Tackling Maoist menace: Return of Salwa Judum

Published: Tuesday, Oct 22,2013, 18:46 IST
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Maoist atrocities, SPOs, Ama Police, Salwa Judum

As the arc of Maoist violence engulfs Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and West Bengal, the Centre would do well to undo the Supreme Court’s July 2011 judgment that scuttled the Salwa Judum resistance movement against Naxal atrocities in Chhattisgarh. In tacit recognition of the infirmity of this verdict, the Centre last month asked the Odisha government to strengthen internal security with the help of “community policing”, a euphemism for a Salwa Judum-style movement.

Odisha in fact set up the Ama Police system in April this year to combat the Maoist menace after it realised that local people would give real time intelligence to local policemen only if they are seen as friends, which makes community policing imperative. This vindicates the Salwa Judum, and if similar measures are being adopted by States ruled by different parties, the Centre must ensure that Chhattisgarh citizens are not left vulnerable because of the Supreme Court’s misconceived verdict pandering to the egos of metropolitan busybodies.

In Nandini Sundar & Ors vs State of Chhattisgarh (WP No 250 of 2007), Justices B Sudershan Reddy and Surinder Singh Nijjar denounced the Government of Chhattisgarh for claiming “constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as done by Maoist/Naxalite extremists”. Injudiciously comparing tribal resistance to Maoist predators with Joseph Conrad’s account of colonial brutalities in Congo between 1890 and 1910, the Bench declared Salwa Judum illegal and unconstitutional.

The Court disapproved of the State Government appointing nearly 3000 Special Police Officers (Koya Commandos, being mostly from the Koya tribe; the number later rose to 6500) to assist the regular police force maintain law and order. Alleging controversies regarding their training, status as police officers, and use of excessive violence, social activist Swami Agnivesh claimed that nearly 3000 houses were burnt down in the villages of Morpalli, Tadmetla and Timmapuram, women raped and three men killed, in March 2011. Agnivesh and some members of civil society were allegedly attacked by members of Salwa Judum when they tried to visit the villages, despite security provided by the Chief Minister. The Court ordered a CBI inquiry into the incident.

The State Government informed the Court that SPOs were appointed under Section 9 of the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2007, and paid a monthly honorarium of Rs 3000, of which 80% was Central subsidy. They served as guides, spotters, translators, and intelligence sources; were given firearms for self defence and tasked to protect the relief camps for displaced villagers from Naxal attack. Between 2005 and 2011, as many as 173 SPOs sacrificed their lives while performing their duties; 117 were injured. The State Government claimed that disbanding the SPOs would wreak havoc with the law and order situation; it was supported by the Government of India. But the Court disapproved of the appointment of SPOs for anti-Naxal activities, and chastised the Centre for “diminished responsibility” in the matter.

 

Tribal youth, the Court concluded, were being appointed “to engage in armed conflict with the Maoists/Naxalites” as the relief camps and remote villages where SPOs functioned were subject to thousands of attacks. Hundreds of civilians were also killed by Maoists who branded them as “police informants.” SPOs would be amongst the first targets of the Maoists upon accidental discovery of their true role.

The Court expressed dissatisfaction with the training provided to the SPOs; it felt that recruits with a basic educational qualification of standard five could not be expected to grasp subjects such as IPC, CRPC, Evidence Act, Minors Act, Human Rights and other provisions of the Indian Constitution. Though the State claimed they were given arms only for self-defence, the Court felt that the tribal youth would simply not possess the analytical and cognitive skills to understand the complex socio-legal dimensions inherent in the concept of self-defence, particularly the potential legal liabilities, including criminal charges, if the firearms were used in a manner inconsistent with the concept of self­-defence.

A valid point made by the Apex Court was that the State Government was using SPOs to overcome shortages in formal policing structures. This amounts to abdication of constitutional responsibilities to provide appropriate security to citizens by having an appropriately trained professional police force of sufficient numbers, properly equipped, on permanent basis. It said such essential state functions cannot be divested or discharged through the creation of temporary cadres with varying degrees of state control.

But the judgment erred in asserting that the need for a larger, permanent, police cadre precluded the need to recruit SPOs with knowledge of the terrain and ability to mingle with villagers and track the movement of persons and vehicles within the thick forests. It is truly inexplicable that such a judgment was delivered after the April 2010 Maoist attack at Chintalnar, Dantewada, in which 76 policemen were killed, perhaps the highest toll in a single incident.
Despite that chilling tragedy, the Supreme Court ordered Chhattisgarh to immediately cease using SPOs directly or indirectly to counter Maoist activities, and ordered the Union Government to cease directly or indirectly funding the recruitment of SPOs for any form of counter­insurgency activities against Maoist groups. It ordered the State Government to disband the SPOs, recall all firearms issued to them, and provide appropriate security to the former SPOs. On no account was the State to permit any group like Salwa Judum / Koya Commandos to act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person. The Court ordered filing of cases and prosecution of all instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum.
 

This judgment is one of the most glaring instances of judicial shortsightedness, of satiating populist galleries without regard to the grim reality on the ground. In May this year, popular Congress leader and Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma and 18 party workers died in a ferocious attack by Maoists at Darbha in Bastar district. Former Union Minister VC Shukla was gravely injured; he succumbed three weeks later.

In recent weeks, Maoist atrocities are spreading like wild fire, and SPOs by whatever name (Ama Police, Salwa Judum) are an integral part of the State response to this menace. The Union Government must step in to ensure that the lives and liberties of innocent citizens are not sacrificed before judicial fashions masquerading as the high values of the Indian Constitution. Nothing could be a greater parody of the truth.

Sandhya Jain, Editor Vijayvaani | Follow the writer on twitter.com/vijayvaani

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