On Thursday evening, cadres of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) opened fire on a Mahindra Scorpio vehicle in Chhattisgarh’s troubled Sukma district and killed Kartam Surya, a 29-year-old police constable, absconder from the law and alleged rapist, who had come to symbolise the excesses of the State’s counter-insurgency campaign.
Described as the “Scourge of the Maoists” by obituaries in local newspapers, Mr. Surya began his career in law enforcement as Special Police Officer [SPO] during the Salwa Judum and rapidly grew to head the “Surya Group”: a band of approximately 100 SPOs who were dubbed ‘Koya Commandos’ and operated under dubious legal cover as the vanguard of the State police’s counter-insurgency effort.
Mr. Surya was one of three informal SPO commanders to emerge in the aftermath of the Judum. In January last year, Ismail Khan, head of the Ismail group, was fatally shot at point blank range by a Maoist guerilla as he watched a rooster fight in Sukma town, while Kicche Nanda, of the Nanda group, was injured in the Thursday ambush that claimed Mr. Surya. CRPF officers and policemen who operated alongside the three men described them as brave and committed soldiers.
Since its inception in 2005, the controversial Salwa Judum has been described as either a spontaneous peaceful tribal upsurge against the Maoists, or a violent government backed vigilante force. Thousands of young men were designated SPOs under provisions of the Chhattisgarh Police Act and pushed into anti-Maoist operations. Petitions filed in the Supreme Court accuse Judum members and SPOs of over 500 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson.
Villagers and local journalists in Sukma said that Mr. Surya was intimately involved in the Salva Judum and could have been responsible for at least some of the incidents listed in the petitions, but was never held accountable as he wielded tremendous influence amongst the SPOs and was an accomplished trooper. An article in the Indian Express for instance, described Mr. Surya as the ‘mentor and first leader of SPOs’.