A pall of gloom hung in the air in Judumpara as a small crowd gathered at the home of Jaidev Yadav, an assistant police constable killed by the Maoists. Yadav was posted in the police station of Kutru in Bijapur district, part of the southern region of Chhattisgarh where armed tribal rebels belonging to the CPI Maoist have been engaged in a protracted war with government forces.

On 13th July, along with his colleague Raju Telam, Yadav went to the district headquarters to collect his salary. In the evening, both the men boarded a bus to return to Kutru. Mid-way, the bus was stopped by armed Maoist cadres, who singled out the two men and took them hostage. Two other assistant constables Rama Majji and Mangal Sodi, who were following the bus on their motorbike, were also taken into custody. Two days later, four bodies were found on the main Bijapur-Kutru road, bruised and riddled with bullet wounds.

The killing of the four assistant constables has sent shockwaves through Judumpara, which is home to several police families. “Whenever they leave their base station to the district headquarters or other places, we always live in fear for their lives,” said Puja Kashyap. Her husband Timichand Kashyap is also posted at Kutru as an assistant constable. “Coincidentally my husband did not go to Bijapur with the rest that day, otherwise I would have been widowed as well," she said.

Judumpara is one of the oldest camps set up by the Chhattisgarh government for “internally displaced people”, or those who left behind their homes and villages after the outbreak of the infamous Salwa Judum in 2005. Translated as ‘purification hunt’ in Gondi, Salwa Judum was presented by the state government as a spontaneous movement by the region's tribal people against the Maoists, but it took the shape of a state-sponsored civil militia. Often people were coerced into leaving their villages and supporting the Judum. With the tribal community split between both sides, there was massive bloodshed for months on end.

Raju Telam’s brothers recalled how men from their village Telipeta, including Raju, were coerced to accompany a search operation and were asked to identify those villagers who worked with the Maoists. Five men were dragged out and killed by the Judum activists. Raju never went back home. He began to live in Judumpara and work with the police. Paid a monthly salary of just Rs 1,500, local men like Raju became the eyes and ears of the police and paramilitary troops, accompanying them during search operations, identifying suspected Maoists and their supporters in the villages and gathering intelligence.

A change of name

In May 2007, academic Nandini Sundar and others filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court alleging that the state government was using tribal men as cheap canon-fodder in its fight against the Maoists. Four months later, the state government enacted the  Chhattisgarh Police Act to absorb many of the Judum activists as Special Police Officers.

This was struck down by the Supreme Court in its order of July 5, 2011, which said the state actions amounted to "an abdication of constitutional responsibilities" and that it represents "an extreme form of transgression of constitutional boundaries". The order said:
 ‘.....we hold that appointment of SPOs to perform any of the duties of regular police officers, other than those specified in Section 23(1)(h)(to help people in situations arising out of natural or man-made disasters and to assist other agencies in relief measures)  and Section 23(1)(i) (to facilitate orderly movement of people and vehicles, and to control and regulate traffic)  of Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2007, to be unconstitutional.

Facing flak, the government of Chhattisgarh in its cabinet meeting of July 22, 2011 hurriedly promulgated an ordinance to usher in the Chhattisgarh Armed Auxiliary Force Act, 2011.

Under the new act, the SPOs were recruited as sahayak aarakshaks, or assistant constables, on better terms and conditions. Raju Telam’s salary went upto Rs 8,000 and later to Rs 9,300. But the work remained the same. Many assistant constables interviewed by Scroll in Kutru and nearby Jangla, could not differentiate the work they did as SPOs from their duties as assistant constables.

According to rough figures shared by the police, the state drafted around 4,000 SPOs into the Auxiliary Force. The rest refused to be part of the force and returned to their villages, while some had to be removed from the force for dereliction of duty.

Were there any security concerns for those who returned? It was their decision, said RK Vij, additional director general of the state police, responsible for Anti-Naxal Operations. The police department did not keep track of them, nor did anyone seek help from the department.

The ghosts of Salwa Judum

Those who stayed back as assistant constables remain in the line of fire of the Maoists.

Early April in a similar vein, assistant constable Bira Basant had been held hostage for close to a week before being killed. So was Bhagrathi Kartam, who was kidnapped and murdered three months ago.

