Uttar Pradesh’s Police Mitr: A militia in the guise of community policing?

Begum Purwa residents said that until 20 December 2019, they had never seen SPOs being deployed for unleashing a crackdown on locals. AFP / Getty Images
25 January, 2020

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.

Until the BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, Akhtar had worked as an SPO under the Samajwadi Party-led government between 2012 and 2017. He told me that the police had “manufactured” the scuffle between the demonstrators and the police force on 20 December 2019 with the help of SPOs. Akhtar said he stopped being an SPO because he realised the nature of his job would change under the BJP regime and that he would have needed to be more vicious against his community than he wanted to be. He pointed to the involvement of SPOs in the anti-CAA protests to say that he could not have done anything that could have lead to the death of his people. Akhtar summed up saying, “ab aisi mukhbiri kaun karta”—Who would have done this kind of informing?

In Begum Purwa, I met Shakeel Abba, another local resident, who worked with a team of young Muslim youth to do social work in the locality. He told me that his men had previously helped organise festivals like Eid and Muharram in the area alongside SPOs, but until now, he had never seen SPOs being deployed to beat up people.

Several other Begum Purwa residents, including Akhtar, told me that the SPOs were not the only ones who participated in the police crackdown. According to them, there were several “outsiders” whom they did not recognise. The residents said that they knew the SPOs since they were all locals. But added that there were other men accompanying the police who were neither in uniform, nor locals. Residents said that they might have been members of Hindu militant organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Yuva Vahini. Residents believed that in the name of the police mitr scheme, the police had recruited Hindu vigilantes and brought them to their neighborhood with the intention to crackdown on Kanpur residents.

Akhtar told me that he knew almost ninety percent of the SPOs functioning under the Barra police station in Kanpur. He described them as criminals having more than one case lodged in the police station. He told me that most of the people agreed to become SPOs because the police left them no choice. Akhtar said, “They do this to save themselves, what else? Police tells them that ‘if you stay with us we will not arrest you. You keep doing whatever crime you were doing.’” I asked Akhtar why he became an SPO and how he had managed to leave it. He told me that the police regulation that allowed the recruitment of SPOs stipulated the enlistment of “sambhrant log”—noble people—of the area and not criminals. He considered himself in the category of the upright citizens.

But if the police was actually hiring criminals for gathering information on the community, why was Akhtar taken in? Ashfaq Siddiqui, another Begum Purwa resident standing alongside Akhtar explained, “One out of ten people they take is an upright citizen. So that if there is an allegation that only criminals are SPOs, the police can show people like Akhtar.” Akhtar nodded in agreement. He also told me that it was nearly impossible to stop being an SPO after one was recruited. He said he was only able to quit because he had connections with senior officials in the police administration.

Siddiqui recounted an incident that showed how difficult it was to leave once a person was made an SPO. He said that almost a decade ago the police charged one of his childhood friends, Mohammad Shareef, a resident of Kidwai Nagar in Kanpur, for hurling a bomb in the area. “He was in love with a non-Muslim girl,” Ashfaq said. “He was in his twenties then. When the girl’s family disagreed with their relationship, he wanted to show his power by hurling a country-made bomb in the area. He was arrested and sent to jail then.”

Siddiqui continued, “But when he came out on bail, Shareef had become an informer.” Siddiqui said that on his advice, Shareef later opened a vegetable shop and tried to quit being an informer. He wanted to live a normal life. However, the police soon rearrested him. Shareef has been in jail since.

In the past the recruitment of SPOs had been informal, but it is not clear when the system was introduced within the Uttar Pradesh state police. News reports suggest that the SPOs came to be known as police mitr in 2012. A report published in the Hindi daily Amar Ujala that year says that, in Bijnor district, “for a long time, no new SPOs have been recruited in the police system … A new initiative is being adopted to recruit police mitr along with SPOs.”

