He works at a saw mill in south Kashmir’s Tral, carrying logs from morning till evening. A month ago, he was a Special Police Officer (SPO) with the J&K Police. He quit his job, he says, after militant threats and a failed attempt on the life of an SPO in his village. Now he wants to hide; he doesn’t want his name out or his face seen. With militants leaving eight SPOs dead in Kashmir this year, he wants to be forgotten for a while.
“Nothing is more precious than life,” the 32-year-old says. “I didn’t want to live in fear. I didn’t want any harm to my family.”
Contractual employees who, till a few days ago, earned a paltry Rs 6,000 a month, the ill-paid, ill-trained SPOs form the unacknowledged backbone of the police force in the Valley. For the first time, the 30,000 men and women — bolstering a police force with duties ranging from fighting terrorism to maintaining law and order, and stretched at a strength of 90,000 — are being targeted specifically by militants. With at least four of the eight who died shot inside their homes in South Kashmir, there have been more than 30 public resignations, and reports of at least three joining militant ranks.
On October 1, one of these SPOs, who had decamped with eight weapons from the official residence of a PDP MLA, emerged on social media posing next to Hizbul Mujahideen militants.
While the authorities continue to deny this, there have been reports of SPOs resigning especially from the four violence-prone districts of South Kashmir — Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag.
A rattled Centre, which is attempting to organise panchayat and civic elections in the Valley from October 8, has announced a hike in the honorarium — from Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 — for SPOs who had spent more than five years in the force. The salary of a constable, the lowest-ranked policeman, in comparison, is Rs 23,000.
The J&K Police recently held a crowd-funding campaign for over 500 SPOs killed in counter-insurgency operations and militant attacks since 1996. All that the campaign managed to generate was Rs 6.54 lakh.
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….”
It was in 1996, during the reign of the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference, that the government first appointed SPOs to deal with militancy. Offered Rs 3,000 a month, they were to be absorbed into the police force after three years, provided they showed “excellent performance” in counter-insurgency operations.
Unlike regular policemen, the salary of SPOs comes from the Union Home Ministry’s Security Related Expenditure. It is the ministry that takes a call on any changes to this remuneration, with the state government having little say in it.
Initially, the SPOs were appointed directly by superintendents of police without any screening. In 2016, in the wake of the protests triggered by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing, the Union Home Ministry announced that 10,000 SPOs would be recruited through District Level Screening Committees headed by respective deputy commissioners.
Any man or woman between the ages of 18 and 28 is eligible to apply. The candidate should have passed Class 10 and needs to clear physical tests conducted by the recruiting body. While the men have to run 1,600 metres in no more than 6 minutes and 15 seconds, women candidates must complete at least 1,000 metres in that time.
While male SPOs are involved in both counter-insurgency and law and order duties, women SPOs are deployed for law and order and hence have not been attacked by militants so far. However, of late, militants have issued threats to women SPOs too, asking them to resign from their jobs, with at least one putting in her papers.
Unlike now, for many years, the only attack on SPOs was the ridicule they faced during anti-government protests, including taunts from protesters on the meagre compensation they got for the job they did: “Panda shath ti bati (Rs 1,500 and rice)”.
Ironically, it is the mention of the clause “excellent performance in counter-insurgency operations” in their service rules that has landed SPOs in the cross-hairs of militants. They are being targeted for being “the primary source of intelligence collection” for police. Police officials claim to have intercepted a militant communication from across the border seeking that SPOs absorbed into the regular police force and promoted as constables be targeted.
For the militants, the SPOs are not just “obvious” but also soft targets. A senior police officer admits an SPO is ‘special’ only in name. While at the forefront of counter-insurgency operations, they don’t even get proper training, he says. “They get a basic seven-day training, only on how to wear a uniform and how to salute officers. Those in counter-insurgency operations get another short course on weapon handling. It is not even a basic course in weapons’ training.”
Only those SPOs involved in counter-insurgency are armed, others don’t get any weapons. Says a police officer, “They don’t have weapons and are not trained. That’s why they are becoming targets.” However, he also sees it another way: “The fact that they are targeting SPOs shows that the capability of militants to strike has been reduced to a great level.”
At the same time, with militancy seeing an uptick, the role of SPOs in counter-insurgency has been increasing. While police officials say less than 1,500 are involved in actual operations, in 2017, the government said in the state Assembly that of the 10,000 SPOs recruited after the killing of Wani, 4,200 had been kept “as operation reserve to meet any emergency or demand arising out of the law and order problem and other issues, particularly related to cross-border terrorism, after assessing the ground requirement of a particular area”.
For involvement in these operations, the benefits to SPOs are few. While a regular police personnel gets Rs 48 lakh as post-death benefit if he or she is killed in a counter-insurgency operation or in a militant attack, an SPO is entitled to one-third that — a mere Rs 14.5 lakh. In addition, an SPO, like a regular policeman, gets Rs 15 lakh from the police welfare fund.
Besides, SPOs admit, they can’t be sure of a promotion either. An apocryphal story in police circles concerns an incident from some years ago when a group of SPOs were absorbed as regular police officers for “exemplary courage”. The then director general of police, impressed by the “valour” of one of them, asked him for details of how he had killed a militant. The flummoxed SPO blurted out that he had not been part of the operation, that he was posted “at the SP (Superintendent of Police) sahib’s home”.
SPOs say it is open secret that promotions depend on “proximity to police officers”. There are several instances of SPOs posted as cooks and auxiliary staff at residences of officers being promoted as constables.
