as the achievements of a separate state as a non-negotiable goal was concerned. Besides, the TULF leaders had assured this author that they appreciated the Jaffna Experiment and wished to see no violence in the region. [44]

But, given the political, ethnic and historical underpinnings of the conflict, it was not an easy task to unite the warring groups. Group perceptions, traditional ‘police culture’, the atmosphere of fear and mistrust, poor communications, lack of adequate training to manage a complex scenario of this nature, and bureaucratic thinking at the national levels compounded the intricacies of the situation. Given these impediments, the situation demanded adept leadership skills, innovation and a visionary approach to the problem. Within this context, leadership was pivotal to the progress of the programme. The discernment of the resistant and driving forces were crucial in the efforts towards unfreezing the system. This understanding assisted the author in his efforts to convince the police that their true mission was to ‘serve and protect’. It also helped in convincing the community on the mutuality of the Jaffna Experiment, and the fact that the quality of the service depended on the amount of reciprocity the police received from the community. This re-education of both the police and the community helped the progress of the program tremendously. Last but not least, teamwork, leadership skills and the vision of the Jaffna Police contributed greatly to the success of the program. Once the forces of reconciliation were set in motion, it demonstrated an ability to sustain itself even after the emergency was removed in December 1979 and the army operations had ceased.




The programme of police-community relations implemented in Jaffna is an eloquent testimony to the extent to which the police can provide its services in terms of crime control and law and order enforcement, through a collaborative effort with the support of the community. It not only established a close relationship between the police and the community but also resulted in the development of mutual trust and confidence between them. It indicated the instrumentality of power-sharing in terms of the influence it had on the authority of the police and the community. Apart from the nature of results shown - reduction of crime and calls for service, change of attitudes and the like - the Jaffna Experiment also demonstrated certain significant aspects of the relationship framework between the police and the community.

It reinforced the mutual relations between police and the public, changed the perceptions within each about the other, and even brought about a positive change in the behavioural patterns of the police. This ‘good behaviour’ eventually led to an increase in public trust and confidence and, consequently, to public approval of police actions. This increased their legitimacy and power. At the other end, it not only gave the citizen a voice in the affairs of policing their community, but also provided closer access to the police and increased the sense of power, influence, and status of the community. As a result, the entire political situation underwent a change due to the creation of a conducive atmosphere for a dialogue.

Thus, it brought the police and the community together in a unique experience. Their  joint collaboration led to the creation of an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. It was a qualitative change from the days of fear and tension and this directly contributed to the quality of life in those parts, the major outcome of the program being the complete absence of political violence. [45]

  It also demonstrated the importance of a commitment to democratic values, norms of openness, trust between persons, lowering of status barriers between parts of the system and the mutuality of parts as a necessary contribution of the re-educative process, [46] and demonstrated particularly the value of a normative re-educative strategies to the police. It introduced certain new values into police-community relations, giving both the community and the police, an opportunity in leadership training through participation in this new relationship. It further demonstrated the strategic importance of the small group as a medium for change.

‘The Jaffna Experiment’ makes it amply clear that force by itself is not an effective method of obtaining compliance of the citizens. Voluntary compliance is a much more consistent and effective means than any thing that can be arrived at through brute force. It has shown that citizen participation can not only bring about a change of attitude and group perceptions, but also change of behaviour and conciliation. [47]

Further, the settlement of minor disputes by the PPRCs helped the citizens in Jaffna to be more self-reliant. As citizens began handling minor problems themselves, it reduced calls for police service significantly.  Both citizens and officers felt safer and more integrated. It also minimized the sense of isolation, alienation and fear among the officers.

The Experiment also brought about a fundamental change in the outlook of the police. The conception of their obligation to the public and their duty to the country underwent a radical transformation. The net result was an all-round improvement in their working standards and conduct. It also changed the attitudes of the public towards the police. Their active co-operation broke down old barriers of fear, suspicion and contempt for the police, and replaced these with the development of a mutual understanding, respect and trust - trends that are consistent with democratic values.

Besides promoting these mutually reinforcing and supportive trends, the strategy also served as a useful tool of management. Much of police work is performed without close supervision. Members of the public could assist police agencies in the evaluation of individual officer performance. Letters commending outstanding performance by officers, or complaints regarding police misconduct, were some of the valuable community inputs for police management.

The ‘Jaffna Experiment’ demonstrated that such community involvement assists the police administrators and does much to reinforce the close ties between the public and their police. [48] It also indicated that increased interaction with the community reduces the opportunities for malpractice and indifference to work and that it improves the morale and discipline levels of the police force.

