The Supreme Court Monday pulled up the central and the Chhattisgarh governments for taking recourse to an antiquated police act of 1861 to appoint special police officers (SPOs) and arming them with weapons in the trouble-torn areas of Chhattisgarh.
“What is the rationale of appointing people under the 1861 act after the advent of the constitution,” asked the apex court bench of Justice B. Sudershan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjar.
Even after the constitution came into force, what was the relevance of the act that was enacted during the British rule in 1861, wondered Justice Nijjar, indicating that the old act was for colonial policing.
“You rely on the 1861 act. Appoint the SPOs for three months. Weaponise them. How many of them are there? What is their term? How many times their term is repeated? What is their knowledge of law and the weapons they use? Do they know what is the meaning of self-defence,” said Justice Reddy.
“We are of considered opinion it (practice of appointing SPOs) can’t go on. We have serious doubts about the constitutional validity of these appointments and their implications,” he said.
“You can’t hire people…one against the other. Paramilitary forces are accountable. Who are these (SPOs) people? How can you arm them and let them loose on people?” said Justice Reddy.
The court chided the central and the Chhattisgarh governments during the hearing on a petition by Professor Nandini Sunder of the Delhi University and others, who sought disbanding of the so-called “Salwa Judum” movement, involving the SPOs being appointed and armed by the state government to counter the Maoists.
The court questioned the central and state governments on the training and the procedure being adopted in the appointment of the SPOs.
As Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium told the court that a model police act was being put into place, the court asked how it was financially bearing the expenditure on the SPOs, whose appointment may not be valid under the law or the constitution.
The solicitor general sought to explain the prevalence of the SPOs on the grounds of shortfall in manpower. He said that the SPOs were being appointed from amongst the local people who knew the terrain, language and use of weapons.
He said that appointment of the SPOs was confined not just to Chhattisgarh alone but was also prevalent in other Maoist-hit states.
Justice Reddy said, you appoint the SPOs merely because they know the language, terrain and use of arms. You pay them Rs.3,000 and arm them. “You are dividing the people.”
The court asked both the central and state governments what would happen if these SPOs were killed. Would they be paid compensation? Would their families get any pension? Would they be counted in the category of public servants?
The court directed the central government to file an affidavit to state its position on the SPOs.
The court recorded the statement of senior counsel Harish Salve that Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh would be writing to the chief justice of the state high court to appoint a sitting judge of the high court to probe the incident of arson in two villages and attack on social activist Swami Agnivesh during his visit to the area March 26.
It is alleged that the security forces burnt down 300 tribal houses March 11-16, 2011, in Dantewada district of the state.
The court also asked Chhattisgarh government counsel Salve to furnish the details of the number of SPOs that had been appointed in Dantewada district, what was their term, and how may times their term was repeated.