No more special police. Says the judge

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The Supreme Court bans SPOs, slams Chhattisgarh and the Centre for a flawed anti-Naxal policy. Tusha Mittal reports

Farewell to arms: Young cadets at a SPO training camp in Konta, Chhattisgarh
Farewell to arms: Young cadets at a SPO training camp in Konta, Chhattisgarh

MADKAM MORIYA, 20, is one of 6,500 Special Police Officers (SPO) in Chhattisgarh. Five years ago, he was a tribal farmer living deep inside the forests of Bastar. Everything changed one night in 2005 when armed groups — widely known as the Salwa Judum — appeared in his village. “They barged in, burning homes, burning men alive,” he says. “We had to flee. Then the Naxals burnt what was left.” What he fled to was a state set-up relief camp where “netas asked me to become an SPO”. And so he did. With two months training, he was handed a rifle and Rs 2,150 as an “honorarium” for assisting the joint forces in combating Naxalism.

Madkam Munna, 19 went a step ahead. Naxals had killed his uncle; he wanted revenge. Within six months of becoming an SPO, Munna was recruited into an elite group called Koya Commandos and trained to use SLRs, LMGs, AK-47s and hand grenades. When TEHELKA met him at a relief camp in Chhattisgarh last year, Munna was averaging 20 search operations a month, guiding troops through forests where he once lived.

Salwa Judum, SPOs, Koya Commandos in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has now put all these armed groups under one bracket, as the outcome of a flawed policy that uses tribals as “cannon fodder” and pits Adivasi against Adivasi.

“This case represents a yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy and the reality of the situation in Chhattisgarh, where the state of Chhattisgarh claims it has a constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as done by the Maoist/Naxalite extremists,” the SC order reads. The court was hearing a PIL filed by Professor Nandini Sundar, former bureaucrat EAS Sarma and historian Ramachandra Guha against the Salwa Judum. The PIL holds the Judum responsible for 537 murders, 99 rapes, 103 cases of arson and burning 644 villages.

In its order passed on 5 July, the SC has said the arming of untrained, barely educated tribal youth as SPOs is unconstitutional, irrational, arbitrary, capricious, a degeneration of their dignity as human beings and in violation of Article 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution that guarantee equality before the law and protection of life and liberty.

It has directed the Chhattisgarh government to “immediately cease and desist from using SPOs”, in any direct or indirect counter-insurgency activities, to recall all firearms issued to them, and provide protection to SPOs who have made themselves Naxal targets by assisting the forces.

“We will begin to disarm the SPOs,” says Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan. “They will remain in the relief camps, where they live with their families. Where else will they go? I cannot tell you how I plan to implement the order.”

There is a possibility that the SPOs may now get absorbed in non-combat positions within the police force. “There is talk of a Chhattisgarh Rifles battalion on the lines of the Rashtriya Rifles in Kashmir,” a police source said. “SPOs have been used in Punjab and the Northeast. They may not be filtered soldiers but they are assets because they are locals. We will give them something. We’ll find order in disorder.”

What happens after they cease to be assets? That is what the SC wanted to know. “Chhattisgarh reveals no ideas as to how it expects these youngsters to protect themselves after serving as SPOs,” the order says. Turning the “national security” paradigm on its head, the apex court describes the state as acting in a manner that “may cause grievous harm to national interest”. “The root cause of the problem and solution lie elsewhere,” says the order, pointing to the “the culture of unrestrained selfishness and greed spawned by the modern neo-liberal economic ideology”. It concludes by saying “lawless violence in response to Maoist insurgency has not, and will not” solve the crisis.

In its widest interpretation, the SC order is path-breaking because it questions the fundamentals of India’s development model. “On the one hand, the State subsidises the private sector, giving it tax break after tax break, while simultaneously citing lack of revenues as the primary reason for not fulfilling its obligations to provide adequate cover to the poor through social welfare measures. On the other hand, the State seeks to arm the youngsters amongst the poor with guns to combat the anger and unrest, amongst the poor.”

In the context of the Naxal insurgency, the SC order is especially significant because it questions the concept of SPOs — a key navigating tool of the joint forces. Both the Union and Chhattisgarh governments say that SPOs are distinct from the Salwa Judum because the Indian Police Act —and subsequently the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2007 — allows for the creation of this temporary post.

In January 2009, the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram publicly approved the use of SPOs in anti-Naxal operations. “Special Police Officers have played a useful role and should be appointed wherever required,” he said addressing chief ministers of the seven Naxal-affected states.

In 2010, the home ministry sanctioned funds for 12,000 SPOs across five Naxal affected states. According to an August 2010 home ministry report, the honorarium for SPOs was raised from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 per month and the ratio of cost sharing per SPO between the Centre and the states was fixed at 80:20.

The Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh has been controversial since its inception. For its supporters, the Judum is a voluntary, non-political and peaceful movement of local people uniting against the insurgents. For its detractors, it is a ruthless militia comprising mostly local tribals, raised and armed by the state, in 2005, to fight the Naxals. They hold it responsible for burning 644 villages and displacing thousands of villagers.

In April 2008, an Administrative Reforms Commission headed by now Law Minister Veerappa Moily recommended the disbanding of the Salwa Judum. “You cannot give arms to civilians and allow them to kill,” an SC Bench told the Chhattisgarh government in 2008. In all subsequent affidavits, the government assured the SC that the Judum was on its way out and “denied emphatically” that “private citizens are being provided with arms”.

IN JUNE 2010, TEHELKA reported that despite government claims, the Judum continued to fuel a proxy civil war in Chhattisgarh, showing why in the complex realities of Ground Zero, this distinction between private and public citizens does not hold (The Line of No Control, 26 June 2010). When it was launched in 2005, the Judum split Bastar into relief camps and villages, the roadside and the interiors, the State and the Naxals. It left no other options. SPOs were recruited from the displaced living in the camps and were therefore inextricably linked to the Judum. This is what the SC has now acknowledged.

The SC refused to accept the Chhattisgarh government’s argument that SPOs are “force multipliers” who are proving “efficient” in combating the Naxal threat. It questioned how semi-literate tribals “who may not have even passed Class V” can voluntarily choose to take arms, be expected to understand the legal contours of “self defence,” and how such employment can be defined as providing for livelihood.

The SC order is significant as it also questions the fundamentals of our development model

The SC verdict also slams the Union government for “adjudicating its responsibility” by not monitoring how its funds are used. It ordered the Centre to “cease and desist from using any of its funds” to support the recruitment of SPOs in counter insurgency activities. At present, the Centre partially funds 70,046 SPO positions in Naxal-affected districts under the Security Related Expenditure scheme.

“This is one of the most amazing judgments since Independence,” says senior advocate Colin Gonsalves. “It makes SPOs similarly appointed anywhere in the country illegal. The judges have used the words rapacious, inhuman, and evil to describe the government’s model of development. That is the strongest possible condemnation by the judiciary in the past 20 years of India’s economic policy. What the prime minister calls development, the judiciary has called rape. That is the crux of the matter. Who is right?”

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
tusha@tehelka.com