Both in the case of Kartam, and the four jawans who were abducted recently, the local residents of Kutru, including school children, took out a huge rally appealing to the Maoists for their release. But that made no difference.

Madhukar Rao, one of the key leaders of Salwa Judum, lamented the killings. "It is against the basic rules of war to kill unarmed personnel," he said. "There can be no justification for killing unarmed men in captivity. Killing people will only bring in more security forces."

Could the killings of the assistant constables be seen as the ghosts of Salwa Judum, coming back as reminders of the days when Judum activists killed, maimed and raped villagers? The affidavits collected and submitted by Sundar in the Supreme Court had alleged 500 cases of murder, 103 cases of arson and 99 rapes by Judum activists between 2005 and 2007. The state government admitted on record that of the 3,000 SPOs appointed then, 1,200 were suspended on grounds of dereliction of duty.

Rao denied the allegations of atrocities by the Judum. Had the "movement" been violent and coercive, local people would have never supported it, he said. If there were a few stray incidents, the individuals committing such crimes were alone responsible. Why blame the movement, he asked.

But senior police officers were more matter-of-fact. The Maoists look for opportunities to get back at those who worked with the Judum, said KL Dhruw, the police superintendent of Bijapur. Explaining the immediate impetus for the kidnap and murder of the four constables, he added: “We recently arrested some 14-15 people for cutting the road along the Kutru–Bedre route. This could have angered the Maoists who may have suspected the local recruits had identified the culprits for the police."

In that case, wouldn't it be better for the police to not use local tribal men as policing assistants? "It would be naive to believe that security operations are undertaken only with their help," said Dhruw, defensively. "After all, the CRPF is here for many years now and are now familiar with the terrain and routes."

Nandini Sundar maintained the SPOs-turned-constables would not be getting killed if the police had obeyed the Supreme Court and used them only for traffic policing. The state’s misplaced step of inducting the SPOs into the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Force stands in contempt of the Supreme Court order of 2011, she said.

The order explicitly asked the state government to:
"...immediately cease and desist from using SPOs in any manner or form in any activities, directly or indirectly, aimed at controlling, countering, mitigating or otherwise eliminating Maoist/Naxalite activities in the State of Chattisgarh... to make arrangements to provide appropriate security, and undertake such measures as are necessary, and within bounds of constitutional permissibility, to protect the lives of those who had been employed as SPOs previously, or who had been given any initial orders of selection or appointment, from any and all forces, including but not limited to Maoists/Naxalites."

Keeping the conflict alive

While the ghosts of Salwa Judum continue to linger, there are fresh attempts to resurrect an anti-Maoist civilian front.

In May this year, Chhavinder Karma, son of Mahendra Karma, the Congress leader who played an important role in organising the Judum and who fell prey to a Maoist ambush in 2013, announced the formation of Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, which soon began to be called Salwa Judum Part 2.

Rao was vocally in favour of it. "Chhavinder Karma is a victim, so his emotions will run high," he said. But he admitted that the organisation of the Samiti had not progressed much since the announcement. "Right now, the higher ups have put this on hold," he said.

Meanwhile, unable to protect them from Maoist reprisals, the government has increased the salaries of the assistant constables. "The constables will be now paid Rs. 14,000 per month instead of Rs 9,300," said Narendra Kumar Vental, the Station House Officer at Kutru.

Even compensation packages for the families of the deceased have been hiked. Mandi Telam, Raju Telam’s wife was given Rs 25,000 in cash to tide over expenses incurred during his burial. Further, each family would get a cheque of Rs 25 lakhs in addition to the offer of a government job for any member. As first preference, the families have been offered jobs in the police.

In the absence of any other income to support her mother and her seven siblings, Jaidev Yadav’s daughter, who has studied upto Class 12, has accepted the post of an assistant constable. "Given a choice I would rather be a teacher," she said.

Raju’s brother, 22-year-old Sukuram, however, declined the job, despite the attractive pay. Not only his brother, his father was also allegedly killed by the Maoists. Wanting to escape the cycle of violence perhaps, Sukuram weighed his options and settled for the more modest but safe job of a school peon.