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Please-all plan for feared force

New Delhi, Nov. 8: The Special Operations Group (SOG) in Kashmir will not be merged with its parent police force. Instead, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s new administration is exploring the possibility of making the elite force more open and accountable.

The new chief minister hopes to change the image of the SOG, one of the most effective counter-terrorist outfits in the state that gave militants a run for their money but brutalised and harassed innocents in the bargain.

Efforts are on to work out measures to restrain the SOG and ensure it does not operate as a law unto itself as it was doing during the National Conference regime. The unified command, including the state, central, police and army intelligence, is mulling over ways to contain terrorism without violating human rights.

One suggestion under consideration is joint interrogation of suspects. “This will act as a check and compel everyone to follow the rule book,” a senior government official explained. The unified command had specified joint interrogation in its rules, mainly to cut out competition among the various security agencies operating in Kashmir. However, this rule was never strictly followed and the crack force seldom brought in other agencies during interrogations.

Mufti’s talk of disbanding the SOG had worried Delhi after the National Conference lost the elections and a People’s Democratic Party-Congress coalition seemed set to replace it. Mufti’s partner, the Congress, was always against quick disbanding of the crack force and had bargained hard against the move.

Despite its reputation as an oppressive force, security agencies vouch for the SOG’s excellent record in the battle against terrorism. Being a local force, it knows the terrain and the people of the area as well as any militant outfit. Pin-point accuracy has been the hallmark of the force’s intelligence.

It is said that the army often had to conduct cordon-and-search operations when it got information about militant hideouts in villages. But the SOG would knock on the very house the militants had chosen.

“Though the army and the paramilitary forces have all worked hard to combat terrorism in the state, the SOG has been the most effective. Disbanding it would be welcomed by terror groups operating in the Valley. It would also make the work of the other forces fighting the militants much more difficult,” a senior government official in North Block said.

The Centre, which was worried about the PDP’s perceived “softness” for terrorists, is happy with Mufti’s decision not to disband the force.

“Being outside the government and mouthing populist slogans and being on the firing line and in the hot seat are two entirely different things. As an experienced politician, Mufti has been quick to realise this,” said a senior home ministry official.

Apart from the security angle, there are also administrative problems in integrating the SOG personnel with their parent cadre, the state police. Promotions and seniority of both police personnel as well as the SOG returnees would be affected, leading to much heartburn.

Disbanding the SOG was one of the PDP’s campaign pledges. Now, the party will have to sell the idea of a reformed SOG to voters in the Valley. “Mufti can easily explain this to his supporters, we don’t expect much problems,” an official said.

The Congress, which favours a step-by-step approach on the issue, will be relieved with Mufti’s decision. It will make it easier for the party in Gujarat to refute the BJP’s allegations about it being soft on terrorism.

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