They were tagged as the terror boys ruling the heart of India's
insurgency zone. Once striding down jungle roads with AK-47s on
their shoulders, the ragtag band of special police officers (SPOs)
who formed the dreaded Salwa Judum have been stripped off their
arms and now fear for their lives.
About 5,000 SPOs, described by right activists as "non state
actors" armed by the Chhattisgarh government to kill its own
citizens, have been put under security cover in the sprawling
40,000 sq km mineral-rich but restive Bastar region that has for
years been the epicentre of the Maoist movement.
On July 5, the government's game plan changed when the Supreme
Court pulled up the government for perpetuating the gross
violation of human rights and said the practice of using tribals
as SPOs in the fight against Maoists must stop immediately. The
court said the use of ill-trained and unqualified tribals as SPOs
was against the moral and constitutional mandate of the
For the many SPOs, their lives also changed with that ruling.
"It's unfair to disarm me and then confine me in a police station.
I have been leading life like a coward and feeling like an
arrested person," Mahendra Sakni, an SPO since early 2006, told
IANS at the Kotwali police station in Bijapur, about 450 km from
the state capital Raipur.
His self-loading rifle (SLR) has been seized and 31-year-old Sakni
has gone from being a symbol of terror to being terrorised.
"The government called me about five years ago from my native
village Toyanar to take on the Dadas (as Maoist guerrillas are
referred to). I risked my life and the whole family, and I
produced the best results. But in return what have I got? My
weapons have been taken, I have been put in a police station and
then banned from moving out," Sakni said.
Chetan Durgam, 32, who is also at the Kotwali police station,
finds himself in a similar fix - used by the government against
his own people and now fearing for his life.
"The government had given me arms in 2006 and a virtual a licence
to kill Dadas. I was doing it honestly. Now, suddenly, my weapons
have gone. This is cheating because they put my life in danger and
now I am scared," Durgam said.
The government, on its part, is going ahead with its plans. "The
process of disarming SPOs is in full swing because we have to
report back to the apex court in a six-week period about
implementation of its order," said an officer at police
headquarters in Raipur.
"The moment we seize their weapons, we put them under security
cover either at Salwa Judum relief camps or police stations
because unarmed SPOs are just like chicken for hungry tigers
(Maoists)," he added.
Salwa Judum, which means 'peace march' in the tribals' Gondi
language, was launched in June 2005 in Bastar where police and
paramilitary are currently engaged in a fight to regain up to
10,000 sq km forested areas where Maoists have established their
Government officials admit that the court order has slowed down
the anti-Maoist drive in the state because SPOs were "part and
parcel" of the combing squads. Stunned by the court order, the
state's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government plans to
move a review petition in the Supreme Court.
"The SPOs were extremely handy to dismantle the CPI-Maoist
(Communist Party of India-Maoist) terror network because they are
locals and are well aware of the jungle terrain and the Maoists'
war game. SPOs had inside knowledge as some had served as
low-ranked Maoist cadres, while several were victims of guerrilla
violence," a police officer in Bastar said on the condition of
Chhattisgarh has witnessed more than 2,200 casualties in Maoist
violence since it came into existence in November 2000.
And in this battle for survival, the SPOs suddenly find themselves
relegated to a side role -- in the Maoists' line of fire and of no
use to the government either.
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