The Chhattisgarh government is considering its legal options and is “almost certain” to seek a review of the July 5 order of the Supreme Court that prevents the State from using Special Police Officers (SPOs) in anti-Maoist operations, according to a person briefed on the matter.
On Tuesday, the court held that the practice of deploying young, semi-literate and inadequately trained tribal SPOs in anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh violated Article 14 and 21 of the Indian constitution that guarantees citizens equality before the law and protection of their life and liberty.
At present, SPOs will be confined to their camps and shall not participate in operations.
Under the Indian Police Act of 1861 and the Chhattisgarh Police Act 2007, Police Superintendents may recruit persons above the age of 18 on a temporary basis and invest them with the powers and duties of regular police officers. Neither act prescribes any selection criteria other than the ersatz policemen be above 18 years of age.
As per an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, Chhattisgarh has 5269 armed SPOs who are used as “force multipliers” in counterinsurgency operations against the guerilla army of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). In its order, the court directs the government to “immediately cease and desist” from using the SPOs in any form of anti-Maoist operations.
“The government was surprised by the verdict,” said the source, seeking anonymity as the State government is yet to formally respond to the verdict, “Why is the court order restricted to the use of SPOs in anti-Maoist operations? What about SPOs deployed in anti-terrorism operations in Kashmir and elsewhere?”
According to the source, the government is also surprised that the Court has directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate allegations that SPOs burnt three tribal villages, killed three civilians and sexually assaulted at least two women in Dantewada in March this year, but said that the State government had nothing to hide. “A judicial inquiry, headed by a high court justice is already underway,” he said.
The State government is also seriously considering the fate of the 5,000 odd SPOs who are likely to be targeted by the Maoists once they are released from service. An open letter in Hindi by a Maoist representative writing under the name ‘Aman’ dated June 1, 2011, castigates BBC Radio’s journalist Salman Ravi for reporting on the plight of SPOs on the grounds that “there can be no neutrality between justice and injustice…because there is no impartiality between oppressors and the working class”.
The same letter claims that while the Maoists bear no grudge against tribal youth who were forced to become SPOs under duress, SPOs involved in “venal acts” will be dealt with strictly. It is unclear how the Maoists shall make this distinction.
The source downplayed expectations that the SPOs could be absorbed into the regular police force, citing eligibility criteria and the need for sanctioned posts, but indicated that the men could be offered civilian posts. Tuesday afternoon, the State cabinet agreed to relax eligibility criteria for low-level government employees in Bastar and Surguja (where most SPOs are from) and forwarded their recommendations to the Governor.