Have Gun, Will...
It’s difficult to spot any signs of worry on Podiam Mutta’s face as he rocks his two-month-old son Raju to sleep. But it’s clear his mind is anything but at peace. A former special police officer (SPO) with the Chhattisgarh government, he now wants to break from his past and get back to farming like others in his family. “It was a wrong decision to join the force. I do not want to go back there...I just want to return to my village and my fields,” he says from the relative safety of the Banda SPO camp in Dantewada’s Konta block. His fields are close to the forests controlled by the Maoists but it’s not stopping him. It’s risky but he seems glad of the opportunity that came with the July Supreme Court order. The order had asked the Chhattisgarh government to “cease and desist from using SPOs” in any way in the Maoist conflict. The firearms issued to them were also ordered to be taken back.
Mutta is one of the brave ones, caught in a cycle of violence between the state and the Maoists, most others among these ‘state-employed’ tribal youth express helplessness. “If we leave here, we will be killed,” says Selvam Marco, in the nearby Errabore camp. He and his colleagues do little except loiter in the safety of the camp and the police station where they report attendance every evening. Many of those fighting to see these tribal youngsters rehabilitated to safer occupations have been disappointed, for they have now been inducted into the ‘auxiliary force’ with additional salary and benefits.
In its order, the apex court had criticised the use of tribal youth with little education as SPOs—the argument being that they could hardly be expected to give informed consent or understand “the implications of engaging in counter-insurgency activities bearing arms, ostensibly for self-defence, and being subject to all the disciplinary codes and criminal liabilities that may arise on account of their actions”. While the state says it preferred those who had passed at least the fifth standard, many in the SPO cadre come with lower education levels. The SC also had harsh words on how the state was outsourcing the conflict by using these youths as “cannon fodder” at just Rs 3,000 per month and with rudimentary training in weapons and none at all on complex issues like human rights and community policing.
And while they were to be originally engaged in non-combatant roles such as spotters/intelligence gatherers and for maintaining local law and order, they were actually involved in combat operations against the Maoists. Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, says: “SPOs can be armed in places of police dominance for a range of secondary tasks, such as village defence, but they can’t be a spearhead or offensive force where state forces themselves have little influence.” Ideally, they ought to be used only for “subsidiary tasks”, to free the better trained police personnel for more important and dangerous duties. The stats bear out the higher fatality rate: between 2004-11, 173 SPOs died of the 4,000-odd employed, compared to 538 for the 45,000-odd personnel engaged in the Maoist conflict.
The apex court judgement went on to argue that these “dehumanised” tribal youngsters deserve a chance to get back to normalcy. “That some misguided policymakers strenuously advocate this as an opportunity to use such dehumanised sensibilities in the fight against Maoists ought to be a matter of gravest constitutional concerns and deserving of the severest constitutional opprobrium,” it said.
Boil well SPOs share cooking duties at the Konta camp
The court also commented on how many of these youths could use their power to settle local or personal conflicts by branding innocent tribals as Maoists. Activists have been pointing out several incidents where SPOs have committed rape and attacked several villages and gone unpunished. “The principle of punishing the guilty SPOs is intrinsic to any rehabilitation of the innocent ones, and cannot be brushed aside as incidental,” says academic Nandini Sundar, who petitioned the court along with other activists. These transgressions, Sahni adds, happened because the SPOs were not “sufficiently integrated into the institutional chain of command and accountability”. “Most people engaged in a protracted conflict will have at least some negative baggage—anger, frustration, vengeance for lost colleagues and family, lust for the exercise of brute power and hatred for the ‘enemy’ cause. These are sentiments that are held in check by training and harsh discipline,” he says.
Many were waiting to see how the Chhattisgarh government would react to the concerns raised by the SC. In September, the state passed the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Ordinance (CAAPFO) 2011 that slightly improves their employment conditions, benefits and training. Under the new act, all members are required to have cleared at least the fifth standard and those SPOs who haven’t will receive the required years of schooling. The monthly payment has also been upped to Rs 7,000. They will receive an extended training of six months instead of just 60 days and their families will be entitled to Rs 5 lakh as compensation in case of death and a family member would get a government job.
But Sundar terms CAAPFO “straight-forward contempt of court” given that it employs the SPOs to do the same tasks as before under a different name. “It does not in the least address the concerns raised by the court. The judgement was against the use of untrained youth for counter-insurgency ops as unconstitutional in principle, as violating their own right to life and that of others,” she says. “By deploying them as auxiliary armed police, the government is continuing to endanger their lives while playing divide and rule,” she adds, mentioning fresh reports of SPOs beating up villagers. For thousands of these tribal youth forced into combat, a normal life still remains elusive. Usually portrayed as culprits, in a sense, they are also victims.
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Dantewada with Yashwant Dhote in Raipur
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