How Chhattisgarh govt betrayed hundreds of SPOs it used against Maoists
In 2005, Chhattisgarh government galvanised and armed more than 6,000 villagers to fight Maoists. Abandoned by the state, they are now staring at a bleak future.
The sky over Cherpal village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur is laden with dark rain clouds. In the vast corn fields, Anita Chetty, a 25-year-old tribal woman, moves swiftly and surreptitiously, creating a soft ruffling sound. Clad in a worn-out blue and red suit, her face covered with a brown shawl, she rushes towards a straw and mud hut next to a pond and knocks on the rusty tin door. “It’s me,” Anita murmurs through a small crack on the door, her forehead dotted with shiny beads of sweat.
“You shouldn’t be here,” her mother responds in a voice faint with fear, wanting Anita to leave immediately. “They came asking for you.”
Anita quickly disappears into the corn fields. In the next few weeks, she will make another risky attempt to visit her home in the heart of Maoist territory in central India – only, she says, if she stays alive.
“I thought I had joined Chhattisgarh police. I didn’t know I would be mortgaging my life,” she says.
In 2005, when Salwa Judum – a government-sponsored vigilante movement to fight Maoists – was active, it mobilised Anita, along with more than 6,000 tribal youth in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-affected districts to work as special police officers (SPOs). In 2011, when the Supreme Court banned Judum and ordered the state government to stop using SPOs in counter-insurgency operations, more than half of the SPOs were absorbed as assistant constables. Many, including Anita, were removed from the force without any explanation.
Watch: Life of a former SPO in Chhattisgarh
Having stood out for taking a position against Maoists, these former SPOs now find their lives oscillating between uncertainty and terror. They do odd jobs, don’t go home because they fear for their lives, shudder each time they hear of former SPOs being killed by Maoists, and are unsure if the government will consider them for any jobs in the future.
“I cannot restart a life in my village because I am on the radar of Maoists. And the government that recruited me as an SPO now finds me useless,” says Anita, who works as a domestic help in a colony 20km from her native village.
All this is in stark contrast to the life she imagined while signing up for the ‘police ki naukri’ and getting trained in physical combat and operating a .303 rifle. “Now I regret joining the force but back then, I felt good wearing the uniform,” says Anita, who began getting Rs 1,500 per month which was later raised to Rs 3,000. Her duties included accompanying police and CRPF troops on road-opening duties, night patrols, combing operations and operating the wireless set. The last of which, she says, she misses the most.
For the state, SPOs such as Anita were dispensable foot soldiers. The Union Home Ministry had told the Supreme Court that the SPOs were to be the state’s version of the Maoist jan militia (people’s force) as “they were locally recruited and were familiar with the terrain, dialect and local population”.
The then Chhattisgarh DGP OP Rathore had told a national daily that there was “no alternative” to training local tribal people to defend themselves, “with firearms if necessary”.
Maoists killed 43 SPOs between 2010 and 2016, as per government data.
“WE FEEL ORPHANED”
“It’s the house exhaling smoke”– that’s how villagers in Shanti Nagar, one of the oldest resettlement colonies in Bijapur, direct us to Parvati Jhaara, a former SPO’s house.
When Judum was active, the state government relocated SPOs to such residential clusters known as ‘camps’ which are replicas of a typical city slum.
Shanti Nagar is a maze of open drains, narrow lanes and light blue-coloured mud-and-brick tiny houses. Stray animals and poultry strut around the colony’s streets. Clothes are hung to dry on power lines.
Parvati, a 26-year-old gaunt, tribal woman with sharp features, is busy distilling mahua (tribal liquor) behind her house in a passage, just wide enough for one person. “You will have to wait for a while. If I don’t finish this order, I will not be able to feed my kids today,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, wiping her watery eyes.
Parvati has been at the forefront of the campaign to highlight the grievances of former SPOs. She led a group of 20 such officers who met the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Bastar range, last month, demanding government jobs.
