An uncertain future for SPOs in Chhattisgarh

July 07, 2011 08:07 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 01:34 am IST - Polampalli:

In this file photo, special police officers walk at a Salwa Judum  camp in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh.

In this file photo, special police officers walk at a Salwa Judum camp in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh.

It’s proving hard for Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Santosh Kumar Shome to get a full night’s rest; a recent Supreme Court order has made for strange bedfellows. As the sun sets, Mr. Shome hunkers down amongst a collection of automatic and bolt-action rifles and suitcases stuffed with ammunition arranged around his tiny bed in a two-room police outpost in Polampalli in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Chhattisgarh’s tribal Special Police Officers (SPOs) be disarmed with immediate effect. Mr. Kumar is one of many regular police officers to overlook the process. Mr. Kumar’s outpost has no safe house, so the weapons are kept in his bedroom under lock and key.

While the Chhattisgarh police insist that SPOs form a vital part of their anti-Maoist strategy, an ever-increasing body of complaints, petitions and news reports holds the tribal force responsible for a series of violent crimes. This March, The Hindu reported on two days of terror in which a company of SPOs allegedly burnt 300 hundred houses, killed three men and sexually assaulted at least two women. The incident will now be probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Once a militarised settlement bristling with weapons, Polampalli’s men are now divided into those who have guns and those who once had guns. To the former belong members of the District Force and the Chhattisgarh Armed Force; to the latter belong men like Rama.

A short, portly man who looks much older than his 35 years, Rama became an SPO in 2006 when Polampalli’s villagers left their homes and shifted to a guarded police camp 13 km away in Dornapal. “We left our homes and fields during the Salwa Judum. The policemen told us, ‘Become an SPO and fight the Maoists. We’ll give you Rs. 1,500 a month and eventually put you in the police force. So I joined,” said Rama.

For five years, Rama says, he participated in anti-Maoist operations, fought in encounters and carried an automatic rifle at all times. Last evening, he put his weapon in ASI Shome’s bedroom and has since spent his time watching television on Tata Sky. “We are unarmed now, it’s only a matter of time before the Maoists attack us,” he said grimly, “They [the administration] should never have appointed us if this was going to happen.”

In the 58 page order that has separated SPOs like Rama from their guns, Justice Reddy ruled that thrusting a barely literate, poorly trained and poorly paid tribal force into battle against the well-organised army of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) violates Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian constitution that guarantee equality before law and the protection of a citizen’s life and liberty. The SPOs, the court held, also risk the lives of others around them.

Fifty km north of Polampalli, in Sukma, Manish Kunjam contemplates the fallout of the recent order. In 2007, Mr. Kunjam, a former MLA of the Communist Party of India, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, holding the Salwa Judum and SPOs responsible for over 500 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson.

“Thousands of villagers were forcibly put in camps by armed mobs of the Judum,” said Mr. Kunjam, “Many of them later became SPOs.” Mr. Kunjam’s case was eventually clubbed together with that of Professor Nandini Sundar and provided the pretext for the recent order.

In the four years it took for the Court to reach a decision, Mr. Kunjam says he has faced multiple threats to his life, his co-petitioner Kartam Joga was imprisoned for allegedly supporting the Maoists and is still in jail, and the party machinery of the CPI has been comprehensively dismantled in Dantewada.

He welcomes the order, yet feels that the State government must take responsibility for the fate of the SPOs.

“I am against violence of all sorts — whether it is the Maoists or the State,” Mr. Kunjam said, “It is true that the SPOs have committed horrific crimes, but are they to be left to die? I don’t feel that is correct.”

In an interview this week, a senior member of the administration admitted that the State government had not considered the long-term repercussions of appointing ad hoc tribal policemen. “We assumed that the SPOs, police and central paramilitaries would wrest back control of the area from the Maoists in a few years,” he said, “It’s been five years now. The government will certainly think of something.”

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