SPO’s and Civilians: Or the Great Indian “Police” Trick

June 8, 2010

June 8, 2010

By Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati

35 human beings perished in the IED blast near Dantewada on May 14th, 2010. Who exactly died? This article explores the main targets of the attack, the Special Police Officers or SPO’s – the identity conferred on the SPO’s by mainstream reporting, and the politics behind that identity.

The Media and the Victims: Civilians or Not?

News sources across India reported on the Maoist attack at great length, and condemnations by various civil liberty groups poured in. This attack was somewhat different in nature from earlier Maoist attacks, not only because of the number of casualties involved: this was a rare occasion when the attackers had full knowledge that civilians would be among the victims, and because the intended targets themselves were not from the military or the armed forces. The attack that claimed the lives of 76 paramilitary personnel a month earlier did not kill any civilians, and earlier incidents involving Maoist violence on civilian personnel had been claimed to have been carried out in error, with the true targets being personnel in the armed forces.

An interesting aspect of mainstream reporting of the incident was the strategic use of the words “civilians” and “police”.

While an initial report (in The Hindu, link rendered invalid) suggested that the vehicle was carrying people who were just returning from completing an entrance examination of the Chhattisgarh police, such articles rapidly disappeared, only to be replaced by articles that emphasized that the bus was filled with “civilians”, and also carried members of the “special” unit of the Special Police Oficers (SPO’s), belonging to the official sounding “Koya commandos”. The original article source was changed, and later the whole news about these people appearing for an entrance exam in the police force was said to be “incorrect information”.

The use of the word civilians was increasingly stressed upon in the news articles that came out in the following days. At the same time, the term “Special Police Officer” was deemed self-explanatory. There was thus a very transparent binary: the bus carried civilians, and it also carried the police entrusted with protecting the civilians. The SPO’s were guardian angels who had given their lives in trying to protect innocent people. In the words of Mr. Amresh Mishra, Superintendent of Police (SP) Dantewada, the SPO’s had done the right thing, and boarding the bus (overriding the objections of the bus driver) had been the “correct security measure“.

Does the binary hold up under scrutiny?

What Exactly are “Special Police Officers”?

Hardly any sources bothered to detail who exactly these SPO’s were, or why they were on the bus, though most reports indicated that these men were the true targets of the attack. The words “police officer” were self-explanatory – the adjective “special” called for no particular curiosity.

The only insight about the activities of the SPO’s came from the statement by the Maoist leader Ramanna, who claimed to have carried out the attack. He mentioned that this attack was against the SPO’s and was in retaliation against the rapes and other atrocities they had committed on Goomlipal and other villages. Facts, if true, would hardly inspire confidence in the SPO’s being protectors of civilians.

One newspaper did carry a news item stating that these SPO’s had in fact forced their way onto the bus, against the driver’s wishes, who was in fact concerned that the presence of the SPO’s would endanger the lives of the other people in the bus. But no one elaborated on who these people really were.

On the other hand, most news articles provided the context that Chhattisgarh, specially the region near Dantewada, was the epicenter of the Maoist violence and that there was another large scale attack in the same region that had taken the lives of the paramilitary personnel a month earlier. Facts that had been in the headlines only a month earlier, and was news most readers were already aware of.

Thus, it was a curious case where a well-known fact (“the epicenter of Maoist violence”) was spelled out at great length, but a relatively obscure, but much more pertinent question (“who exactly are the targets – the SPOs?”) was a non-question: SPO’s were by default bonafide law enforcement officials who died protecting ordinary civilians.

The Flea in the Ointment: The Great Indian “Police” Trick

What if SPO’s are themselves civilians, given the legitimizing, sanitizing identity of “Police”?

Yes, the SPO’s are civilians! But not civilians like you and me. They are Civilians who carry sophisticated .303 rifles, specially imported from Switzerland, though they have hardly undergone any formal arms training. Civilians who can stop a public transport vehicle at will and board it (one strongly doubts if there was even a suggestion that they pay the fare). Civilians who have been given an unwritten free license to commit any act of atrocity or murder on the civilians of Chhattisgarh. But despite these facts, and despite the vainglorious epithet of “commandos”, the SPO’s are not and never have been formal members of the military, paramilitary, or any kind of lawful regional or national armed force.

The Supreme Court has declared SPO’s as illegally armed entities.

So why is this fact not mentioned in the articles? Why is the media keeping quiet about the SPO’s, when their history can best shine light on the motives behind the attack?

A-history and Apolitics

Mainstream reporting on the Dantewada incident has generally avoided mentioning the words “SPO” and “Salwa Judum” in the same context, as a cursory search should suffice to establish. This is ostensibly because “Salwa Judum” is already a tainted word; a deeper reason is possibly that mentioning “Salwa Judum” would necessitate a retelling of the violent political history of the region, and pinpoint the exact location of SPO’s in politics – an excursion that is deeply problematic to the apolitical consumption of the “police” identity constructed for outraged urban readers.

The crux of the matter is not the presentation of a fictional history – it is the obliteration of history itself, and the placement of the players in ahistorical, a-geographacial tripartites of civilians, murderers, and protecters.

It is thus necessary to give the victims a political identity.

SPO’s and the Salwa Judum

Let’s go back a few years. The day after the Tata’s signed a 20,000 crore Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the state of Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum, or “purification hunt” was inaugurated by the local Congress MLA and one time petty thief Mahendra Karma. Mr. Karma had claimed that it was a “spontaneous movement” among the tribals in Bastar for getting rid of the Naxal problem in the area. The movement was to be comprised of tribals led by local businessmen and landowners, none of whom were associated in any way with the state or national law or security enforcement apparatus. Shortly after it’s inception, the state of Chhattisgarh declared that it would fully support this movement, even to the extent of providing a monthly stipend to the SPO’s who would be the designated leaders of the movement. A reign of terror was born.

