Bijapur: They were tagged as the terror boys ruling the heart of India`s insurgency zone. Once striding down jungle roads with AK-47s on their shoulders, the ragtag band of special police officers (SPOs) who formed the dreaded Salwa Judum have been stripped off their arms and now fear for their lives.
About 5,000 SPOs, described by right activists as "non state actors" armed by the Chhattisgarh government to kill its own citizens, have been put under security cover in the sprawling 40,000 sq km mineral-rich but restive Bastar region that has for years been the epicentre of the Maoist movement.
On July 5, the government`s game plan changed when the Supreme Court pulled up the government for perpetuating the gross violation of human rights and said the practice of using tribals as SPOs in the fight against Maoists must stop immediately. The court said the use of ill-trained and unqualified tribals as SPOs was against the moral and constitutional mandate of the government.
For the many SPOs, their lives also changed with that ruling.
"It`s unfair to disarm me and then confine me in a police station. I have been leading life like a coward and feeling like an arrested person," Mahendra Sakni, an SPO since early 2006, told reporters the Kotwali police station in Bijapur, about 450 km from the state capital Raipur.
His self-loading rifle (SLR) has been seized and 31-year-old Sakni has gone from being a symbol of terror to being terrorised.
"The government called me about five years ago from my native village Toyanar to take on the Dadas (as Maoist guerrillas are referred to). I risked my life and the whole family, and I produced the best results. But in return what have I got? My weapons have been taken, I have been put in a police station and then banned from moving out," Sakni said.
Chetan Durgam, 32, who is also at the Kotwali police station, finds himself in a similar fix - used by the government against his own people and now fearing for his life.
"The government had given me arms in 2006 and a virtual a license to kill Dadas. I was doing it honestly. Now, suddenly, my weapons have gone. This is cheating because they put my life in danger and now I am scared," Durgam said.
The government, on its part, is going ahead with its plans. "The process of disarming SPOs is in full swing because we have to report back to the apex court in a six-week period about implementation of its order," said an officer at police headquarters in Raipur.
"The moment we seize their weapons, we put them under security cover either at Salwa Judum relief camps or police stations because unarmed SPOs are just like chicken for hungry tigers (Maoists)," he added.
Salwa Judum, which means `peace march` in the tribals` Gondi language, was launched in June 2005 in Bastar where police and paramilitary are currently engaged in a fight to regain up to 10,000 sq km forested areas where Maoists have established their own authority.
Government officials admit that the court order has slowed down the anti-Maoist drive in the state because SPOs were "part and parcel" of the combing squads. Stunned by the court order, the state`s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government plans to move a review petition in the Supreme Court.
"The SPOs were extremely handy to dismantle the CPI-Maoist (Communist Party of India-Maoist) terror network because they are locals and are well aware of the jungle terrain and the Maoists` war game. SPOs had inside knowledge as some had served as low-ranked Maoist cadres, while several were victims of guerrilla violence," a police officer in Bastar said on the condition of anonymity.
Chhattisgarh has witnessed more than 2,200 casualties in Maoist violence since it came into existence in November 2000.
And in this battle for survival, the SPOs suddenly find themselves relegated to a side role -- in the Maoists` line of fire and of no use to the government either.