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Caught in the middle

Special police officers of Chhattisgarh battle two fronts: they are targeted by Naxals and face flak from human rights groups, reports Ejaz Kaiser.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2009 20:54 IST
Ejaz Kaiser

Linga Ram (22) used to drive private vehicles before he was allegedly forced to join as special police officer (SPO) in insurgency-hit Dantewada district, about 450 km south of Raipur.

His family, whose principal source of income is farming, had filed a petition at the Chhattisgarh High Court, seeking Linga Ram’s relief from service.

The Court has acceded to the family’s request, and directed the Dantewada police to allow him to relinquish his post. The order comes amidst an escalating battle in the state between Maoists and the security forces.

His counsel Vivek Sharma told Hindustan Times that after Linga’s reluctance to continue as SPO, the police detained him, following which his brother filed the petition.

However, Dantewada Superintendent of Police Amresh Mishra told HT that Linga himself decided to become SPO though he resigned on Thursday after the court’s decision.

“The police did not force him and in fact his decision to quit the job was influenced by his family members,” Mishra said.
The Chhattisgarh police began recruiting SPOs as part of the anti-Maoist operations in mid-2005. The hiring created controversy when it was alleged that the state police were recruiting teenagers.

Before the court’s decision, Linga Ram’s family members lodged a complaint with the Dantewada collector and superintendent of police (SP) to relieve him but nothing came out of it then. It was only after the high court served notice to the Dantewada SP that Linga Ram was produced before the court and his statement recorded.

Notable citizens like historian Ramachandra Guha and former bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma challenged their hiring in the Supreme Court in May 2007 as being tantamount to the state arming civilians.

The police use these young tribals as informants, and rely on them to negotiate little-known and remote forested terrain, which are home to the Naxal guerrillas.

These young people are also the most vulnerable: in Bastar’s sharply polarised landscape (where Dantewada is situated), over 150 SPOs have been killed in combat, or murdered.

SPOs are not in regular employment. Around 3,000 of them in Chhattisgarh, deployed in the Naxal hotbed of the Bastar region, are in combat with Maoist rebels side by side with the regular state police and paramilitary personnel.

The court’s directive, as interpreted by the legal circles here, was aimed to convey to the police that every young person has the liberty to take a decision about himself or herself and the police should not force them to become SPOs.
An SPO in Chhattisgarh gets a monthly pay of Rs 2,150, of which Rs 1,500 is reimbursed from the Centre’s allocated security-related expenditure.

“The roles and responsibilities of the SPO are similar those of a police officer, in accordance with the provisions of the Police Act,” said Pawan Deo, deputy inspector general of police (intelligence).
SPOs get arms training and weapons.

In the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, where jobs are very few, the tribals are encouraged to join as SPOs as they also act as feeders for the security forces involved in waging a battle against the left-wing extremists.

However, the SPOs continue to draw flak from human rights organisations even though their condition is no better than the loosely structured armed village squads, who suffered heavily in violent Naxal attacks.

This is for the first time that the judiciary has had to intervene on behalf of a tribal youth from a Naxal-infested area.
Over the years Chhattisgarh has trained SPOs from among the tribals in the Bastar region. The SPOs on various occasions formed part of Salwa Judum campaign.

The Salwa Judum is a loose anti-Naxal unit comprising civilians, built up by the Chhattisgarh government. This move has been criticised by the Supreme Court.

“Linga joined as SPO on August 27 this year. He informed the court that he hasn’t got his salary so far,” Sharma said.
However, the police remain keen to retain him. “Perhaps they believe Linga’s reported acquaintance with Naxals would be of tremendous use to the security forces,” Linga’s counsel at the Court said.

“Our doors will remain open for him if he decides to come back,” said Mishra.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly said the Naxal problem was the greatest security threat the nation was facing. The attitude of the state police bears him out on this. The state having to set up alternative units to deal with insurgency was unheard of so far.