In the last week of July, the Chhattisgarh government passed an ordinance that sought to dispel the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the State's 5,269 registered Special Police Officers (SPOs) who operate as the vanguard of the government's battle against the guerilla army of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

On July 5, the Supreme Court directed the State government to “immediately cease and desist from using the SPOs in any manner or form in any activities, directly or indirectly, aimed at controlling, countering, mitigating or otherwise eliminating Maoist/Naxalite activities.”

Prior to the court order, the SPOs were appointed under provisions of the Chhattisgarh Police Act of 2007 which empowers a district Superintendent of Police to recruit special officers on a temporary basis. Most SPOs are young tribal men between 18 and 25, many are surrendered Maoist cadres or victims of Maoist violence.

The police and the Central Paramilitary Forces in Chhattisgarh insist that domain knowledge and intelligence gleaned from SPOs had proved crucial in the battle of attrition with Maoist guerillas. Senior police officers said the temporary nature of employment freed the State government from sanctioning a full-fledged force which could prove redundant as and when the Maoist insurgency was suppressed. However, human rights activists accused the State of raising an unaccountable vigilante force that was implicated in a series of horrific attacks on civilians.

In its order, the Supreme Court held that the SPOs were being used as “cannon fodder” as part of a government strategy that pits tribal against tribal.

The Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Ordinance of 2011 seeks to circumvent the Supreme Court order by raising an armed police force in tribal areas by recruiting “persons having knowledge of local area and topography and local language/dialect to assist the security forces engaged in preventing, controlling and combating Maoist/Naxal violence.”

The ordinance is deemed to have come into force with retrospective effect from July 5, 2011 — the day of the Supreme Court order, and as per Section 11 (1) states that “notwithstanding anything contained in any judgment, order or decree of any court” every SPO shall be absorbed into the new auxiliary force for six months.

While the ordinance mandates that only those who have cleared their class V examinations shall be eligible to join, it makes an exception for existing SPOs who shall have the option of completing a “specially designed course in elementary education” as means to join the force fulltime.

While Section 5 (2) of the ordinance says that members of the force shall not be deployed in frontline positions of an operation, the auxiliary force shall be armed and can be used for patrolling, intelligence gathering and preserving internal security — a broad mandate that should allow the new force to perform the duties performed by the SPOs.

Legal indemnity

The ordinance provides personnel with legal indemnity from acts purported to be committed in “good faith” in the course of duty. This clause may prove contentious in the context of the State government's record of registering offences against, and prosecuting, the SPOs accused of human rights violations.