South Asia

Court ban is 'huge blow' for India's anti-Maoist militia

Special Police Officers in Chhattisgarh
Image caption Special Police Officers are paid about $60 a month

The Indian Supreme Court's order to the authorities in Chhattisgarh state to disband civilian militias has come as a major blow to the government.

The court has said the militias are unconstitutional.

The government regards the armed groups as an important part of its battle against Maoist insurgents.

Chhattisgarh is one of the states at the heart of the Maoist rebel insurgency.

The Supreme Court ordered the state government to disband two groups: the partially state-funded Salwa Judum (Peace Movement) and Koya Commandos, a fully-funded local tribal outfit.

The groups are not part of the regular police force.

The members of the groups - armed and trained by the government - are called Special Police Officers (SPOs). Each member is paid around $60 a month to fight Maoist guerrillas.

The court said that employing such "ill equipped youngsters… would endanger the lives of others in the society".

Currently more than 70,000 SPOs are deployed in various Indian states against rebel forces. There are 6,500 SPOs in Chhattisgarh.

The authorities say the court's decision will seriously affect anti-Maoist operations. They say that the SPOs know the local terrain, dialects and the movement of rebels better than the paramilitaries.

'Helpless'

A senior local police officer told the BBC that the withdrawal of the SPOs would shrink the security presence in Maoist-affected areas.

Chhattisgarh needs 70,000 security personnel, but has only 45,000 of them, say analysts.

SPOs also guide the police and paramilitaries during anti-Maoist operations, so their absence will be felt here too, officials say.

Even the SPOs themselves are panicking after the court order.

"Our arms have been taken away, we cannot move out of the police camp, and I have never felt so helpless," said Dileep Sethia, a former SPO from restive Dantewada district.

Image caption Chhattisgarh is one of the states at the heart of the Maoist rebel insurgency

"Please must ask the authorities to make sure that the rebels lay down their arms or else this will become a one-sided war. Our families will also be killed by the rebels."

Eight months ago, when I first met Mr Sethia, while travelling through Chhattisgarh, he carried a pistol given to him by the state, and headed a 65-member strong anti-rebel militia.

The stocky 35-year-old rebel-turned-militia member boasted of losing "count of the number" of Maoists he had killed in the last 10 years.

Even independent analysts are unsure whether the court's order will truly put a stop to these militias.

A local lawyer, Sudeep Srivastava, said the militias could be resurrected by the state government under different names.

But few doubt that in the meantime the court judgement could come as a blow to other state governments who have been using SPOs to strengthen security.

"All over the country the state has appointed SPOs to sabotage democratic institutions," said human rights activist Harish Dhawan.

The problem is that the colonial Indian Police Act of 1861 legalised the appointment of SPOs, saying it was "acceptable" to hire "residents of the neighbourhood" to quell "unlawful assembly or riots or disturbances of peace".

Clearly, there is only a thin dividing line between neighbourhood watch groups and civil militias in India's Maoist strongholds.

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