When Parvati’s fellow SPOs applied for assistant constables’ jobs, she says that she could not appear for the fitness test because she was pregnant with her first child. “Earlier, they made everyone SPOs, including minors, illiterates, people from scheduled castes, other backward castes. There was no parameter. People were treated like cattle. But now when the same people want to work as assistant constables, the government says it will consider age, education and other factors. This is unfair,” she says.
Parvati’s neighbours, most of whom, have worked as SPOs say that they don’t want bandook ki naukri (referring to job profile similar to SPO) but any government job because that was the promise which made them leave their villages in the first place.
“We feel like orphans. The government should not have offered us jobs if it was not certain about them,” says 28-year-old Sahendra Jhaari, former SPO who now runs a grocery shop in Shanti Nagar.
Sahendra says that he got the first hint of him losing the job when his superiors in the police station asked him to submit his rifle. “I was told to take a break until I was recruited as an assistant constable. But that never happened,” he says. “Mine is a genuine case. Mere paas aadesh aur vardi hai,” (I have the joining letter and uniform), says an anxious Sahendra, referring to his credentials as a former SPO.
The joining letter says Sahendra’s job is temporary and he is not entitled for any perks, privileges and pension. “In this case, the government may not have a legal obligation but it certainly has a moral one. When the government discontinued the services of some SPOs after the SC order in 2011, they not only lost a job, but also became vulnerable because they were not in a position to go back to their villages,” says Bastar-based activist Bela Bhatia.Vivekanand, IGP, Bastar range, told HT that more than 90 per cent of former SPOs have been absorbed as assistant constables and other positions for which they were found suitable, and the rest will be given jobs in the next three to four months. “You have to understand that there are many villagers who abruptly stopped coming on duty and now they have suddenly reappeared demanding jobs. We are still trying to accommodate as many of them as possible,” says the IGP.
Bastar-based activist Soni Sori refutes the IGP’s version. Her estimate is that there are at least 300 former SPOs waiting for government jobs, and that’s just in Bijapur. The number will be much higher if one considers people in other districts. “For the longest time, they did not come forward because they were unaware of their rights. Only now they have begun organising themselves. For every one former SPO who is talking on record, there are ten who are silent,” she says.
The choice was between the devil and the deep blue sea. Former SPOs told HT that when Salwa Judum members – congregations of men affiliated to political parties, district and village bodies – toured villages instructing people to become SPOs, saying no to them was not an option. “Har ghar se ek aadmi ko hathiyar uthaana hai” (At least one man from every family has to take up arms), 45-year-old Rama Jumde, a former SPO, recalls the message that was doing the rounds in his village. “We were under tremendous pressure. Refusing the order meant being declared Naxalites,” Jumde says.
He adds that Salwa Judum members threatened people with violence if they did not turn up for their rallies and processions. “Their (Judum’s) men would get to know of families which stayed back, and target them, looting their ration and cattle, burning their houses, and beating the men mercilessly,” he says.
Those who attended these meetings had vermillion smeared on their foreheads as a mark of allegiance to the campaign.
“Videos of the meetings, made by both the police and independent sources, show the police marshalling large crowds dutifully waving bows and arrows and shouting slogans of ‘Salwa Judum Zindabad, Naxalwad Murdabad’ (long live Salwa Judum, death to Naxalism),” academic Nandini Sundar writes in her book The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar. Sundar was also the co-petitioner in the case that led to the ban on Salwa Judum.
These accounts contradict the state government’s description of Judum – a peaceful Gandhian movement created by a spontaneous reaction of the tribal people to counter Maoist atrocities.
Lack of alterative employment propelled many villagers to join as SPOs knowing that they could never return home. Anita Chetty said that the village headman spread the word that even people like her, a minor who had studied only till class nine, could get the job. “It was like a mass recruitment drive. Who does not want a police job?” she says.
“The headmen were in a difficult position: they were damned by the Maoists if they took people to the Judum, and damned by the police if they did not,” notes Sundar.