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|October 31, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Basharat Peer
In khaki uniforms, AK-47 assault rifles slung upon their shoulders, self-conscious, they strut about on the roads of Kashmir. The screeching halt of their bulletproof vehicles usually means trouble for the local population. They don't talk; they don't like arguments. They prefer their guns and batons to speech.
They are the men of the 1000-strong Special Operations Group, an elite anti-militancy force of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Young men, they hail from all the regions of the state and reflect Jammu and Kashmir's various ethnic groups: Kashmiris, Gujjars, Dogras, and Sikhs. Many of them are the victims of militancy in the state.
They are in the headlines for two reasons: killing militants, and alleged human rights violations.
In fact, so strong and so many were the complaints of human rights violations against the SOG that the People's Democratic Party had promised to disband the group if voted to power. The party's manifesto declares: 'A commission would be set up to inquire into the allegations against Special Operations Group/security forces relating to disappearances and custodial killings. We demand stern punishment for those responsible for custodial killings.'
And PDP Vice-President Mehbooba Mufti had declared just a few days ago, "Disbanding the SOG would be our first priority after assuming office as it has committed untold atrocities on the people."
The PDP is now tying up with the Congress party to form the next government in the state, and PDP President Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is all set to become the state's chief minister.
Incidentally, in 1996, Mohammed Maqbool Dar, a south Kashmir resident who was the minister of state for home in the H D Deve Gowda's federal government, had also raised the issue of reforming the SOG.
So what is it about the Special Operations Group that draws so much ire?
The Special Operations Group was raised in 1994 with the idea of 'involving the passive Jammu and Kashmir Police in the anti-terrorist activities and giving a local face to these operations'. The SOG was a volunteer force comprising police officers and policemen. The volunteers came for different reasons: some genuinely wanted to fight the militancy of the anti-India outfits, while some were lured by the incentives offered.
The benefits are many. Every militant killed earns the SOG Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000, according to a police officer. Extra is paid arresting the militants and capturing arms and ammunitions. Then there are the out-of-turn promotions. Hundreds of officers have risen up the ranks while hundreds have policemen have become officers in a matter of a few years, thanks to their stints in the SOG.
The group operates in tandem with the paramilitary forces and some times with the Indian Army. It shares its intelligence with the central government forces. "There are times when we work on our own. But in bigger operations, we work along with other forces, whether the army or the Border Security Force," an SOG officer told rediff.
The SOG has been successful in its anti-terrorist operations but it is under a cloud for human rights violations. Most of the complaints registered with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission -- from custodial killings and disappearances to allegations of extortion and rape -- are against the SOG.
"There are complaints against all the forces but the SOG takes the cake when it comes to rights violations," averred a senior judge at the state Human Rights Commission.
A police officer said, "The SOG is a breed apart. There is no accountability for them. No questions are asked. Nobody keeps an account of the ammunition they use. It is very different from the rest of the police force."
The SOG officers feel that since they are involved in high-risk anti-militancy operations, they deserve some privileges and leniency. "We have to give the boys a free hand and overlook many of their mistakes. Otherwise they would not be willing to die and to kill. That is the way to get results," explained a former SOG officer, who was in charge of a district in the state.
Even the SOG founding father has come under fire. Farooq Khan was the first officer to head a SOG unit at Srinagar in 1994. Currently the senior superintendent of police, Jammu, Khan is under suspicion as the five persons slain at Panchalthan village -- dubbed as the terrorists responsible for the Chittisinghpora massacre -- were found to be innocent civilians. There are chances of his being implicated in the case.
Following the Panchalthan incident, relatives and sympathisers of the youth held a demonstrating which was fired upon by the SOG, killing eight protesters. Being the district police chief and heading the SOG as well, Khan was suspended for some months.
However, the various security agencies in the state are against the idea of disbanding the SOG. Privately, most of the senior police officers argue that it would be a setback to the anti-militancy operations.
Pointed out a top police officer, "The SOG has been at the forefront of the anti-terrorism operations. We are involved in 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the operations. And wherever the forces operate, whether the army, paramilitary, or the SOG, there are allegations of abuse." He insisted that all allegations are looked into.
The officer warned that if it did away with the SOG, the state government would not only deplete the strength of the state police force but would end up having no say in the anti-terrorists operations, which would then be carried out by the Indian Army and the paramilitary, both of which report to the central government.
The SOG officers feel that the force had been instrumental in countering militancy. "It was the SOG that killed the Lashkar guys during the Srinagar airport attack. Then there are so many other names like Hamid Gada, a top commander of Hizbul Mujahideen in Ganderbal," said a senior officer.
But the rights violation allegations against the force seem to overshadow its efficiency on the battlefront.
"People do feel that there have been instances of high-handedness and cases when the law enforcement agencies become an authority beyond the law itself," said M Y Tarigami, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Although Tarigami is not for dissolving the SOG, he emphasises the need for a change. "Today we need to give human face to the state police. If the unlawful activities have to be dealt with, it has to be with lawful means, not by distorting the law."
However, even as the PDP was seeking to do away with the SOG, the Congress was not so keen, forcing Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to mellow his tone. The common programme of the two parties makes no mention of disbanding the SOG.
Instead, Mufti said the SOG personnel would be assimilated and relocated within the regular state police establishments and efforts would be make the police force a more effective and humane instrument for law enforcement. He even asserted that if necessary, some powers would be retained, though they would be used sparingly and the men held accountable for any misuse.
So will the SOG be stripped of its perks and power? Or would it continue to operate under a new name and form?
Only time will tell.
Image: Rahil Shaikh
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