If the Supreme Court wants SPOs in the state disarmed, what about other conflict zones?
NEW DELHI ~ The Supreme Court judgment declaring the deployment of tribal youth as Special Police Officers in Chhattisgarh as illegal and unconstitutional has left many questions unanswered. On 5 July, a court bench, acting on a writ petition filed by social anthropologist Nandini Sundar and others, ordered the Chhattisgarh government to immediately disband the SPOs and recall all firearms issues to them so far. There are about 5,000 SPOs in Chhattisgarh who have been helping the police in anti-Maoist operations. Appointed under the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2007, these SPOs are trained for six months and provided with a stipend of Rs 3,000. All of them are below 25 years of age. SPOs have been accused of many human rights violations in Chhattisgarh, including the recent carnage in Dantewada in March this year, when hundreds of tribal huts were burnt down and at least three civilians were killed and three women sexually assaulted. They are also believed to be behind attacks on social activists and members of civil society, including the one on activist Swami Agnivesh. In Maoist bastions, however, police officers say SPOs are very valuable since they know the terrain and are, thus, very effective in the fight against Maoists. Also, some of them are former Maoists, and know the ways of Maoist guerillas.
What the Supreme Court judgment does not specify is why the arming of tribal youth alone is dangerous. SPOs are a feature of other conflict areas as well, including Kashmir. Even with Maoist areas, Chhattisgarh is not the only state that deploys SPOs in anti-Maoist operations. In Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, for instance, the police have recently employed 200 young tribal men as SPOs. Often, they become a target of Maoists. In Gadchiroli, two SPOs were killed last month in a Maoist ambush. In Chhattisgarh, 173 of them have died in Maoist attacks since 2005.
SPOs in Chhattisgarh are drawn from a civil militia called Salwa Judum that was formed in 2005 as a front against Maoists. After severe criticism on account of a series of human rights violations, the government said that it had dissolved the force. But in reality, the Salwa Judum stayed in operation. In court, some SPOs were declared absconding by the police. But recently, some of them were identified as a part of a group that led police forces into three villages in Dantewada (after which they were burnt down).
Though the court has asked the state government to ensure the safety of SPOs, senior police officers worry that they will invariably become Maoist targets. “Once you disarm an SPO, his monthly stipend is also gone, so what will he do? He will return to his village, where Maoists will slit his throat,” says a senior serving police officer in Chhattisgarh. As of now, the state police chief, Vishwa Ranjan, has said that the police will follow court orders and that all SPOs will be provided with police security.
Civil rights groups have welcomed the court’s decision. “The trend of arming civilians with AK-47 rifles and then turning them against their own people is dangerous, and we have seen its repercussions in Chhattisgarh,” says Rajendra K Sail, former state president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
The Home Ministry has not reacted to the judgment so far. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said that he would speak to chief ministers of the affected states to gauge what impact it (the judgment) could have on anti-Maoist operations.