Suspected militants killed a woman Special Police Official (SPO) in South Kashmir’s Shopian Saturday. How are the SPOs of J&K recruited, and what are they expected to do?
The state’s 30,000 SPOs work alongside 90,000 regular police personnel, and are in many ways the unacknowledged backbone of the force. Under The Jammu and Kashmir Police Act, 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… is not sufficient for its preservation and protection of the inhabitants and the security of property…”. SPOs were first appointed to deal with militancy in 1996 when Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference government was in power.
Initially, SPs appointed SPOs directly, based on need. There was no screening, and appointments were often made on “compassionate grounds”. The power to appoint SPOs later went to the Deputy Commissioners. After the July 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Burhan Wani triggered massive protests, the Home Ministry announced that 10,000 SPOs would be recruited. District Level Screening Committees were constituted under Deputy Commissioners, which recruited SPOs through a proper process.
Men and women between the ages of 18 and 28 who have cleared Class 10 are eligible. Candidates must meet physical eligibility requirements, which includes the ability to run, for men, 1,600 m in 6 minutes and 15 seconds and, for women, 1,000 m in the same time.
At the time SPOs were first appointed, their monthly salary was a paltry Rs 3,000, with the promise of absorption in the regular force after three years of “excellent performance” in counter-insurgency operations. After a revision in September 2018, SPOs with up to 5 years’ experience get Rs 6,000, those with 5-15 years’ experience get Rs 9,000, and veterans with over 15 years get Rs 12,000. By contrast, a regular policeman starts at more than Rs 25,000. SPO salaries are part of the Union Home Ministry’s Security Related Expenditure, and the state government has no say in what they get.
SPOs maintain law and order, gather intelligence, and fight against militants. Women SPOs are exempt from anti-militancy operations. Their only training is a week-long course at which they don’t learn much more than how to wear uniforms and salute officers. SPOs engaged in anti-militancy operations get a short course in handling weapons, but senior police officers say there is a gulf between this training and what regular police personnel get.
SPOs are contractual employees who must have an “excellent” counter-insurgency record to qualify for a regular job. To be promoted as a constable, the SPO must also be less than 37 years old, and meet physical requirements. Failure to qualify on account of age, education or physical measurements could still earn the SPO promotion as a ‘follower’, and appointment as a barber, cook, etc. in the police.
It is, however, an open secret that the promotion of an SPO is dependent on his “proximity to a police officer”. On several occasions, SPOs posted as cooks or auxiliary staff at officers’ homes have allegedly been falsely shown to have participated in gunfights with militants, then promoted to constable or follower.
In 2018, a screening of SPOs appointed over the past six years was ordered to “weed out undeserving” appointees. It was felt that a number were recruited on the direction of politicians; also, the exercise was expected to be a check for links, if any, with militants. Over the last two years, several SPOs have decamped with weapons and joined militant ranks.
Since 1996, police records show, 504 SPOs have been killed in militant attacks. Militants believe police use SPOs to collect intelligence. Police officers claim to have intercepted militant communication from across the border last year asking for SPOs absorbed into the force and promoted as constables to be targeted. The SPOs are often unpopular with the people — during anti-government protests, they are taunted with calls of “panda shath ti bati (Rs 1,500 and food)”.