For 20 years, Iqbal’s father Mohammad Yousuf was an SPO. In March this year, Yousuf was killed in a gunbattle with militants in Kupwara, along with three other security personnel. Five militants died in the encounter. Says an angry Iqbal, “The government promises to regularise SPOs after three years if they take part in operations against militants, but they are always ignored.”
The family had to run around even for compensation, Iqbal adds. “Nobody in police was of any help. The DG sahib (DGP) himself came but nothing happened… Who will join as an SPO when they don’t take care of their martyrs?”
A cluster of villages in Tral’s Pulwama district were the first to see public resignation by SPOs. In a letter sent to the imams of their local Jamia Masjids, over a dozen SPOs of Pastoona and Luraw Jageer villages said they were quitting.
In a video message, an SPO said, “I am Mukhtar Ahmad Lone… We are getting threats. I am told by my family that I should resign because the situation is not good. I am resigning. I have got an affidavit as a proof.”
In a similar, brief video message, woman SPO Rafeeq Akhtar from Kulgam announced her resignation, after 15 years of service. Both refused to speak to The Sunday Express.
Despite the resignations, or perhaps spurred by them, militant attacks on SPOs have continued. Photos have also been circulated of some, with their addresses, asking them to resign or face death.
On September 21, officials snapped mobile Internet in South Kashmir for two weeks to contain the spread of the videos and photos. “We feared that the (video) resignations would trigger a cycle of resignations,” admits a police officer.
An SPO from Pulwama posted in Awantipora regrets that they are dying just for doing their duty. “It is not just the militants who are after us. The villagers also look at us with indignation. I often think of leaving this job and taking up something else. But I keep working in the hope that I will be regularised one day.”
Still, the 27-year-old fears he won’t hang on to his job for long. “The situation in our village (in Shopian) is volatile,” he says.
The family owns a fruit business. “We are well off, we don’t need this job,” says his mother.
The chief spokesperson of the PDP, which ruled the state till recently, admits that successive governments have ignored SPOs. Says Rafi Ahmad Mir, “We acknowledge that nothing substantial has been done for them. But when we were in power with the BJP, we wrote to the Home Ministry for their regularisation.”
National Conference general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar claims they had approached the Centre when the NC was in power, seeking an increase in the salary of SPOs . “The need is to bring the force on a par with regular policemen.”
But militants are not the only problem of SPOs. Increasingly, they say, police, operating in tense times and wary about SPOs joining militants, have stopped trusting them. There have been accusations of political interference in the appointment of SPOs too. In July this year, the J&K government ordered the screening of SPOs appointed over the past six years to “weed out undeserving and unsuitable” SPOs.
“We are nobody’s men,” says an SPO from Tral posted in Srinagar.
The SPO from Tral who quit recently says the fear doesn’t go away. “Earlier, I feared only the militants. Now that I have resigned, I fear police will turn against me”.
The eight who died this year
Kulwant Singh, 43 Two weeks ago, Singh and two other policemen were abducted by suspected militants from their homes and killed. Survived by his wife, two children, and parents, Singh was a resident of Batagund, Shopian. An SPO since 1998, he was posted in Kulgam. Singh’s mother Pushpa says she had been under the impression that her son had quit as SPO and was running the family’s garment shop in Kulgam.
Mohammed Ashraf Mir, 43 On March 31, Mir, who had been posted in Srinagar for the last 12 years, had gone to his village Maspuna, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, when he was killed by suspected militants. Mir is survived by his wife and two daughters. His brother Wali Mohammed Mir says that despite Mir’s name being recommended for absorption into the police force, he hadn’t been promoted in around 15 years.
Adil Manzoor Bhat, 21 A resident of Zawoora in Shopian, Bhat was killed in August when militants attacked the escort vehicle of the DSP in Shopian. Survived by his parents and two siblings, Bhat had been working as an SPO for nearly three years. “We have no earning member now. My husband has a back problem and stopped working some years ago,” says his mother Ruqaya Jan.
Mohammed Yousuf, 45 A resident of Kachama in Kupwara, Yusuf was among the five security personnel who died in an encounter with militants near the LoC in Kupwara in March. He had been working as an SPO for more than 15 years.
Ashiq Hussain Malik, 25 Associated with the Special Operations Group, Malik was killed during an encounter at Khiram in Srigufwara, South Kashmir, on June 22. The son of a farmer in Shangus, South Kashmir, he is survived by his parents and two siblings. “We have got no compensation so far,” says his brother Bilal Ahmad Malik, a graduate who is unemployed.
Bilal Ahmad Shah, 25 Bilal was killed in May when militants attacked a police vehicle at Bijbehra in South Kashmir. A resident of Gani Gund Verinag in Anantnag, he is survived by his parents, grandmother and a sister. His father works as a labourer. “He had been working as an SPO for three years. He died on duty, but the government has not done anything for the family,” says his sister Quosar Abas Shah.
Aqib Wagay, 23 Aqib was shot at by suspected militants in South Kashmir’s Puchal village in May. A resident of Panzgam in Pulwama, Wagay is survived by his two brothers, sister and parents. He had been working as an SPO for nearly three years and was posted in a railway station in South Kashmir.
Mushtaq Ahmad Sheikh Sheikh was shot inside his home at Katsoo village in Bijbehara, Anantnag, in March. His wife Fareeda sustained bullet injuries. He is survived by his mother, wife, and two children. ADIL AKHZER