The killing of Jammu and Kashmir Special Police Official (SPO) Khushboo Jan in her village in Vehil, Shopian, continues the trend, seen over the last several months, of militants specifically targeting this group of contractual employees who work with the regular police force in the state.
Eight SPOs were killed by militants in 2018, taking the total number of these officials killed in counter-insurgency operations and militant attacks since 1996 to over 500. As fear grew among the SPOs, a trend of resignations was seen, especially in the four South Kashmir districts of Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag.
In 1996, when Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference government was in power, SPOs were first recruited to join the fight against militancy. They were offered Rs 3,000 a month, and were told they would be absorbed in the regular police force after three years if their performance in counter-insurgency operations was “excellent”.
The Jammu and Kashmir Police Act says an SPO may be appointed “when it shall appear that any unlawful assembly or riot or disturbance of peace has taken place or may be reasonably apprehended and that the police force ordinarily employed for preserving the peace is not sufficient…”
Unlike the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the salaries of SPOs are budgeted under the Union Home Ministry’s Security Related Expenditure. SPOs used to be appointed directly by Superintendents of Police without any screening; however, following the massive protests after the 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the Union Home Ministry announced that 10,000 SPOs would be recruited through District Level Screening Committees headed by Deputy Commissioners.
Men and women between the ages of 18 and 28 who have cleared Class 10 can apply. The physical test eligibility is for men to run 1,600 m in 6 minutes and 15 seconds, and for women, it is at least 1,000 m in that same time.
Upon recruitment, men are deployed in both counter-insurgency and law and order duties, while women SPOs are deployed for law and order. The killing of Khushboo Jan is a rare attack on a woman SPO, even though they too, had begun to face threats from militants from last year onward.
The 30,000-strong SPO cadre is an important, if inadequately acknowledged, force-multiplier for the 90,000-strong regular Jammu and Kashmir Police. However, even after a revision of salaries in September last year, SPOs with less than five years in the job get a meager Rs 6,000 per month. Those who have put in 5-15 years get Rs 9,000, and veterans of over 15 years get a paltry Rs 12,000 per month. In comparison, a constable, the lowest-ranked regular policeman, is paid Rs 23,000 per month.
Since SPOs are seen as government stooges and enemies of the militant struggle, they are obvious soft targets. Despite being at the forefront of counter-insurgency operations, their entire training consists of a basic seven-day course that does not go much beyond ceremonial aspects. Those in counter-insurgency operations get another short course on handling weapons, but it is not considered adequate by most police officials. In fact, SPOs who are not involved in counter-insurgency operations are not even issued a weapon.