Who are Kashmir's Special Police Officers?

Who are Kashmir's Special Police Officers?
Paid a pittance, used as spies and left vulnerable to daily death threats from Kashmir's militants, SPOs are abandoning the police, reports Haziq Qadri.
5 min read
30 October, 2018
SPOs are often unarmed, but still take on a variety of front-line roles [AFP]
After a police constable and two Special Police Officers (SPO) were abducted and later killed by militants in Jammu and Kashmir's Shopian district on September 21, a wave of fear rippled through the state police apparatus.

A slew of public resignations by SPOs followed in Kashmir's southern region - dubbed "the citadel of militancy" - Pulwama, Kulgam, Anantnag and Shopian districts.

The SPOs insisted that clerics in their home villages read out their resignations on their behalf during the congregational Friday prayers. One woman resigned as an SPO with a video posted on social media. 

Who are the SPOs?

The Special Police Officers contribute more than 30,000 personnel to the 100,000-strong Jammu and Kashmir Police force. Hired as contractors and without formal training, they are assigned to a myriad of jobs including maintaining law and order, guarding top police officers or politicians and staffing road checkpoints.

Since the SPOs are not trained to use a weapon, they are often left with menial jobs such as running household errands in top officials' homes where they are posted. But most importantly, they contribute to the strong human-intelligence grid that works as a key weapon in the anti-militancy operations of the conflict-ridden valley.

As a result, they are viewed with deep suspicion and have become prime targets for militants. They are often threatened.

The September 21 killings followed a series of threats issued by a pro-Pakistan militant outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, to police officers accused of spying on militants and aiding the security forces in their deaths.

Many SPOs have in recent months either avoided meeting their families, or only visit them stealthily under the cover of night

Riyaz Naikoo, the leader of one militant group and a former teacher, asked all SPOs to quit their their jobs in an audio clip that went viral on social media.

Mostly unarmed, the SPOs become an easy target for the militants. Many SPOs have in recent months either avoided meeting their families, or only visit them stealthily under the cover of night. 

The SPOs were first employed in the state police department in 1995 on a contractual basis on a monthly honorarium of 3,000 rupees ($40). Later in 2016, the government decided to up their pay to 5,000-6,000 rupees ($70-$80) per month - depending upon experience and performance.

The performance measures including rating their "excellence" in anti-militancy operations. Though the government promised to include those who show "excellence" in such operations into the regular police force, many SPOs feel cheated - despite having performed above expectations.

Fayaz Ahmad, an SPO since 2003, said he has been doing the job in the hope he will one day be "regularised" and will then have a decent salary and job security.

"How is it possible to sustain a family on 6,000 rupees a month? I have two school-going kids, my wife does not keep well, I am in debt. Even an unskilled labourer earns more than me - and with dignity," Ahmad said.

Why are SPOs attacked?

SPOs form the first line of defence against militants in the Kashmir Valley. They act as the eyes and ears of the counter-insurgency forces, reinforce the intelligence grid by spying on the militants and their Over Ground Workers' (OGW) manoeuvres in the villages.

Though it was not possible to interview any SPOs willing to admit they had helped the state police with information related to militants, Ahmad said he knew several men who had been providing every piece of information possible to the regular police, yet none have been commissioned into the service.

As a result, such SPOs, dubbed "Mukhbir" ["Informer"] in a local lexicon teeming with the vocabulary of armed conflict, become the primary targets of the militants.

Showing that the militants sense the threat of the SPOs, Naikoo told fighters in an audio recording that they were authorised to enter into SPOs' homes and kill them.

"Nobody can stop the Mujahideen from killing those SPOs who fail to resign," said the militant leader.

On the edge

The SPOs, living with threats and meagre wages, have in large numbers started announcing their resignations.

Following the September 21 killings, more than two dozen officers resigned, making their announcements through videos publicised on social media. Others announced their resignation in their village mosques.

These reports are based on false propaganda by mischievous elements

Irshad Ahmad Baba, Tajala Hussain Lone, Nawaz Ahmad Lone and Shabir Ahmad Thoker - who had each been working as SPOs for several years - posted their videos on Facebook and distanced themselves from the police department. All are from Kashmir's southern districts.

Despite the mounting online evidence, Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh said reports of resignations were "untrue" and "motivated".

"Certain reports have appeared in a section of the media that some SPOs have resigned in Jammu and Kashmir. The J&K Police @JmuKmrPolice have confirmed that these reports are untrue and motivated. These reports are based on false propaganda by mischievous elements," Singh tweeted.

The state police also denied the resignations, dismissing reports as "rumours".

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone from Awantipora, who has been working as an SPO for the past seven years, is one of those left with no choice but to continue their jobs, despite the risks, the poor pay, the most meagre of benefits, and the total absence of job or personal security.

The threat to the lives of SPOs does not seem to be on the wane either. The threats are frequently issued, and even civilians look at them with suspicion. In their home villages, many SPOs claim, they have been socially ostracised as people hold them responsible for getting militants killed, or at least being an accomplice to the Indian forces who are intensely disliked by the local populace in this part of the valley.

In such a scenario, the SPOs walk a precarious tightrope; balancing the risks of continuing to work and earning a small amount with resigning to look for one of the rare jobs in Kashmir.

Haziq Qadri is a multimedia journalist at Barcroft Media. Bylines in Guardian, Mail Online, Daily Mirror, Telegraph, BBC India & The Caravan.

Follow him on Twitter: haziq_qadri