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An order that hurts

An order that hurts

Author: R K Vij
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: July 12, 2011
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/an-order-that-hurts/816059/0

The Supreme Court's judgment on Salwa Judum and Special Police Officers (SPOs) stated: "The state of Chhattisgarh shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya commandos, that in any manner and form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person."

The idea that Salwa Judum is an armed vigilante group supported by the Chhattisgarh state has been publicised by the Maoists and other groups, to the extent that the Supreme Court assumes this to be the case. However, the history is somewhat different. In June 2005, villagers from Bijapur district had to abandon their land and flee from Maoist terror. Those who opposed the Maoists took shelter in nearby ashrams and schools and the village Kutru became the centre of the movement. Meetings were held almost every day to persuade the lower-cadre Maoists to live a peaceful life. In fact, scores of such Maoists surrendered. These gatherings were often attacked by the Maoists who had never witnessed opposition from the people whose support they enjoyed for almost three decades. This continued for more than a month until the villagers felt the need of a leader and Mahendra Karma, a tribal leader of the region, joined the movement, naming it "Salwa Judum", a Gondi word meaning "people's peace movement".

The people of Chhattisgarh and Bastar in particular, cannot forget the uncertainty that prevailed in Bijapur. The state government had to provide shelter and food to those who had been uprooted. There was unanimous support for the people's uprising among those who had borne the brunt of Maoist terror. These shelters were loosely called Salwa Judum camps, though in real terms they were little more than relief camps, gradually upgraded with health and educational facilities by the government. These have now taken the form of any normal village of the region.

Freedom of speech is the bulwark of a democratic government, and the right to assemble peacefully is also constitutionally guaranteed to citizens. Though the Salwa Judum has lost its sheen in the last six years, its right to protest against Maoist atrocities should not be abrogated because a few SPOs or Koya commandos (a group of active SPOs) exceeded their limits. Salwa Judum must be viewed separately from the SPOs.

The court held the engagement of SPOs in counter-insurgency activities as a violation of Article 14, and laid excessive emphasis on the lack of education of the tribal SPOs. But does this disqualification, by itself, render them unsuitable for police work? These tribals often outperform their peers, and have simply not had the same educational opportunities. It is also hard to believe that the SPOs, who on many occasions preferred not to take aim at surrendering Maoists, do not understand the essence of self-defence. The police fraternity has taught them more in the field than they could have learnt in classrooms. They have always accompanied the regular police force and worked under their direct supervision.

The court has also raised doubts over the informed consent of these SPOs, suggesting they do not understand the implications of counter-insurgency activities. This assumption, again, rests on the sense that they are inadequately trained, and not fully aware of the disciplinary codes and criminal liabilities that may arise on account of their actions. However, the fact is that they not only understand the temporary nature of the job but are also aware of the risks. Though many were killed in action, they never raised any alarm of indiscipline. Rather, despite Maoist warnings to villagers not to join the force, their number only grew. Forcing someone to join as an SPO was never on the agenda.

A few, who were in fact pressurised by the Maoists to leave, were immediately relieved. This can be corroborated from the fact that many joined the regular force against vacancies that arose. It is agreed that better training and education would improve any force, but there is no substitute for willing and motivated men, with high stakes and determination, to win peace.

Thirdly, the court, without elaborating, has held that nothing beyond the police duties specified in Section 23(1)(h) and 23(1)(i) of the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2007, can be performed by SPOs. These two sections deal with disaster relief and traffic regulation. Notwithstanding sections 37, 38, 39 and 40 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which enshrines the crime prevention duties of any inhabitants of an area, the Court has placed limits on what they can do. It is a fact that not all SPOs participated in anti-Maoist operations. Many, while continuing to live in their villages, secretly provided intelligence and remained on the police rolls as SPOs. An honorarium was paid only to keep their interests intact. They were never exposed to the public as SPOs. Providing information about crime to the nearest police station is a statutory duty of all citizens. Such duties cannot be held unconstitutional only because the criminal activities happen to relate to the Maoists.

- The writer is an inspector general of police, Chhattisgarh



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