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Special Police Officers on the counter-terror frontline in Kashmir seek regular jobs

Helping the Government to fight terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir's Special Police Officers want to be given regular jobs

Around 600 youths engaged in counterterrorism operations, mostly drawn from economically depressed populations, have fallen to the militants’ bullets either in encounters or in attacks on them and their families across Jammu and Kashmir in the last over two decades. While 31,000 of such irregular recruits, called Special Police Officers (SPOs), are currently on the payrolls of the J&K Police against nominal remunerations, around 2,000 of them have been on the forefront of the counterterrorism operations.

On 22 November 2021, Maqbool Ahmad Malik and Shehzada Bano received Shaurya Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, from President Ram Nath Kovind in New Delhi. It was posthumously in honour of their son, SPO Ashiq Hussain Malik, who laid down his life while valiantly fighting and killing four top wanted militants in an encounter in Anantnag in 2018.

An illiterate septuagenarian, Sara Begam from Baramulla, received Shaurya Chakra for the gallantry of her son, SPO Bilal Ahmad Magray, who rescued a number of the holed up civilians during an encounter with the militants without caring for his life. Magray was critically wounded in the operation and subsequently succumbed to injuries at a hospital.

SPO Shahbaz Ahmad of Rajouri was similarly honoured posthumously for the gallantry he demonstrated during an encounter between the militants and security forces at Khrew, on the outskirts of Srinagar last year.

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Everyone in the top echelons of the Union Territory (UT) government, from Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to Director General of the Jammu and Kashmir Police Dilbag Singh, showered praises on the sacrifices of these SPOs in service of the nation. They greeted their proud parents.

According to their family members, all the three SPOs had even previously helped the Police and security forces to develop intelligence about the militants’ presence and movement and conduct successful operations, in which several militants had been either killed or neutralised by other means. But they had not been taken into the regular Police service till they got killed.

Whenever the militants want to spread fear, their first victims are the SPOs. So, attacks on the poor, unarmed SPOs have been a routine. Sometimes, even their family members are shot dead. In June 2021, terrorists gunned down SPO Fayaz Ahmad, along with his wife and daughter, when he had gone to his home at Hariparigam, Pulwama.

In 2018, then a top ranking militant, Riyaz Naikoo, issued a diktat asking all the SPOs to resign from the Police. He announced that all those failing to quit would be targeted. It was mainly to minimise the public participation in the urban local body elections being held for the first time after 2005. On 21 September 2018, Naikoo’s men kidnapped and killed three unarmed SPOs in Shopian. In the following week, a number of SPOs announced their resignation, some through videos in the social media.

Unlike the regular Police personnel, the SPOs come from the economically depressed sections of the population. They take risk of life in the hope of being regularised as constables or followers for their contribution to counterterrorist operations. However, in the last over two years, in an apparent shift to the policy, the UT government has converted only those SPOs whose work has led to killing of a terrorist. Those helping in arrests and recoveries have been allegedly left out.

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As per an order of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, which provides funds for their remuneration, SPOs are paid a monthly honorarium of Rs 6,000 for the first 3 years. Their number was 8,590 in August 2019. Some 1,134 SPOs, who had completed 3 years of engagement, were entitled to Rs 9,000 a month till completion of 5 years and 4,436 SPOs having completed 5 years were to get Rs 12,000 per month. On completion of 10 years, 5132 SPOs were entitled to Rs 15,000 while 10,821 SPOs, who had completed 15 years of service were elevated to the slab of Rs 18,000.

On the other hand, regular constables engaged for soft jobs in different wings of the Police, are paid monthly wages of over Rs 30,000 from the beginning. Besides, the SPOs are not entitled to any risk allowances, high compensations and other perks given to the regular staff.

Even as the government has lately announced a 25% increase in the salary of the Police personnel working in the counter-terror Special Operations Group (SOG), it has been limited only to the regular staff and all the SPOs have been denied this hike.

According to the aggrieved SPOs, the previous governments had frequently regularised the services of the SPOs whose performance had resulted either in the killing of a terrorist or his arrest or recovery of arms and ammunition. This would boost the morale of the counterinsurgent force in the Police which is also entitled to out of turn (OT) elevations up to the highest non-gazetted rank. But, no meeting was conducted and no regularisation made from December 2019 to July 2021.

The authorised high level committee conducted two meetings for conversion of SPOs and OT promotion of in-service personnel, first in July 2021 and later in December 2021. “The committee selectively confirmed 400 each SPOs in the two meetings. But it picked up only those encounters in which some militants had been killed. All the citations of the SPOs, whose work has led to arrest of a terrorist or recovery of weapons, have been left in limbo and virtually rejected”, complained a group of the SPOs.

We are told that all the cases, in which the SPOs have helped in arresting terrorists or recovering arms and ammunition, have been kept silently dumped. It has demoralised many of us who are no more inclined to contribute to the counter-terror operations”, said the aggrieved SPOs.

Officials in the J&K Police maintained that conversion of the SPOs, duly recommended through citations by the District SPs, was a “continuous process”. They asserted that the files of the SPOs whose work has led to arrests and recoveries had not been rejected. “These are all under consideration and will be taken up in the next committee meeting soon”, said an official.

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