|Saturday, 10 August 2002|
An IGP's hearty laugh
by Geoff Wijesinghe
Inspector General of Police Eleric Abeygunawardene, a strict disciplinarian, yet with a fine sense of humor, was writing an urgent report to be sent to the Ministry of Defence on a sultry afternoon, when suddenly the swing doors of his office at the old Colonial building at the police headquarters overlooking the Colombo harbour were flung open and a portly DIG oft given to pomposity charged into the room like an enraged bull.
Standing before the Police Chief the senior officer burst forth into a torrent of verbiage. Abeygunawardene at first could not make head or tail of what his deputy was spewing out except that his ego had taken an awful beating. With some difficulty however the IGP discerned that his deputy was complaining bitterly that he had been humiliated in public by his driver. As a result he had become a laughing stock. The IGP told me that he couldn't help but go into fits of laughter. The incident was so humorous. Asking the senior officer to take a seat and calm down, Eleric Abeygunawardene asked the DIG to tell him coherently what really had happened.
What had happened was that the DIG clad in his finest livery-Sam Brown and Cross Belt, Slouch hat and all, had gone on an inspection tour of the police stations in his Range.
After a satisfying tour and a sumptuous lunch at a Rest House in a bustling seaside town he set out on the return journey to Colombo. On his way out the top cop had ordered the driver to put into the main petrol shed in the heart of town to top up the fuel tank.
As he had an urgent need to ease himself he decided to use the toilet at the rear of the petrol pumping station, while the driver had the fuel pumped into the car Having relieved himself the DIG returned to the front and stood aghast, for his car had vanished with his driver.
Using the petrol shed telephone (this incident occurred long before the advent of cellular phones), he ordered a police alert to help rein in the runaway vehicle. Meanwhile news of the mysterious disappearance had spread like wild fire and the thoroughly embarrassed police top brass sporting his parade best, fretted and fumed while a curious crowd gathered around him.
A short while later much to his surprise and relief his car which resembled a limousine, but which was not quite one returned, driven at great speed and screeched to a halt. The terrified driver jumped out of the vehicle and apologized profusely to his boss, explaining that he had been under the impression that the DIG had been asleep in the car when he took off after taking in the petrol. It was only after a couple of miles on looking into his mirror that he realized that the DIG was missing.
When the DIG had finished his litany the IGP had burst into fits of laughter.
Advising his deputy not to take the incident too seriously as it was a bona-fide lapse on the part of the driver, he told him to take the afternoon off, relax and unwind. My good friend of nearly four decades, the popular sportsman Senior Superintendent of Police (rtd.) S. Sivendran recalls how as a young inspector, he was serving in Jaffna, when one sunny morning he found a stranger seated at his desk at the police station.
"Who are you? Where are you from? What the hell are you doing seated at my desk?", Siva's questions were met with a stony silence. Finally, losing his patience the Inspector told the intruder", get the hell out of here". Possibly, thought Siva, the guy was a crank.
Later in the day, he was travelling with the HQI in a police car, when the latter said, "Siva, there's Inspector M-at the bus halt, let's given him a lift". But M-from Colombo refused the lift claiming he had been insulted by Siva. Two weeks later, inspector, Sivandran was shocked to receive a registered letter from the bribery commissioner's department requiring him to declare his assets. Siva came down to Colombo and did a quick 'rain check'. He discovered that the man behind a conspiracy against him was Inspector M-who happened to be an investigator at the bribery commissioners department.
A look at the file showed a note written on a piece of excersize book paper stating that "inspector Sivendran who has served in Jaffna for several years was involved in smuggling". This was the trumped up reason for Siva being served a declaration of assets notice.Inspector Sivendran promptly went to see IGP Eleric Abeygunawardene.
The IGP was furious, he telephoned bribery commissioner Joe Weeraratna and informed him of the background to the complaint. The haughty Inspector M-was seeking revenge for what he construed wrongly as being slighted in Jaffna.
On being interrogated by the Bribery Commissioner the errant sleuth had admitted he had tried to frame Siva in a fit of pique and begged for mercy.
He now faced dismissal but the sportsman that he is Inspector Sivandran accepted an apology and stated he did not want any action taken against IPM- "Eleric Abeygunawardene could not stand any injustice. He identified himself with the rank and file of the police force which was sixteen thousand strong at the time of his holding office as IGP" says Sivendran.
In 1967 when for the first time the Police captained by Sivendran entered the Clifford Cup final in rugger, but lost to the Havies. The chief guest was Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake a classmate of Eleric's. In fact Eleric was a member of the Thomian cricket team captained by Dudley. He also had a unique Royal-Thomian record-out for naught in both innings in the same match. He also opened bowling for S.T.C..
The IGP was so happy that the Police, newcomers to rugby had entered a cup final for the first time, that breaking with tradition he had the senior officers mess opened that evening to all ranks.
Although he was more than a score of years older than I, I considered Eleric Lanty Abeygunawardene one of my closest friends.
He was a man who moved with the times while not compromising his principles and his integrity and was one who could relate equally well with the old, as well as the young. One of the best policemen produced by this country Eleric was always a man with his feet firmly planted on the ground, cloud nine was alien to him.
I first came to know Eleric when he was Superintendent in charge of the CID and I, the crime reporter of the Ceylon Daily Mirror in the early 1960s.
After the CID had closed the files on the infamous Alfred De Soyza - murderer, robber, bootlegger and womanizer - their investigations having drawn a blank, I called on Eleric Abeygunawardene, who had been promoted as DIG in charge of the northern range and told him of the anonymous post cards received by Mrs. John of Kotahena, sister of Julius Sandarasagara, supervisor working under De Soyza who was now missing.
The post cards indicated Sandarasagara had been murdered by De Soyza. I had met Mrs. John at her residence the previous night in the company of George Fernando who was working with me in the Daily Mirror. He was a friend of the Sandarasagara family.
Eleric Abeygunawardene ordered the investigation to be reopened and took personally charge of the case, which resulted in De Soyza's arrest, conviction and execution. One of the biggest ever-criminal networks in this country was busted.
Of course I had a series of scoops on the investigation. I remember one banner headline carried Sandarasagara's last words, a desperate appeal to De Soyza on bended knee before he was shot dead-" please I beg of you don't kill me". This was an on the spot report I sent from Anuradhapura the center of the investigations.
An interesting anecdote told me by Eleric Abeygunawardene's personal assistant, Superintendent Wijetunga, was how soon after he had assumed office as IGP in 1966 two Cabinet Ministers had come to see Eleric about some problems in their electorates. When the P.A. informed the IGP he had said "Alright, send them in".
When the two Ministers stepped into his office the I.G.P. had said", I know you two worked against my appointment, but never mind, sit down. Now what is your problem?" Wijetunga said the two senior politicos looked as if they wished the earth would open and swallow them up, and were rendered speechless for some moments. This was a fine example of man of exemplary character.
It is now 4 years since a police bugler sounded the Last Post, for Eleric Abeygunawardene.
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