By Shivananda H
On April 25, 2011, the Supreme Court of India pulled up the centre and the Chhattisgarh government for appointing Special Police Officers (SPOs) and arming them with weapons in the trouble-torn areas of Chhattisgarh under Section 17 of the Police Act, 1861 and Section 9 of the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2000.1 This has once again raised questions on the counter-naxalite operations being undertaken in the heartland of India.
SPOs were first deployed in 1990 in Kashmir during the height of militancy to assist the security forces in conducting combat operations in limited areas. These are generally recruited from among the locals on a temporary basis because they are familiar with the terrain of specific locations. Their training period is limited to one or two months and they are paid a monthly honorarium that ranges from 1500 to 3000 rupees. This is not deemed to be a regular employment. The SPOs are different from the Salwa Judum though they are generally considered to be synonymous.
On record, they function under the supervision of the state police, but in reality they are an unorganised village force. Some times known as Village Defence Forces, they do not have the capability to combat militants who are much better trained and equipped. Despite being an unorganised force, SPOs are deployed in Chhattisgarh, in the insurgency active areas of Manipur and in left wing extremist affected areas of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. But while Manipur and other states have recently begun to recruit SPOs, Jammu and Kashmir has discontinued the practice since 2008. After 18 years, the Jammu and Kashmir government found the SPOs to be more of a liability since they were found to be harming innocent civilians, extracting protection money and involved in human rights violations.2
According to the apex court bench consisting of Justices B. Sudarshan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar, the 1861 Act on the basis of which SPOs are recruited was a legacy of colonial policing whose validity after the framing of the Indian constitution is suspect. The court expressed serious reservations on whether the appointment of SPOs without any accountability was sustainable in the eyes of the law and questioned the central government for providing finances to the state government for arming them.
The state government has, however, justified the deployment of SPOs in naxal-affected areas on the grounds that they are locals and hence familiar with the terrain, language and the weapons being used by the adversary.3 However, this strategy of pitting civilians against anti-state actors has been counter-productive. There are risks attached to arming youths who are educated up to class V only. When an anti-national mindset group has taken up arms against the state, the government is arming the unarmed. By doing so, the state is encouraging the people in naxal-affected areas to fight against each other. Viewed from another perspective, the basic reason why naxalism has flourished in these areas is the inability of the state governments concerned to provide good governance. Instead of facing the ground realities and framing an implementable strategy to address them, the state government is resorting to short-term defensive plans of securing the naxal-affected areas by arming the people, whom the state instead should be protecting. In due course of time, the Kashmir experience with SPOs is bound to be repeated in Chhattisgarh and other states.
The deployment of paramilitary forces serves the purpose of engaging the anti-national militants in an organised manner and they can be pulled out once the situation improves. But in the case of SPOs once the security environment improves the government will have to disarm and rehabilitate them or consider absorbing them in the state police constabulary. Besides, most of the armed naxals are better organised for conducting guerrilla operations like ambushes, sabotage and tactical assault and these can be handled only by experienced and trained troops. Moreover, in the emerging security environment where even committing the army to anti-naxal operations is being reviewed after the Dantewada incident of April 2010, when 75 CRPF personnel (COBRA) and a policeman were gunned down in an ambush by left-wing extremists in the Mukrana forest during operation ‘Green Hunt,’ the SPO experiment could prove to be disastrous. Given their lack of training, combat exposure and expertise in use of weapons, the SPOs are unlikely to be effective even in the defensive line of action. Therefore, the state and the central governments need to reconsider the policy of arming unarmed civilians as SPOs and look for other options to enhance security. Raising a new armed constabulary like Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) composed of local recruits could be an option, as it would serve the twin purposes of generating employment and restoring security.
1. “SC reserves verdict on validity of special police officers to fight Naxalism,” The Times of India, May 6, 2011.
2. “INDIA: Special police officers in use in armed conflicts, committing rights violations,” Asian Legal Resource Centre, June 2, 2009, available at http://www.sacw.net/article941.html, accessed on May 6, 2011.
3. “Chhattisgarh Enquiry Report,” National Human Rights Commission, available at http://nhrc.nic.in/Chattisgarh.pdf, accessed on May 7, 2011.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/Arming%20the%20Unarmed_ShivanandaH_180511