Further, it served as an effective strategy to usher in change. Although it is difficult to change a conservative organization like the police through internal mechanisms, the interaction between the police and the public, emphasised in community policing programmes, made this change more natural and easier to achieve. It proved to be a catalyst in the process of community wide changes in Jaffna.

But the most striking feature of the Jaffna Experiment was its capacity to increase the legitimacy of the police. Events described in this paper are testimony to the fact that that community-oriented policing has the potential to generate legitimacy and power. As was illustrated by the programme experiences, sharing of power increased legitimacy and increased legitimacy further contributed to an increase in power. The strategy, consequently, has far-reaching implications both for law enforcement agencies, as well as and experiment for those who are genuinely interested in law enforcement strategies based on the principle of ‘policing by consent’. [49]


Program Limitations


‘The Jaffna Experiment’ was not without its limitations.  The program was interrupted after this author was transferred in August 1980. The Deputy Inspector General for the Northern Region [DIG NR] withdrew the Divisional Order Number 5, stating that he wanted to substitute it with one of his own programs based on what he called a ‘Sector System’. [50] According to a report submitted to the National Headquarters in January 1981 by an observer from the Police Headquarters, the DIG (NR) had altered the programme intending to bring more grass-root level participation into its operation. [51] Nevertheless, interdicting the program at the very crucial stages of its progress prevented the optimisation of the values emphasized by it. The full implications of the program will, therefore, never be known.

A word of caution would be in place here. While community-oriented policing has proved effective in some instances, it is not a panacea for  all  political situations. Though community oriented policing can be an effective strategy under particular circumstances, it is certainly  not the answer to every  problem that confronts the Police.




In summary, this  paper described  the backdrop  to  the  political  violence that broke out in Jaffna, the Northern City of Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s. It showed how the LTTE moved from one spectacular incident to another paralysing the normal law-enforcement process. It also  focused on the failure of the existing police methodology  to measure up to the challenges  in  the  light  of a  highly  complex  situation.  It  then  described  the  governmental  response  to the challenges by declaring an Emergency in the Peninsula and sending the military  to  eradicate  terrorism  in  the  North.  Through  the case-study  method, the  paper  demonstrated how the police later developed a community-oriented police strategy  in  response  to  the  political  violence  in  the  Peninsula  and  how it ultimately brought about effective police-community relations and eventually an end  to  political  violence - albeit temporarily.

*         Kingsley Wickremasuriya is presently Commissioner, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Government of Sri Lanka. He retired from the national Police Service in 1998 at the rank of Senior Deputy Inspector-General of Police. He is presently also a visiting lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, teaching undergraduate and post-graduate courses in Criminology, at the Department of Sociology & Anthropology.

[1]       K. M. De Silva, Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Penguin, 1998, p. 7. Also see K. M. De Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies, New York: University Press, 1986.

[2]       Robert M. Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), London: Cornell University Press, 1973.

[3]       See Table Three, ‘Sri Lanka: Population and Religion’, 1921-81, in De Silva, Reaping the Whirlwind, p. 334.

[4]       See Table Two, ‘Sri Lanka: Population and Ethnicity’, 1921-81, Ibid., p. 334.

[5]       Demographic statistics have since changed. Currently the population is around 19 million. But the ethnic composition remains more or less the same.

[6]       Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

[7]       Consequent to the ethnic cleansing carried out by the LTTE in the course of the long-drawn out civil war, there are no Sinhalese or Moors in the Jaffna Peninsula now.

[8]       Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

[9]       The Sinhalese are descendants of a band of North Indian exiles who came to the island in the 5th century BC and later colonised it. They are of Aryan stock. The Sinhalese perceive of themselves as a unique and privileged people upon whom rests the responsibility of protecting the Buddhist religion.

[10]      The earliest known presence of Tamils is the 2nd century BC. The Tamils originally belonging to Southern India are of Dravidian stock and speak a language totally different from that of the Sinhalese.  There are two distinct groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The ‘Jaffna Tamils’ and ‘Indian Tamils’.  Jaffna Tamils are descendants of those who came to the island more than 1500 years ago. The latter are descendants of those who were brought in by the British to work in plantations.

[11]      Early history suggests that the Tamils, being invaders, constantly threatened the foundations of Sinhala society. The two peoples––Sinhalese and Tamils––stayed apart for several centuries thereafter. Geographically, they were separated by a wide stretch of jungle, and politically, they were governed as distinct administrative units, even during the Dutch and French occupation of the island.

