Clones of Naxalite guerrillas are roaming the outback in the Maoist heartland. Their critics swear at them. The police swear by them.
Three thousand Special Police Officers (SPOs) — former Naxalites and other villagers who have been armed by the police — are the backbone of the planned push against Maoist guerrillas in Chhattisgarh state, the epicentre of an upcoming national offensive against the 42-year-old rebel movement.
“I was just 17, but I was very good. I was leading 33 members in my platoon, some 24 years old,” said the lean and wiry Madka Mudra, now a revolver carrying SPO, once a former Maoist platoon commander from the Mosalmudgu village who was with the rebels for seven years. Now 22, he joined the police in February 2007 because his newly wedded wife asked him to leave the rebels’ side.
With their intimate knowledge of the forest, remote routes, extremely high energy and stamina levels and nimble ways, SPOs — about 40 of them at every police station — are hailed by the police as key to success in all operations. In a region where all operations are done walking, they trudge up to 50 kilometres on operations, guiding the regular policemen.
“They are the kings of the show. The main credit for fighting the Naxalites is to the SPOs,” said Amaresh Mishra, the Dantewada superintendent of police. “Their capability, their dedication, is amazing in an impossible terrain against a treacherous enemy.”
That is so, his Bijapur counterpart Avinash Mohanty says, because “They are the replicas of Naxalites on our side. They have the same aggression.”
That aggression has been blamed in the past for human rights violations.
“There are hundreds of complaints against them, which are not investigated by the police,” said Himanshu Kumar, a local activist in Dantewada town. “Villagers have told us that these SPOs incite paramilitary soldiers.”
Those allegations began soon after the creation of the force, alongside a popular campaign against Naxalites called Salwa Judum that started in 2005 from Kutru village.
It began with a rice-laden tractor.
“There was rice going in my tractor — police rations — and the Naxalites attacked and snatched it. Police beat up everyone and arrested 11 boys,” said 45-year-old Vachan Dunga, who owned the tractor and is now an SPO. “Villagers called a meeting. I said, why should we be afraid of this militia?”
The Salwa Judum movement started.
Four years on, the movement is over. About 8,000 people still live in camps set up during the time for about 50,000 people who fled their villages — or were forced to leave, according to the government’s critics.
Hundreds of former rebels lined up to become SPOs for a monthly salary of Rs. 2,100 in the region of rampant joblessness — wages they now want raised.
Peaceful anti-Naxalite rallies were held for some time, but it soon disintegrated into a cycle of deadly violence from Salwa Judum activists and SPOs on one side, and Naxalites on the other.
The violence has abated. But the SPOs — who also came from the same villages, cannot ever go home now.
“We aren’t going home. If we do, they will kill us,” Dunga said, his voic drowned by an India-Australia cricket match showing on TV. “If we go home, we won’t be able to survive for more than an hour. They will come with bows, arrows, axes, and kill us.
“Our names are now in Naxal pamphlets and literature,” he said, as other SPOs looked on, including two khaki-clad women with bindis on their forehead and sindoor (vermillion) in their hair. “They have declared that if we are found, we will be cut into 70 pieces and distribute in 70 villages.”
A petition against Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court led to an investigation last year by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), whose members travelled to 26 villages in the largest such human rights probe.
“There have been some instances where criminal cases have been registered against SPOs. Many SPOs have also been dismissed from service,” the NHRC report said. “In some instances … the security forces and SPOs seem to be prima facie responsible for extra-judicial killings.”
It added: “Allegations against Salwa Judum of (a) large number of killings are not true.” The NHRC also faulted Naxalites for selectively killing Salwa Judum leaders and supporters, and indiscriminate killings of tribals and security personnel.
A year on, as authorities prepare for the joint national operation, police officers in Bastar are counting on their best men — and are gushing over them.
“Your GPS will fail here. These SPOs are far better than any technology,” said a police officer not authorised to be named by the media. “They follow directions on the basis of the rising sun. They are like swift deer.”
Tomorrow: the way forward