I want to share an interesting experience I had in Jaffna with the traffic police.
The incident happened in the centre of Jaffna City in Hospital Road, the busiest street in Jaffna, about 2 years ago.
I was travelling alone on a motorbike along this road. Suddenly I heard someone persistently blowing a whistle behind me. I stopped and turned my head to see. The whistling police officer, standing next to his jeep, asked me using sign language to turn round and come towards him. I did so. The conversation that followed was as follows:
Me: Officer, why did you stop me? What did I do wrong?
He (Police Officer): Holding a ticket book in his hand he repeated, ticket, ticket, ticket!
Me: Why? Why? Why?
He: Licence, Licence, Licence!
Me: I gave my driving licence.
He: He checks and says ok and then says, insurance, insurance, insurance!
Me: I gave my insurance certificate.
He: checks and says ok and then says road licence, road licence, road licence!
Me: I gave my road licence.
He: checks and says ok. He takes his ticket book and starts to write a penalty notice.
Me: Why and what for? Realising he cannot speak Tamil or English, I asked the other 3 officers with him if any of them understand Tamil or English at least. The answer was ‘no’. None of them spoke Tamil or English.
The traffic police department has sent out a team of 4 police officers, who cannot speak a word of Tamil or English to patrol a city of 89, 000 people, 99.5% of whom speak only Tamil. This is not a people friendly policing method!
He: Dispite all this he gave me a penalty notice and confiscated my driving licence!
Me: I looked at the ticket, written entirely in Sinhala. So I could not understand anything.
So without understanding what my offence was, I was required to pay the fine of Rs.500 at a post office and take the receipt to the Jaffna Police Station in order to retrieve my driving licence within 7 days.
I told him what I felt at that time, that I was going to challenge this ticket in court, knowing well that they did not understand a word I spoke!
I wish I was able to speak Sinhala to be able convince them that what they were doing was wrong and unjust. End of conversation.
Then I went to meet my friend, a Sinhala lecturer, Wimal Saminathan, at the UOJ. He was also the head of linguistics department. I gave him the penalty ticket and asked him to tell me what is in it.
He read it, re-read it and re-reread it. A Sinhala language lecturer and head of linguistics department of UOJ, after reading it 3 times, told me that the message was not clear at all. He said it had something to do with ‘U turn’ but not clear at all!
After 4 days, I went to meet the DIG, stationed in Jaffna, a real gentleman, very courteous, respectful, professional and empathetic person. A breath of fresh air!
DIG: How I can help you?
Me: After exchanging greetings, I gave the penalty ticket and asked him to explain what it is all about as I could not read and understand Sinhala.
DIG: He too read it 3 times and said that he can’t understand what was written. He asked me what was my profession.
Me: Civil Engineer
DIG: Let us leave this ticket aside. You tell me what happened?
Me: I explained everything diagrammatically.
DIG: I believe your explanation in full. Let me get the head of traffic over here. Within minutes he arrives.
DIG: Engineer, please explain again what happened in Hospital Road to head of traffic.
I presented a full account, pointing out the insensitive, unprofessional and inappropriate policing methods employed. The discussion was very cordial, good spirited and good humoured.
I put also the following question to them:
In a 100 percent Sinhala speaking village such as Embilipitiya (Ratnapura area) will it be right and just to send 4 Tamil only speaking police officers on patrol to issue penalty notices in Tamil Language to Sinhala only speaking people who have committed no offence. I told them that would be, in my view, gross injustice to the Sinhala people living in Embilipitiya and that I will fight against that too.
They both accepted everything I said and profusely apologised for all the wrongs done to me.
They cancelled my penalty ticket and returned my driving licence then and there.
P.S. It is a fact that my privileged position in society, my English language proficiency and my professional and educational attainments gave me the confidence to walk into the office of DIG without hesitation to discuss this matter on a level playing field.
But such privileges are denied to the vast majority of people.
If I was a labourer or a farmer or a fisherman or a carpenter I could not have done this and under the present class system I will be always denied justice.
Therefore a system which can ensure justice for all, irrespective of class, caste, gender and ethnicity is what we need to strive for. This is the message I really wanted to convey here.