The standoff between the Assam police and the agitating Special Police Officers (SPOs) has once again highlighted the consequences of a government going back on its word repeatedly and losing all credibility and respect thereby. Rather, the SPOs now accuse Dispur of employing tactics to confuse and divide them, having first displayed its ‘use and throw’ mentality in ample measure. The Tarun Gogoi government still has not made up its mind how the SPOs will be absorbed in the State security apparatus, even though the issue has been hanging fire for years after the violence in Dima Hasao was doused. When over 400 frustrated SPOs recently set out again from their camps in Dima Hasao on a long march to Dispur, word went round that they were intent on bloody revolt this time with their weapons. An entirely avoidable crisis-like situation was allowed to develop, possibly with mischievous intent of the powers-be. There were sporadic incidents of firing and at least four SPOs were injured. Fortutely better sense prevailed with most SPOs handing over their arms to the Assam Rifles while others were disarmed. Reportedly they are now besieged within their barracks while a few SPOs who maged to come with their families to Guwahati to stage a protest, were put in detention. Meanwhile members of the SPO Welfare Association are being intimidated in different ways not to go ahead with their strike.
In the aftermath of this crackdown, the reported offer by the State government to recruit SPOs for 324 vacant posts in several districts is being considered an obvious ploy to split the 850-strong SPO grouping. This proposed recruitment is again said to be of temporary ture and Dispur is not forthcoming about the criteria or mode of selection. The very fact that the Assam government thought it fit to raise a force of SPOs points to its lack of faith in the large police and para-military apparatus at its disposal in a disturbed State. It all began with Hiteswar Saikia’s strategy to divide the militants and induce a section of them to surrender. Many such surrendered militants were later drafted as SPOs and used as potent weapons against their former comrades. As in Punjab and J&K, there were allegations galore in Assam that those SPOs were nothing better than a squad of hit-men, perpetrating heinous crimes and human rights abuses against other militants and their families. Many of them did the dirty work for rogue elements in the police, paramilitary forces and the army, and some were conveniently disowned or made to take the blame whenever an atrocity raised a public stink. Subsequently all those SPOs quit because the money and perks were simply not good enough.
The Unified Command Structure however needed people who could operate within the populace and gather intelligence effectively. When the DHD and NSCN(K) ran amok in Dima Hasao, a new force of SPOs was raised from homeguards. These brave, young SPOs proved highly useful because of their knowledge of the terrain and local people. But as soon as the Dima Hasao insurgency was quelled, the SPOs’ shelf life was over. Dispur found fault with the educatiol qualifications of many an SPO, declining to recruit ‘under-matriculates’. Left high and dry with little scope for employment, the SPOs saw with dismay how some surrendered militants after were drafted into the BSF, SSB and other security forces despite initial misgivings about their commitment and discipline. And so the present lot of SPOs, most of them origilly homeguards, are now seeking a more honourable livelihood. After all, it is common knowledge how shamefully homeguards are exploited by the police and made to carry out humiliating chores. When the SPOs set out on a long march to Guwahati in September last year, they were stopped near Lumding and sent back with promises of recruitment into the Assam Industrial Security Force (AISF). Breaking that promise and now seeking to divide and neutralise these erstwhile law-enforcers, the Tarun Gogoi government has set another example of official betrayal. In a State where most police stations and outposts are severely understaffed with little focus on fighting crime, these SPOs can still make a significant difference if employed and harnessed properly.