SPOs: Compounding Confusion

Raising armies of vigilantes, equipped by the State, cannot contain the Maoist menace and will invite greater atrocities against large populations.

The dangers of fashioning alternate policing institutions are palpable: they represent initiatives outside of and, more often than not, uncontrolled by the state, and carry the risks of compounding, rather than resolving the problems of lawlessness and disorder.
SAIR, August 29, 2005

(The) most extraordinary aspect of recklessness that has contributed to rising violence in Chhattisgarh has been the misguided and misconceived Salva Judum campaign... Salva Judum has exposed large numbers of innocent tribals to unacceptable risks… it has taken on the character more of political adventurism than of a serious effort to neutralise the Maoist terror… and constitutes a complete and immature abdication of responsibilities on the part of the state.
Ajai Sahni, March 2, 2006

The 'much-talking judge' does irreparable harm both to the dignity of the court and to the cause of justice.
K.P.S. Gill, "Which is to be Master? Some Observations on the Politics of Justice", 1999

The Salva Judum, which commenced in June 2005, substantially as a spontaneous expression of tribal anger against Maoist excesses and diktats, was quickly transformed into a state-backed movement of armed retaliation. Salva Judum enormously escalated violence in Chhattisgarh, fed Maoist recruitment, polarized society, and discredited state institutions. Nevertheless, within the perverse political culture that had entrenched itself in this State, a number of prominent individuals in the political and Police leaderships became personally invested, initially, in its continuance long after its failure had been inexorably demonstrated, and subsequently, after its manifest collapse, in its transformation into new avatars and its continued justification.

The Supreme Court’s order of July 5, 2011, has brought this unfortunate chapter of state opportunism and abdication of responsibility to an end. Unfortunately, the Court’s order is also marred in significant measure by incoherence, the inability to think things through, to reconcile reality with aspiration, and to make sharp and necessary distinctions between components of a complex issue. It is undermined, further, by the susceptibilities of the ‘much talking judge’, going well beyond the issue at hand to hold forth on matters of ideology and policy on surprisingly superficial grounds. The result is that a matter that could and should have been finally and indisputably settled, will now be subjected to a new round of appeals, and, pending a further and conclusive settlement, result in continued uncertainty and a diversionary campaign by vested interests to salvage and reinvent the more controversial elements of the Salva Judum.

Salva Judum had pitted tribal against tribal, and exposed large numbers of the most vulnerable of India’s citizens to unwarranted risk and distress, even as the state’s regular Forces abdicated their responsibility to enforce order in widening areas of an administrative and security vacuum, where the Maoists had established their disruptive dominance. Hastily armed by the state and flung into direct conflict with the Maoists, with little backing, or even proximate presence of regular Forces, Salva Judum cadres and their wider support base of families and village communities, faced overwhelming retaliatory violence by the Maoists. Instead of sending in regular Forces to protect the hapless tribals, the state sought to exploit Maoist atrocities in its propaganda campaigns and, eventually, when the bloodshed – including at least some cases of excesses by Salva Judum cadres – went beyond a point, simply dragged a large population of over 65,000 tribals out of their villages and into appallingly provisioned ‘relief camps’.

Under rising public pressure and with the intervention of the judiciary, the state sought to reinvent the Salva Judum by appointing a proportion of the armed cadres as Special Police Officers (SPOs), and organizing them into units, unofficially referred to as Koya Commandos, purportedly under regular Police command, sending them out to hunt and kill alleged ‘Maoists’, again, in areas where the regular SFs had little presence or capability.

This was utterly unconscionable, both because it put these poor and ignorant tribals at extraordinary risk, and because it allowed state backed armed groups to operate in areas and in circumstances where there was little accountability. Some excesses inevitably resulted, even as fatalities among SPOs rose disproportionately.

Chhattisgarh has repeatedly put forward the argument that armed SPOs have been used in many other theatres of insurgency – prominently including Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and Tripura. This is, at best, disingenuous. SPOs in these States were used as auxiliary Forces, ordinarily for static duties – such as village defence or the manning of nakas (checkpoints) – crucially, in areas of clear SF dominance. SPOs were an auxiliary or secondary resource, by definition inferior to the regular Forces, and restricted to secondary tasks, in order to free the better trained and equipped regulars for the more demanding work of counter-insurgency (CI). Some SPOs were also sent out with regular Forces for CI duties, essentially to bulk up regular units, but always as a small component of such units, which were under clear command of, and dominated by, regular Forces.

Chhattisgarh, however, stood this model on its head, using Salva Judum irregulars and SPOs as an advance guard, a spearhead, to fight the Maoists, even as better trained and equipped regular Forces were held back, or allowed to abdicate their responsibility. With over 15,000 Chhattisgarh Police personnel and officers already trained at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Kanker, even today, the total strength of State Police personnel deployed for offensive CI operations in Chhattisgarh is under 3,000. There has been a clear defalcation of duties here, and a disproportionate shifting of the burden of CI operations onto the ill-equipped and poorly trained SPOs and irregulars. The Supreme Court is right to have brought this scandalous arrangement to an end.

Regrettably, in its extensive order, the Court has tended to collapse all issues relating to the Salva Judum and the recruitment and use of SPOs into a single incoherent mass, to produce a result that throws the baby out with the bathwater. It has, moreover, adopted one among polarized positions that feed, rather than help resolve, conflict. Sweeping considerations of ideology, rather than of law, fact, or objective conditions prevalent, inform much of the Court’s arguments. A flawed, partisan, socio-economic theory, devoid of any reference to resources or capacities and capabilities of delivery, is read into the Constitution, and becomes the basis for much of the Court’s Utopian rampage into matters of policy that lie squarely in the realm of the Executive.

