Emulating the role of a private contractor, the Indian government has recruited a 30,000-strong force in India-administered Kashmir, using them as a tool to suppress the Kashmiri freedom struggle and pitting them against their own community.
SRINAGAR, India-administered Kashmir — Aijaz Mir, a lawmaker in Kashmir, a beautiful valley where a popular insurgency against Indian rule has been raging for the past 30 years, says he treated his security guard Adil Sheikh like his brother.
On September 27, Adil went into a room of the lawmaker’s official residence in Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, apparently to clean it, and stole seven AK-47 rifles besides Mir’s licensed pistol. The rifles belonged to Mir’s seven other security guards who were on leave.
Adil took the rifles to weapon-starved insurgents and became one of them, posing in a picture — that went viral on social media — with a commander of Kashmir’s largest insurgent group, Hizbul Mujahideen.
Mir, the lawmaker, feels betrayed. At the same time he thanks God that he's alive and that no blood was shed before Adil’s flight to militancy.
Before embracing arms, Adil was a special police officer (SPO). An SPO defies categorisation as he finds no place in any conventional police formation.
Though neither a private army, nor a mercenary group, the SPO force has acquired the characteristics of both in the matrix of a long-pending and complex political conflict like Kashmir.
The only difference being that the Indian state itself appears to have assumed the role of a private company to raise and nurture this 30,000-strong force — the size of the Kenyan army — on a shoestring annual budget of about $40-50 million.
Each SPO gets $68-82 a month, compared to about $500-700 plus perks for a regular policeman. Until August this year, insurgents have killed nine SPOs and 21 policemen.
Insurgents also warned SPOs of dire consequences if they did not quit jobs, causing more than 30 SPOs to announce their resignations in mosques and other such prominent forums.
But in a decision that shows how pivotal SPOs are in the Indian state’s fight against the insurgency, the Indian government doubled their salaries to prevent mass desertion.
From this month, an SPO with less than five years of service will get $82 and those with five and 15 years will get $123 and $165 respectively.
The money an SPO’s family receives if insurgents kill him or he dies fighting during a counter-insurgency operation has also been doubled from $20,000 to $40,000.
Their regular counterparts are entitled to about $100,000 one-time payment if killed, plus other benefits that come with the job such as pension, health insurance and gratuity.
An SPO’s salary doesn’t even fulfill the local labour department’s minimum wage standards of $92 per month for unskilled workers and $133 a month for administrative and ministerial staff.
SPOs’ honorarium comes from a kitty called Security Related Expenditure, sort of pocket money provided by the government of India to Kashmir government for transportation of government forces, logistical support and accommodation for Indian paramilitary soldiers that are requisitioned from India in times of emergencies or have been deployed permanently in Kashmir.
For 2017, the fund was $172 million, a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars the government of India spends on army, paramilitary soldiers and police in India-administered Kashmir.
For example, this year’s budgeted expenditure for the Kashmir Home department, which is the parent department of the 100,000-strong regular police force, is $895 million.
Thus, for an SPO, there is incentive in death only. His job is also one of the toughest and riskiest. SPOs patrol streets, visit crime scenes, control pro-independence protests, perform small tasks at police stations, guard and drive vehicles of VIPs and other protected persons.
They cook their own meals at police stations and, like regular colleagues, also pay for it from their paltry wages. They get week-long training in handling firearms and their service carries no weight when government recruits new policemen: an SPO with even 10 years of service is like a fresh applicant.
And, unlike regular policemen, they are not required to take the customary pledge to uphold the constitution and preserve the “integrity of the country.”
“You can say an SPO is a daily wage labourer in police uniform,” a mid-level police officer told me on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media. Labourers in Kashmir earn a minimum of $200 a month.
Given so many cons, what pulls people toward the SPO force? About 10-15 percent of the SPOs, the police officer told me, volunteer to work for the Special Operations Group, a police unit tasked with counterinsurgency operations.
The rule is that an SPO can become a regular policeman only if he informs on the presence of insurgents, or actually participates in gunfights in which militants are killed.
The counterinsurgency grid in the disputed region comprises Indian army, paramilitary forces and a small number of SPOs and police personnel.
The perception on the ground, however, is that the local police and SPO force are leading the war against Kashmiri rebels, turning them into genuine targets.
The district police chiefs, who lead counter insurgency operations, and pro-India lawmakers, who are locally seen as collaborators, are two main sources of recruiting the SPOs. Since both are detested by the local population, the image of SPOs is spontaneously tarnished.
Adil, according to the lawmaker Mir, had campaigned for him in 2014 local Assembly election.
I asked the police officer what did he find common among those who volunteer for counter-insurgency work, which often amounts to grave human rights abuse against the local population. He said, “They talk like they are destined for SOG.” The SOG or special operations group is a specialised unit in police meant for counter insurgency tasks.
The police officer did not elaborate his point. Instead, he said, a network of informers, who are indistinguishable from the local population and need anonymity, is paid from the same SPO kitty.
Those who stay away from counterinsurgency jobs are doomed not only for hard policing but to working in high-ranking officers’ homes as gardeners, baby sitters, cleaners, and drivers who fetch the children of police officers from school, hoping against hope that one day the government might provide them permanent jobs.