The methods employed by the SPO’s were unique but effective. Simply put, it comprised of burning villages, raping women and killing people, and herding the fleeing villagers into special “Salwa Judum camps”, where they were subjected to further atrocities. The camp denizens had the option of joining the Salwa Judum or live a live of deprivation and squalor. Some 644 villages were emptied in two years, and 300000 people fled their homes, of which 50000 went to the camps, most of them involuntarily.

Interestingly, though there have been many reports of human rights abuses brought against the SPO’s, none have led to any conviction of criminal charge. Was it because these people were civilians, and not members of the armed forces, who could be held accountable? Though most of the attacks led by the SPO’s were backed by the local state police and by the CRPF personnel stationed in the area, it appeared that the actual atrocities were mostly committed by the SPO’s. Specially egregious were these new accounts of sexual violence upon the tribal women, with rape being used as a tool to subjugate and terrorise the population. Women who found that they could not even report such atrocities to the authorities. Some, like Madkam Hidme, did try to take the matter to court, and paid the price as her husband was killed. The alleged rapist still roams free. Others, like the unnamed woman whose face is not shown in this video, poignantly tells the interviewer that all she seeks is justice against the SPO’s who kidnapped her and took her to the police station where she was raped through the night by the police officers before she escaped in the morning. She doubts if she will ever get any justice, though even that will not resort her to become a Maoist and perpetuate the circle of violence.

But these reports could not all be suppressed. And eventually, after the National Human Rights Commission reported on the atrocities of the Salwa Judum in 2008, the Supreme Court declared the movement illegal stating that the state cannot arm its own people. Even the state of Chhattisgarh acknowledged that the movement had backfired and only strengthened the Naxalites, and that Salwa Judum was slowly disappearing from the state. Yet, in reality, the reign of terror of the SPO’s continued unabated, with the support of the state. Latest reports indicating that the monthly salaries of the SPO’s has been doubled to 3000 Rs a month, and that they were actively working with the state and paramilitary apparatus in the “anti-naxal” operations in the area.

It was precisely when they were returning from such an operation, where two “naxalites” had been killed, that the bus they were in was blown up near Sukhma.

The benefits of obfuscating identities

The above details, put in perspective, shed a different light on the incident. No doubt it was a heinous and condemnable attack with no regard for civilian life. The response of the Maoists, who claim to not harm civilians, showed little of such concerns. But the attack shows how the line between the armed forces and the civilians has been blurred, just as the line between Maoists and innocent villagers has been obfuscated by Operation Green Hunt. The SPO’s were in essence using the people in the bus as human shields. Had this been done by the armed forces, it would have been considered a crime under the international human rights protection laws that India is signatory to.

Allowing armed civilians serves the state in two major ways. Firstly, it can commit human rights violations through these agents without being held culpable. Families and individuals affected by the SPO’s who kill, rape and plunder get nothing in terms of compensation, as it goes unrecorded. This is the subject of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the renowned academic and Delhi University professor Dr. Nandini Sundar. Secondly, the state would not have to compensate the combatant civilians (the SPO’s) to the extent that they compensate the members of the military who die in combat.

The new war and the need for a new journalism

In the new war, there are no boundaries, no markers. As Mr. Chidambaram pushes forth on getting full mandate, which includes the use of air power and drones, one wonders what the future is going to be like. The villagers and the tribals who live in the forests have lived in harmony for thousands of years. How can one expect a drone to identify the “problem” elements among them in the lush greenery and bomb them from space, when even people on the ground fail to make the distinction? Arguably aerial surveillance could be good at identifying mineral resources, but how good is it in targeting certain groups of individuals? The failure of this approach is evident even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where more than 90% of the fatalities from drone attacks are that of civilians. How can such an approach even be thought to succeed in the dense jungles?

A great abyss has opened up in Bastar. Far from being the success story of the new India shining, it has come to expose the deep poverty and deprivation faced by millions in India today. And however the media and the government try to cover it, by hiding it with lies and misrepresentations of the truth, it will remain a festering wound which will continues to ooze unless the root causes of the problem are addressed.

These are pulsating, present, political questions. The media’s recourse to ahistorical props and identities takes citizens from one media blitz to another, bewildered and outraged, their consent manufactured.

5 Comments »

5 Comments »

5 Responses to “SPO’s and Civilians: Or the Great Indian “Police” Trick”

  1. naveedkhan Says:
    September 11th, 2010 at 09:48

    what is spo

  2. mohd aslam malik Says:
    September 22nd, 2010 at 02:38

    it is veey good systum

  3. mohd aslam malik Says:
    September 22nd, 2010 at 02:40

    SPO’s and Civilians Great Indian Police Trick

  4. Radheyshyam Says:
    January 4th, 2011 at 02:33

    I join spo my co. 9015153494

  5. Vikas jaiswal Says:
    March 16th, 2014 at 07:02

    Great!

Leave a comment

5 Responses to “SPO’s and Civilians: Or the Great Indian “Police” Trick”

  1. naveedkhan Says:
    September 11th, 2010 at 09:48

    what is spo

  2. mohd aslam malik Says:
    September 22nd, 2010 at 02:38

    it is veey good systum

  3. mohd aslam malik Says:
    September 22nd, 2010 at 02:40

    SPO’s and Civilians Great Indian Police Trick

  4. Radheyshyam Says:
    January 4th, 2011 at 02:33

    I join spo my co. 9015153494

  5. Vikas jaiswal Says:
    March 16th, 2014 at 07:02

    Great!

Leave a comment