On the night of April 30, worshippers in the Raja Rani temple in Naurhi village in Adki block near Ranchi were singing, chanting and celebrating the new temple in their village when a group of CPI (Maoists) entered the temple and shot Dilip Acharya, the oldest of the three brothers who built the temple, dead as he lay asleep on the floor. The men then addressed the now panic-stricken crowd on the prayer-microphone. Even as people tried to flee, a few of the Maoists chased and shot Laxmikant Manjhi, Naurhi’s postmaster and Dilip Acharya’s childhood friend.

“It will be the rest of us who will be targeted next,” said Dilip’s younger brother Randeep Acharya, a tall man in his early 40s, anxiously pacing the room in his two-storey house on the outskirts of Khunti. “For years, we helped the police fight the Maoists but now things seem difficult because the police have abandoned us,” said Randeep who, like Dilip, worked as a Special Police Officer (SPO) for the Jharkhand Police till 2012.

Besides helping the police gather intelligence in operations against Maoists, Randeep says the three brothers helped the police recruit SPOs from Tamar, Bundu in Ranchi and Torpa and Murhu in Khunti — both districts with the highest levels of Maoist-related violence in Jharkhand. Randeep, who now keeps two Rottweiler dogs and a band of 40 men from his village around for protection, got out from jail on bail this March after having served eight months over murder charges. His brother Dilip too spent eight months in jail since September 2012 on charges of carrying arms illegally. He had got out of jail a week before he was shot dead by the Maoists.

Randeep claimed he and his two brothers enjoyed police support and patronage in exchange for help in recruiting SPOs. “Four years back, when we started work as SPOs, the police gave us guns and bullets. They took 80-85 youth from here to Hazaribagh to the police training camp. We killed Maoists. Once, at the police’s behest, we even killed a Home Guard because the police suspected him to be a Maoist informer. We would accompany Deputy SP-rank officers on operations carrying sattu [gram-flour] rations for the officers, carrying Maoists bodies back,” recounted Randeep. He shared with The Hindu a copy of a State Bank of India cheque dated March 22, 2012, for Rs. 9,000, in his brother Dilip’s name signed by Khunti Superintendent of Police M. Tamilvanan.

Since 2010, Maoists have killed at least 15 persons in Adki and Tamar in Khunti and Bundu, an adjoining area in Ranchi, for acting as SPOs for the police. In November 2010, two Maoists entered SPO Pradeep Singh Munda’s house in Baruhatu in Bundu and opened fire, killing Pradeep Munda, SPOs Sanjay Mahto and Sonaram Munda, and Pradeep Munda’s six-year-old daughter, Manisha. Pradeep Munda’s wife Lakhimuni Devi said her husband had been given a country-made gun by the police, which he sometimes brought home. During the protests, SPOs publicly demanded that they be given better arms for their protection. As in the response to the villagers’ protests after the Baruhatu killings in 2010, Khunti and Ranchi police officials deny arming SPOs.

“We will pay money to anyone who provides us information under Home Ministry’s allocation to us for security-related expenditure. SPOs’ role is limited to being informants,” said Khunti SP Tamilvanan. In its December 2012 affidavit filed in the Jharkhand High Court in response to a public interest litigation petition by Ranchi activist Gopinath Ghosh, Deputy Secretary Home Department said the State was appointing SPOs as per the Home Ministry’s directions for “intelligence purpose”, paying them Rs.3,000 per month.

In response to the PIL petition, in July 2011, the Supreme Court, while asking the State to disband the Salwa Judum, ordered the Chhattisgarh government not to deploy SPOs for countering Maoist activities. Following the July order, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was briefly paused but resumed after a Bench of Justice Altamas Kabir and S.S. Nijjar in November said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh and not to other States. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though senior police officials put the current number employed at 3,000.

While one senior police official said that out of Jharkhand’s 24 districts Ranchi and Khunti witnessed the highest levels of retribution killings owing to the presence of breakaway Maoist factions such as the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) and the Village Republican Guard of India in the area. “There are more problems in these areas because some SPOs begin to play one group against the other,” said the official.

Another police official admitted that recruiting village youth as SPOs was linked to other law and order problems in districts. “How SPOs are handled varies a lot based on the District SP. There are instances where SPs turn a blind eye to SPOs being used by the thana police as conduits for their extortion from local mafia. In some instances, the SPOs have starting acting like a law unto themselves to settle personal rivalries,” said a senior police official on condition of anonymity.While Randeep Acharya says he and his brothers started working for the police after the Maoists killed one of their relatives in Bundu over a dispute over levy, in most cases the police encourages former Maoists to become police informers, pushing the youth to stay entrenched in a cycle of retribution and violence.

“My younger brother Maliya was 16. He was in jail [for] a year on charges of being a Maoist. When he got out, the police made him a SPO. I used to see him with Dhananjay Munda’s [an SPO in Khunti] men. One day, Maoists came home and took him with them. We found his body four days later in Parsi Bazar. The Maoists had beheaded him and two other boys his age. They left a parcha [pamphlet] saying they were punished for helping the police,” says Luhan Pahan* (name changed on request) in Uparpalong village in Adki, Khunti.

While SPOs are clearly at greater risk of being attacked for siding with the police, according to the norms, Jharkhand’s SPOs are eligible for the same compensation as any other civilian killed in Maoist violence — Rs.3 lakh from the Central government as per a 2009 norm, and Rs.1 lakh and a class-IV government job from Jharkhand government.

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