On Wednesday morning, 5269 young men across Chhattisgarh will surrender their claims to an assortment of high-powered rifles and settle into guarded camps for a period of uneasy inaction. Till Monday, these Special Police Officers (SPOs) served at the frontlines of the State government’s battle against the guerilla army of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court directed the Chhattisgarh police to “immediately cease and desist from using SPOs in any manner or form in any activities, directly or indirectly, aimed at controlling, countering, mitigating or otherwise eliminating Maoist/Naxalite activities” and directed the police to recall all firearms issued to these men.
The Court delivered its order in the matter of Nandini Sundar (and others) versus the State of Chhattisgarh, holding that the deployment of semi-literate tribal youth in anti-Maoist operations violated articles 14 and 21 of the Indian constitution that guarantee equality before law and protection of life and personal liberty.
“We shall follow the orders of the court,” said Director General of Police, Vishwa Ranjan in an interview, “All SPOs shall be confined to their camps and shall be protected by the regular police force.”
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister’s spokesperson, N. Bajinder Kumar said the State government respects the orders of the Supreme Court, but was yet to examine the order in detail.
The use of SPOs in counterinsurgency in Central India has proved controversial. While officers of the State police and central paramilitary forces insist that SPOs provide crucial intelligence and information about the terrain and tactics of the Maoists, human rights activists have accused the union and State governments of raising an unaccountable vigilante force that pits tribal against tribal.
Today, the court appeared to favour the latter argument, stating that “the young tribals have literally become canon fodder in the killing fields of Dantewada and other districts of Chattisgarh.”
SPOs are 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 consist of young tribal men between 18 and 25 years of age, many of whom are surrendered Maoist cadres or victims of Maoist violence.
An affidavit filed by the State of Chhattisgarh states that SPOs are given six months of training, an honorarium of Rs. 3000 per month, and are used as “force multipliers” in the battle against hardened Maoist guerillas. The SPOs, the affidavit continues, are being used in operations to compensate for the shortage of adequate troops. Taken together, the State currently has 40 battalions (about 40,000 troops) of central paramilitary soldiers, and armed police in addition to 5269 SPOs; of which nearly 4000 SPOs are deployed in the violence-wracked districts of Dantewada and Bijapur.
DGP Vishwa Ranjan maintains that his regular force is sufficient for current anti-Maoist operations in the state. “Initially, we relied more heavily on SPOs as they knew the locations of Maoist camps and bases.
Now everyone in the police is aware of these locations,” he said, pointing out that the SPOs constituted a small percentage of the fighting force.
At present, SPOs shall be confined to their camps and shall continue to draw salaries, but their future is uncertain. “The police should simply promote them all and make us regulars,” said an SPO commander speaking under the condition of anonymity, “Without us, no outside force — be it army, police or CRPF — will be able to fight the Maoists.”
However, that prospect appears unlikely. “You need to have passed your matriculation to become a regular policeman,” said an officer, “Only about 10 per cent of SPOs meet those criteria. They will sit in their camps until the State government takes a decision.”