Later, in June 2018, Praveen Kumar, the additional director general of police, held a press conference in which he described the recruitment of SPOs as a form of “community policing.” He announced that henceforth SPOs would be hired under a “scheme” called the “S10.” Locals in Kanpur told me that under this scheme, every police officer was asked to enroll 10 people as police mitr. Kumar said the scheme was being launched to make “community policing” more effective and “to maintain better communication with the community.” He said that police station-house officers would be required to make a database of sambhrant log and the district police officials would be required to “constantly stay in touch with them.” Kumar added that the S10 was being done to “institutionalise” the process of hiring SPOs. He noted that in different places, different superintendents of police have adopted this scheme with varying names such as police mitr. Kumar did not say anything about what the members of S10 would be required to do as a police mitr or an SPO, except that the police officials were required to “take feedback from them at the mohalla level.”

According to a news report in Amar Ujala, a few months after the BJP government came in power to 2017, the Agra police was given a target of recruiting 30,000 police mitr in the district alone. Every police personnel was given the target of enrolling at least 10 mitr each. Most of the orders reportedly said that the police mitr should be reputed persons, yet they gave no specifics about the minimum educational requirement of such candidates. One such drive conducted in Noida district in 2015 reportedly had no educational requirement to become a police mitr. Akhtar and Ashfaq also told me that there was no education requirement even for “sambhrant log” to become a police mitr.

According to Akhtar, being an SPO was essentially being an informer. He said, “SPOs would often be asked to give false witness against anyone the police would want them to do.” Akhtar further told me that the SPOs would make money by doing “dalaali”—brokering—on behalf of the police. Pointing to Siddiqui as reference, Akhtar explained, “Suppose the police arrest him and he turns out to be an innocent person. And I got to get him released, the police would say ‘get us some money from him.’” Akhtar told me that this was one of the means by which SPOs and crooked cops made money from local residents. Akhtar added that sometimes SPOs would be forced to frame someone only to extort money from them and there would be constant pressure on them to frame someone regularly from the community. “The station-house officer would say in your ear, ‘you haven’t brought a case to us in so long,’” Akhtar said.

Akhtar added that during his term, SPOs were never engaged in beating up demonstrators. Akhtar emphasised that 20 December 2019 was the first time he had seen SPOs directly clash with people. He told me some of the SPOs deployed near Kanpur’s Eidgaah Maidan that day were his acquaintances. Akhtar said the SPOs fueled up the anger of the demonstrators by pelting stones at them. Once the stone pelting started, he said the police found a reason to fire at the demonstrators.

There is no estimate on how many SPOs are working at the moment with the Uttar Pradesh police. According to a news report in the Economic Times, the strength of the UP police in 2019 stood at 2.8 lakh. If the S10 scheme is used as a benchmark, requiring each police officer to enroll 10 SPOs, and assuming that it is followed through by each officer, the number of police mitr or SPOs in the state would be around 2.8 crore. The total population of the state is around twenty crore, which would imply that there could be one SPO for around every eight people.

I also spoke to two former director generals of the Uttar Pradesh police—Vibhuti Narain Rai and Vikram Singh, to understand the legality of the recruitment of the police mitr, their jobs and responsibilities, their qualifications and the justification for their deployment against CAA protestors. Rai had a career that spanned 36 years as an Indian Police Service officer and also served as the director general of police of the state between 2007 and 2009. Rai was the senior superintendent of police of the Ghaziabad district when the Hashimpura massacre took place—on the night of 22 May 1987, the police picked up 42 Muslims from Hashimpura, a locality in Meerut. They were shot and killed in the neighbouring Ghaziabad district.

Rai said that the police regulation which allowed recruitment of SPOs varied from state to state. Both the former cops agreed that there was a provision for recruitment of SPOs under the UP police regulations but said the SPOs or police mitr can never be deployed for any police work, including for controlling a mob or in a riot-like situation. They had both used the services of SPOs during their respective terms and said that SPOs were only meant for gathering information on a community or understanding the undercurrent within a community. Both the cops also told me that the recruitment of SPOs was not institutionalised in the state police during their terms. They said that functioning of SPOs had depended on requirement of the operating place or the personality of the area commander. Both also agreed that the operation of the SPOs could be abused. Rai said he did not believe a Hindu militant organisation as an institution could have been a part of SPOs. However, he added that the possibility that individual members of such organisations could be a part of the police mitr because the “ideology of the ruling political dispensation” cannot be ruled out.