[12]      Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

[13]      Sidney Pakeman, Ceylon, New York: Praeger, 1964. Also see Howard Wriggins,  Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960

[14]      The resentment was two-fold. They viewed the Tamils as invaders who came from a different land. Besides, they were occupying socially rewarding posts, that too disproportionate to their numbers, where as they, the Sinhalese, were not.

[15]      Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

[16]      Godfrey Gunatileke, “Violence and development in Sri Lanka”, in Gunatilake, ed., Ethnic dilemmas of Development in Sri Lanka, Toronto: Lexington, 1983, pp. 129-76.

[17]      Ibid and Wriggins, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation.

[18]      Barbara Ferkis and Victor Ferkis, “Race and Politics in Trinidad and Guayana”, World Affairs, Washington,134 (1), pp. 5-23.

[19]      Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

[20]      Ibid.

[21]      Gunatilake, “Violence and development in Sri Lanka”, p. 129-76.

[22]      Ibid.

[23]      De Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies. Also see Gunatilake, “Violence and development in Sri Lanka”, pp. 129-76. Student agitation against measures introduced by the government to accommodate intense political pressure from the Sinhalese electorate to give an equitable share of places in the Universities affected the monopolistic hold the Tamils held in higher education, particularly in Medicine, Engineering & Science. This coupled with the constitutional reforms that were seen as threatening their interests were two additional issues that fuelled the already burning communal issue. 

[24]      De Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies.

[25]      Ibid.

[26]      Ibid.

[27]      Ibid.

[28]      Ibid.

[29]      Gunatilake, “Violence and development in Sri Lanka”, pp. 129-76.

[30]      De Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies.

[31]      Ibid.

[32]      Ibid and Gunatilake, “Violence and development in Sri Lanka”, pp. 129-76.

[33]      National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, Standards and Goals, Community Crime Prevention, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1973.

[34]      Ibid.

[35]      Originally called Station House Officers (SHOs) as in India but the terminology changed subsequently.

[36]      The offer came from the PPRC Committee of Velvetti Thurai (VVT) to surrender Kuttimani and his group. The Leader of this group was Kuttimani. While the offer was pending I received transfer orders to proceed to Colombo. Had I remained there, the offer would have materialized and with that the chances would have been that the history of the violent conflict in the North and even the history of Sri Lanka would have been written differently today. Kuttimani died in 1983 in the course of prison riots during his internment after his arrest. Today, Prabhakaran heads the movement.

[37]      Skolnick H. Jerome and David H. Bayley, The New Blue Line, London: Collier Macmillan, 1986, p.11.

[38]      Kingsley Wickremasuriya, “Public Relations”, Tribune, Colombo, 24 (49), pp. 13-14. Also see James N Benedict, “Police Public Relations”, Tribune, 24 (46) pp. 14-15. Also see another article by the same author, “Police Public Relations”, Tribune, 25 (4), pp. 30-31.

[39]      Amirthalingam was later assassinated by the LTTE in Colombo on July 13, 1989. Outfits/Assasinations.htm.

[40]      See the editorial in Dinapathy, “The Necessity for Police Public Relations”, November 1980, p. 4.

[41]      Sri Lanka, (Parliamentary Debates) Hanzard, November 1980, cols. 331-32.

[42]      Dinapathy, “The Necessity for Police Public Relations”, p.4.

[43]      Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper, 1954.

[44]      Appapillai Amirthalingam at one of the meetings with this author gave his personal assurance that he would like to see no more violence in the Peninsula.

[45]      Not a single life either of the police or of civilians was lost during this period.

[46]      Robert Chin and Kenneth D. Bene, “General Strategies for Effecting Change in Human Systems”, in Warren G. Bennis et al, eds., The Planning of Change, New York: Hall, Rinehard and Winston, 1969.

[47]      James T. Duke, Conflict and Power in Social Life, Utah: Brigham Univ. Press, 1976.

[48]      National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, Standards and Goals, Community Crime Prevention.

[49]      In later years when this program was replicated in other areas under differing socio-political circumstances it showed similar results irrespective of time and place.

[50]      Chunnakam police, however, seem to have continued with some semblance of this program, as is evident from the fact that the committees had settled minor disputes for three years according to a report received later, a fact not known to me until very recently.

[51]      But his so-called ‘grass-root’ program did not get off the ground. The program was thus put on hold. The good relationships that had been cultivated with such difficulty, consequently, lapsed. This gave the terrorists who were hiding in South India the chance to return after several months and strike again. When this happened, the police went back into their shells, increasingly focused on guarding their police stations, and allowed the atmosphere of violence to return. Also see the account of James N. Benedict in Tribune, 24 (46), 1980, pp. 14-15, and 25 (4), 1981, pp. 30-31.





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