“The problem rests”, the Court observes, “in the amoral political economy that the State endorses, and the resultant politics that it necessarily spawns.” And again, “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.” The State, the Court insists, pursues “socio-economic policies that cause vast disaffection amongst the poor, creating conditions of violent politics…”

The support for these sweeping observations comes, not from an analysis of the real situation on the ground, or the record of the State’s allocations for ‘tax breaks’ or for poverty alleviation and public welfare; it comes, rather, from selective citations extracted from just a few notoriously ideologically loaded writings, from false and exaggerated literary analogies with “the resource rich darkness” of Africa, the “resource curse”, and “the macabre states of mind and justifications advanced by men, who secure and wield force without reason, sans humanity, and any sense of balance.” These, and not any Constitutional considerations, then become the basis for comprehensive prescriptions of how the State is required to respond to insurgencies and political violence – issues of policy and practice that lie essentially within the purview of an accountable and elected Executive, rather than of judicial determination.

But India is not Joseph Conrad’s Africa. For all our “resource curses” and the unquestionably “macabre states of mind” of much of our political and administrative leadership, there have been dramatic improvements over decades and across vast areas, on most of the indices of human development in the country – though some of these indices remain distressing. And while mechanisms for delivery have been far from efficient, the Court does not even acknowledge the constantly increasing billions of rupees that are invested annually in a wide range of developmental and poverty alleviation programmes across the country. Nor does it recognize the role of disruptive political violence in undermining welfare and developmental goals; or the rampaging and unsustainable growth of population. The Court, nevertheless, insists that our models of economic growth and planning must be ‘sustainable’, but fails to provide – or even outline – any credible alternatives. It does, however, uncritically endorse, on dubious authority, the ‘root causes’ thesis as a justification for Maoist and anti-state violence.

Despite the weight of its politically correct pretences, interestingly, the Court’s order displays an extraordinary contempt for persons without the advantages of a middle class education and background. SPOs, with schooling up to the 5th class or less, are thus deemed incapable of understanding the imperatives of the law, the significance of human rights, of being trained to function professionally, or to act with restraint and decency. Moreover, given their educational qualification, the Court argues that these “youngsters” lack the capacities to understand the risks and liabilities of taking up appointment as SPOs, and consequently, cannot be deemed to have “decided to join as SPOs of their own free will and volition.” Motivated by personal histories of loss and experiences of Maoist atrocity, they are impelled by hatred and a desire for revenge. On the other hand, the ‘regular’ policeman or paramilitary trooper, the Court appears to suggest, variously with his 8th class or Intermediate schooling, easily masters the Constitution and law, is deeply seeped in the culture of human rights, and goes into the jungle to confront the Maoists with the milk of human kindness flowing through his veins, and with a “cool and dispassionate head”.

These are certainly new theories of free will and responsibility, and fly in the face of much of reality, where the uneducated and under-privileged display far greater evidence of humanity and social responsibility than those who are drawn from the highest echelons of society. Certainly, in cases of accident or individual distress in a public place, it is people from such disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than professors or corporate leaders or Supreme Court judges, who reach out and respond most spontaneously. Moreover, higher education has little correlation with a genuine respect for human rights and decency – as opposed to a formal understanding of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Some of the highest ranks in the Police, administrative and political leadership – with all their educational qualifications – have demonstrated little respect for human values in the pursuit of their selfish ends. Indeed, the Court’s unconstrained railing against the ‘exploitative system’ that has been established in India is a forceful (if one sided) argument against the country’s elites. On the other hand, the poor and uneducated often display exemplary social consciousness and responsibility.

The Court’s observations are just arrant prejudice. They crucially ignore the reality that outside Forces, unfamiliar with local cultures and conditions, irrespective of their education and training, have inclined to be more indiscriminate, and often brutal, in their use of Force, than locals. In long-isolated tribal areas, moreover, the local is indispensible – and is seldom highly schooled (the distinction between schooling and education is profound). It is sheer delusion to believe that formally qualified tribals will abruptly appear to back up regular Forces with their local knowledge; or that outside Forces will quickly acquire such knowledge for effective and discriminating CI operations. In restricting the use of SPOs to traffic regulation and disaster relief, the Court acts both arbitrarily, in contravention of existing State and national legislation, and unrealistically, ignoring operational realities and imperatives.

The Court also raises the bogey of a violent backlash when the SPOs are disarmed, and this is something that local Police officers have quickly picked up on. This, again, is ill-informed and misleading. SPOs have been armed and disarmed in other situations as well, without any of the catastrophic consequences that the Court considers likely.

In its sweeping ideological digressions, the Court has neglected the real issues of command and control, the patterns of productive deployment, and the utility of SPOs in the various theatres of successful employment. Rather than focus on the specific aberration in Chhattisgarh, both in the Salva Judum and in the use (or misuse) of SPOs, the Court has chosen to mass every possible argument – both valid and specious – to reject every dimension of the use of auxiliary Forces in situations of disorder. The SPOs have played a crucial role in CI in various theatres, and it is important to understand the specific duties, patterns of deployment and systems of command and control within which they have successfully operated, before an order to virtually dismantle the entire system is implemented.

(The writer Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP)