THE recent Supreme Court ruling disbanding the civil protection force Salwa Judum has delivered a severe blow to anti-naxal movement in central India, especially Chhatisgarh. The naxal sympathisers in the media and the vocal sections successfully portrayed Salwa Judum as some kind of underhand operation of the government. In reality, it is a reaction by the tribals who were unwilling to play into the hands of the naxalites, waging a war against the state.
The idea of Salwa Judum, a Gondi term, loosely translated as ‘(people’s) peace march’ was born in a relief camp in 2005 in Bijapur district, Chhatisgarh. According to the IG Police of the state RK Vij, the tribals who had taken shelter after having been driven out of their homes projected Mahendra Karma, a local tribesman (a Congress legislator) as their leader and launched this group which they called Salwa Judum. The main objective was to protect the tribal inhabitants of the region from the Maoists who were raiding the area to recruit cadres by force.
The state government, reeling under the Red attack, stepped in to arm some of them and pay a honourarium in appreciation of the courage they had shown. According to reports, the government paid as little as Rs 2000 to 6000 each to these nearly 6,500 men who were given the title Special Police Officers. They worked under the regular police force, sometimes accompanying the policemen in missions. The idea of Salwa Judum caught on because it was the first time that the society organized itself to fight the Maoists. This spelt trouble for the marauding naxals as their fertile head-hunt ground was fast getting out of their grip.
That is when they, with their megaphones in the corridors of power and media, started unleashing the campaign against Salwa Judum, terming it as an illegal armed wing of the government and accusing the state of pitting tribals against one another. They alleged that the SPOs were mostly illiterate and as such not fit to be armed. It is another matter that the illiterates in our country become ministers and chief ministers!
The Supreme Court ruling is the mark of success of their campaign. One of the reasons cited by the Supreme Court is the lack of education of the SPOs. The Court also questioned if the recruited SPOs understood the implications of the anti-insurgency operations. This actually amounts to questioning the common intelligence of the tribals. In fact, the tribals of Chhatisgarh would understand it the best as they are the worst victims (next only to the innocent policemen) of the Naxal violence.
The court has held that violations of the law were committed by assigning duties to the SPOs beyond those permitted under the police law. RK Vij has pointed out that not all SPOs participated in the anti-naxal operations. Several SPOs were acting as intelligence providers to the police, which cannot be called unconstitutional. And those who participated did so under the police force. Violations by SPOs could have taken place but that cannot be held a reason for damning the entire scheme.
The best solution to the imbroglio created by the court order is to recruit these SPOs into the state police force. The amount of money paid to them should be enhanced and they must be given basic training in police force. Most of the state governments and the Indian Police Service suffer from shortage of personnel. If rules can be relaxed for admissions into premier institutions in the country, in the name of caste and religion, they can certainly be modified to recruit brave men into our police force. The SPOs know the terrain where the battle against naxalism is being fought. They know the people and can act effectively in providing intelligence input to the police forces. By involving the tribals, the government would be preventing them from being forced into the naxalite camp. This along with sincere development initiatives would rid the region of the red menace.
This is the second case in the past two months the Chhatisgarh government has lost in the Supreme Court. It could be the weak prosecution that lost the state’s case first in regard to Binayak Sen’s bail and now regarding Salwa Judum. The government would do well by ensuring that its case is strong and not easily dismissed by the Court’s scrutiny. For, the courts decide a case on the merit of the evidence and presentation. Salwa Judum was a fair fight, a collaborative effort by the people and the state to quell the Maoist mayhem. The Supreme Court’s verdict, unfortunately, only strengthens the hands of the trigger-happy terrorists.