On Thursday morning, two AK-47-wielding Special Police Officers (SPOs) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police quietly made their way out of Pulwama District Lines amid the Eid festivities. Barely 24 hours later, their bodies were retrieved from the smouldering rubble of an encounter site in the same district.
The two former SPOs — Shabir Ahmad of Tujan in Pulwama and Suliman Ahmad of Uthmulla in Shopian — had left the force to join the ranks of militants. They were among four militants killed in an encounter with security forces in Pulwama's Panjran Lassipora area on Friday morning.
A police official said that a joint team of the army, CRPF and Special Operations Group (SOG) surrounded the Panjra Lassipora village following inputs about the presence of militants on Thursday evening. While the searches were being conducted, the official said, the militants hiding in the area fired upon the forces, who retaliated, leading to an encounter.
Shabir and Suliman did not have any relatives who had militant links, and it may never become clear as to what made them take such a dangerous step.
The SPOs had reportedly signed up for militancy less than 24 hours before the encounter. What prompted them to shift their loyalties is still a matter of investigation. Their grief-stricken families and villagers are equally clueless. “What can we say? We never saw it coming,” said Mudasir Ahmad, a cousin of Shabir.
In fact, no one did. But that’s how the situation has been ever since the new-age militancy gripped the Valley. Post-2015, every now and then, some new SPO deserts the forces' ranks, announces his entry into militancy on social media, and then remains in obscurity, until his fate is sealed in an encounter.
One such person was Raqib Bashir, an SPO-turned-Hizbul Mujahideen militant from Zadoora village of Pulwama. Bashir had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in November 2015, barely five months after a group led by Burhan Wani posted their photos on social media, in which they were seen without masks in the jungles of south Kashmir.
More recently, in September last year, SPO Adil Bashir fled with eight rifles from the official residence of former PDP MLA Ajaz Ahmed Mir in Srinagar. Mir was in Jammu at the time of the incident. Bashir had also taken away Mir's licensed pistol. A reward of Rs 2 lakh was announced for anyone capturing the SPO with the weapons.
While several SPOs-turned-militants have been gunned down by security forces, some SPOs who remained with the force were killed by militants for what they called "strengthening the roots of occupation in Kashmir”.
Earlier, SPOs were largely seen as human shields engaged in the police department on a meagre salary. First appointed by former chief minister Farooq Abdullah in 1996, SPOs were mainly engaged in anti-insurgency operations. Mubashir Rafiq, a lawyer who had unsuccessfully tried his hand at a job in the police department, said, "As ad hoc persons in the police department, they don many hats, including that of an intelligence official, in order to secure a regular police job.”
It is due to the SPOs' role as intelligence officers that militants have targeted them in the recent past.
In September 2018, there was a wave of resignations by SPOs in south Kashmir, following the killings of three policemen in Shopian. In all, ten SPOs had announced their resignations on social media. Although the state police chief dismissed this as “militant propaganda”, a number of videos and messages were circulated on social media in which many SPOs from Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama districts announced their resignations.
To prevent more these resignations, the Centre on 26 September, 2018 hiked the salaries of SPOs from Rs 6,000 to Rs 15,000.
As per official records, about 30,000 SPOs work with the Jammu and Kashmir police department.
"Many SPOs understand the perils of being security assets in a conflict zone," a senior journalist said.
A senior police officer said, "SPOs are bravehearts and constitute an important force in the fight against terrorism in Kashmir. While some of them may have switched camps, a formidable force continues to be at the service of the society and the state with a sense of resilience and devotion.” However, the officer did not go into the details about why some SPOs, like Shabir and Suliman, suddenly desert the police ranks.
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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 17:45:06 IST