Some of them are graduates and some are well into their late forties. Many bribe their way into the SPO force. There are about 4,500 women in the force.
The police in Kashmir, believed to be the second largest employer after education department, are key to what counterinsurgency experts call “human intelligence.”
Here is where SPOs are most useful, being perhaps the only ones in the security grid with an intimate access to whatever might be churning at the grassroots level in the society.
Also, because the SPOs are mostly drawn from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they feel a sense of empowerment and exercise that power over society as an arm of the state. In the process, their families are also neutralised politically to a certain extent.
The SPOs are also offered as somewhat easy targets to the insurgents. When they are attacked, their poor families are advertised as examples of insurgent brutality to score moral points over them, by a state that has little or no moral advantage in the Kashmiri society.
Sustaining SPOs therefore works on multiple levels: cheap employment to bottle dissent, politically neutering individuals with rebellious thoughts, cost-effective intelligence gathering and moral fodder against the politics of rights, especially when Kashmiris raise human rights abuses at international forums, India counters portraying SPOs' families as the victims of insurgency.
It came as no surprise when several stone-throwing pro-freedom protesters were hired as SPOs because that was their only chance to evade relentless persecution dissenters are subjected to in Kashmir.
The police officer said the state’s other motive in employing SPOs cheaply is to ease the lives of those officials who are at the forefront of the counterinsurgency.
He cited the case of a young man who did domestic chores of a senior officer besides office work. The youngster had been an SPO for five years, repeatedly turning down offers to work in the counterinsurgency unit as a means to fast-tracked promotion, saying, “I would rather starve.”
Since he had served the force well, officers also were eager to push his case. So they posted him to the counter insurgency wing but he did not pick up the gun, inform on militants or take part in an operation.
“An officer just wrote that this guy was part of a team that killed a militant in a gunfight. He is now a constable, got training at police academy but still hasn’t left the office. He just is not made for fighting,” the officer said.
For human rights activist Khurram Parvez, the SPO force underscores the state’s exploitation of the vulnerabilities of a marginalised people living in the world's largest militarised region.
“When you hire someone from a close-knit rural society and hammer into him that keeping an eye for militants will bring rewards you are automatically creating tensions in the society,” Khurram said.
Until a couple of years ago, militants had not attacked policemen and SPOs and their families on such a large scale, though persecution of militants’ families by the government forces has been a norm since the insurgency erupted.
That is why Khurram believes that SPOs are both “victims and victimizers.” The problematic nature of SPOs had in July 2011 prompted the Supreme Court of India to ask the government of Chhattisgarh, an Indian state where Maoist rebels have been fighting the Indian forces for decades now, to stop using ill-trained and ill-equipped tribal youths as SPOs and to disarm them immediately. It also asked the Indian government to stop funding the states for recruitment of SPOs.
According to Khurram, the Kashmir government then led by chief minister Omar Abdullah claimed the Supreme Court order didn’t apply to J&K as SPOs were working under the police command here, unlike SPOs in Chhattisgarh where a marauding vigilante group called Salwa Judum held their reins.
The Indian government also contended that the Supreme Court order would hit its counter-militancy operations in Kashmir and northeastern states. In November 2011, the apex court ruled that its order would only apply to Chhattisgarh state.
Khurram asks, “If SPOs are not good for India, how are they good for Kashmir?”
A New Delhi-based human rights lawyer, Warisha Farasat, had argued for extending the Supreme Court ruling to Kashmir as well. In an article she had written after the Supreme Court ruling, she drew attention to the dangers of the group.
She cited the example of an infamous massacre in the Sailan area of India-administered Kashmir, in which the families of three brothers, 19 people in all, were murdered during the night by a group of SPOs assisted by the Indian army.
An inquiry led by a judge of a government rights panel held three SPOs responsible in its final report but none were punished.
“As I travelled around the remote villages in the Jammu region, the excesses of the SPOs became a common feature in the narratives of victim families,” Warisha wrote.
Rights activist Khurram also said that the Kashmir government has declined his organisation, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society’s request for information about the number of SPOs who have been prosecuted for offences. He said his organisation has learnt that many have been sacked.
The police officer who had several SPOs working under his command said that he once caught two SPOs stealing gold ornaments from a house they were searching.
“Afterwards I always supervised searches myself,” he said, attributing such crimes to low wages and frustrating work.
However, despite protests, the government of India has been strengthening SPOs both numerically and financially. In 2016, India’s home ministry sanctioned engagement of 10,000 additional SPOs. Not all have been hired yet.
While India is militarising Kashmir more and more, Kashmiri society is bursting at the seams. On August 30, for the first time in the history of the Kashmiri insurgency, militants abducted 11 kin of SPOs and policemen.
This was in retaliation to the detention of family members of militants. Both sides relented and released the captives. But Kashmiris were left with a troubling question. What if this confrontation escalates and leads to a bigger internecine conflict. After all, they had seen the horrors of an army-sponsored militia called Ikhwan in the mid-1990s, which many believe was a sort of template for both the SOG and SPOs.