Explaining the background for the recruitment of SPOs in the Indian police forces, Rai told me that such recruitment was “area specific” and was practised primarily in “insurgency” affected states like Kashmir and Chattisgarh. He recounted his days in Kashmir when he was posted there at the peak of insurgency during 1993 and 1994. He told me that he was in the Border Security Force then and would know the members of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen operating there. Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen was a pro-government milita comprising surrendered militants in Kashmir and was active during the 1990s. Rai said, “We knew Ikhwan members were trained by the army and would close our eyes on their functioning.” Rai said that Ikhwans were recruited under the same policy as SPOs. He told me that such SPOs in Kashmir would often threaten the local residents in their neighborhood with their guns and unquestioning authority but “the forces would pretend not to see it.” Rai said the thinking in the security establishment was that, “There should be some motivation, only then will these people fight for you.”

Rai also spoke about Chhattisgarh, where the Salwa Judum was formed in 2005 under the same SPO policy. The Salwa Judum was a pro-government viligante group comprising of local Adivasis, people who had suffered Maoist violence and surrendered Maoists. They were asked to identify other locals who they believed were supporting the insurgency. The SPOs also accompanied security forces in counter-insurgency operations as local guides and have been accused of burning and looting villages.

Rai told me that most of those recruited under the SPO scheme were often “unemployed.” For them, becoming an SPO was a way to gain respect.  “Unemployed kids who were roaming here and there, they would have social recognition now that they could roam about with the police,” he said. However, Rai added, “such experiments are done all over the world only in war-like situations.”

Rai further noted that in a non-conflict zone like Kanpur, the SPOs are meant only for “community policing.” He said the SPOs should never be deployed for controlling a riot-like situation in a non-conflict zone. “These people should not be used for fighting or beating locals with lathis,” he said.  According to him, the only purpose SPOs should serve in peaceful states is for information gathering.

Rai added that during his terms as superintendent of police in six districts of the state, the recruitment of SPOs “varied from district to district.” When asked about the SPOs’ job profile, he said it was “vague,” and that an SPO did not have a clearly defined role. He emphasised that the recruitment depended on the “personality” of the superintendent of police of a particular district. Rai said that largely SPOs were supposed to be well known citizens—“a prominent doctor of the area, lawyer, professors who taught in universities.” However, he did not rule out the notion of SPOs working as dalaals of the police even during his term. “That did happen since they were not paid,” he said.

Vikram Singh, the former DGP, termed the deployment of SPOs against the demonstrators in Kanpur as “illegal” and “an insult to the police institution.” According to Singh, an SPO can never be engaged in “police work.” He told me that the only job of an SPO was to keep the higher officials updated about the functioning of community policing such as “whether the police patrol is happeneing or not, whether first-information reports are being registered or not.” Singh added, “The work of SPOs is simply to keep telling officers what undercurrent is going on.”

Singh said that during peacetime, the recruitment of SPOs is allowed under police regulation provisions for nagar suraksha samiti, or city security council, mohalla defence society, and gaon suraksha samiti, or village defence council. But Singh added that the SPOs should only be reputed people who command respect from all communities. He said the SPOs during his time were usually “army pensioners, police pensioners, lawyers, doctors.”

Singh did not agree that the provision for recruitment of SPOs allowed the entry of militia groups in the police. Instead, he said the catch was in the “proper use of SPOs” and their removal when needed. He made his point by giving an analogy. “Suppose you have a weapon,” he said. “If you give it to an upright person, he will use it correctly, the bullet will hit the target. But if you give it to a criminal, he will use it incorrectly for criminal activites.”

On the ground in Kanpur, Akhtar, Siddiqui and several other residents of Begum Purwa felt that the SPOs should not be a part of the police in any form and that it was turning the police into a militia group. Siddiqui said, “In order to make some money, the police is implicating many innocent people. This is very wrong.”