On 20 December 2019, amid protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Uttar Pradesh police shot at 12 people in Kanpur. Three of them later died at a hospital. The police also cracked down on protestors—vandalising homes and shops and detaining teenagers. Several non-uniformed civilians accompanied the police. Local residents told me that these non-uniformed men also entered people’s homes, burnt their vehicles and beat them up. This pattern was replicated in other districts of the state such as Merrut, Muzaffarnagar, Sambhal and Bijnor.
Later, Sanjiv Tyagi, the superintendent of police of Bijnor, admitted to me in an interview, that non-uniformed men had worked with the police on the ground on 20 December 2019 in the Bijnor district. However, he denied that these men had engaged in any violence against the protestors. He stated that these non-uniformed people were the “police mitr”—or friends of the police. “These are special police officers,” he said. “People from all communities are made police mitr. Their purpose is to assist the police. Police regulation allows this; it is not illegal.” He added, “They have helped us in many instances. In fact, law and order is maintained here because the police mitr have been really helpful here. They work hand in hand with the police.” Barring Bijnor, the state police have not admitted to the deployment of non-uniformed men during anti-CAA protests.
On the surface, the police mitr in Uttar Pradesh—known in different places by different names such as special-police officers, or SPOs, and police mukhbir, or police informers—are civilians who are recruited to aid the force as part of a “community policing” initiative. However, in effect, they snitch on their fellow community members, and serve as a tool to turn people from one community against each other, to doubt and be scared of each other. SPOs have traditionally been used in conflict zones to aid the police in gathering information on communities suspected of supporting insurgents. SPOs are recruited from within those communities and they are expected to alert the police about their fellow community members actions.
In the aftermath of the police brutality in Uttar Pradesh, I set out to understand the murky world of the police mitr in the state. I met Sahab Akhtar, a resident of Begum Purwa, a Muslim-majority neighborhood in Kanpur. In his forties, Akhtar commanded obedience from his fellow Begum Purwa residents. In his brownish leather jacket and pleated trousers, he looked like an aging but scrupulous cop. He was not one though. Instead, Akhtar owned a grocery store. He spent most of his time talking to the locals while his assistants ran the store.
Akhtar was one of the few residents who told me that the non-uniformed men were locals who were appointed as special police officers, known in police parlance as the police mitr. He had himself been an SPO until 2017. He told me the SPOs reguarly provided information on the local community to the police. However, Begum Purwa residents said that until 20 December 2019, they had never seen SPOs being deployed for unleashing a crackdown on locals. The residents despised them and called them mukhbirs, but never imagined they would participate with the police in the direct persecution of their own community.