A SHOCK­ING SURGE

Child­hoods are at stake in Jhark­hand as Maoists in­creas­ingly turn to mi­nors to re­plen­ish their de­plet­ing ranks

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava in Jhark­hand

LACHHU’S WIDE EYES speak of his or­deal as he looks up, face creased with worry like his crum­pled green shirt. He tucks his thumb un­der his fin­gers, un­cer­tain of which as­pect of his year-long or­deal with the Maoists he should talk about. The first re­sponse is fear. “We have al­ready been up­rooted from our homes,” he stam­mers. “Don’t ask me about the com­rades. We don’t want more trou­ble.”

That Lachhu now sits in Ranchi, nearly 200 km away from his ab­duc­tors, is no so­lace. The 16-year-old was a stu­dent of Class 5 in Tu­tiket, in West Singhb­hum, at the south­ern tip of Jhark­hand, where he lived in his vil­lage home with three sib­lings and par­ents, who tilled a small plot. In June 2015, Maoists ab­ducted him and sev­eral other vil­lage chil­dren and

CHILD RE­CRUITS EX­E­CUTE THE PUN­ISH­MENTS PRO­NOUNCED IN MAOIST COURTS: CHOP­PING OFF A THIEF’S EARS OR STRIP­PING AND CANING OF­FEND­ERS

marched them into the jun­gles of Saranda.

Lachhu found him­self in a bizarre Maoist­con­trolled nether­world. Here, ri­fle-tot­ing rebels in black told him and some 30 oth­ers that the world was in the grip of eter­nal class war—rich cap­i­tal­ists in the cities were ex­ploit­ing poor work­ers in the vil­lages. The only sal­va­tion, Lachhu was told, was a vi­o­lent over­throw that the Maoists would bring at gun­point. And for that revo­lu­tion to hap­pen, Lachhu and oth­ers would have to be­come Maoists. They would have to learn to use guns, plant bombs and kill with­out mercy.

Child sol­diers are a press­ing con­cern world­wide. They have been used by sev­eral ter­ror­ist groups and ac­tors in the African civil wars. Shaken by the use of child sol­diers in the Rwan­dan geno­cide of 800,000 Tut­sis in 1994, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion in 1999, con­demn­ing the tar­get­ing of chil­dren in con­flict, in­clud­ing the re­cruit­ment of child sol­diers.

‘Chil­dren and Armed Con­flict’, an April 2016 UN re­port, notes the ab­duc­tion of chil­dren “as young as six years of age by armed groups, in­clud­ing Nax­alites, in Bi­har, Jhark­hand, Maharashtra, Odisha and West Ben­gal”. “Re­ports in­di­cate that chil­dren were co­erced to join chil­dren’s units (bal dasta), where they were trained and used as couri­ers and in­for­mants, to plant im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices and in front­line op­er­a­tions against na­tional se­cu­rity forces,” says the re­port.

Maoist ab­duc­tions are a par­tic­u­lar scourge in Jharkand. Chil­dren from the state’s west­ern dis­tricts of Lo­hardaga, Gumla, Late­har and Simdega, bor­der­ing the Maoist strongholds in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, are easy prey. Po­lice es­ti­mate that over a thou­sand chil­dren have been ab­ducted over the past few years and de­ployed as foot sol­diers, couri­ers and sen­tries around Maoist camps.

In the past two years, the Maoists’ con­scrip­tion drive in Jhark­hand has in­ten­si­fied in the face of a sus­tained po­lice of­fen­sive—40 Maoists were killed against the loss of 10 po­lice­men in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the South Asia Ter­ror­ism Por­tal. Fewer than 400 hard­core Maoists are thought to re­main now, down from over 1,200 a decade ago. So chil­dren serve as swift re­plen­ish­ment for their fast-de­plet­ing ranks. The po­lice es­ti­mate that Maoists have ab­ducted hun­dreds of chil­dren from Gumla, Late­har and Lo­hardaga dis­tricts in the past

two years. Over a hun­dred chil­dren, be­tween 12 and 17, have es­caped or been res­cued since 2015. Many more re­main in cap­tiv­ity. An un­known num­ber of child sol­diers are feared dead. “We are try­ing to do ev­ery­thing to res­cue and re­ha­bil­i­tate such chil­dren. The Maoists are more des­per­ate than ever be­cause they are more marginalised to­day,” says R.K. Mal­lick, ad­di­tional DG (op­er­a­tions), Jhark­hand po­lice.

The UN lists six grave vi­o­la­tions against chil­dren in con­flict—killing and maim­ing, re­cruit­ment and use of chil­dren, sex­ual vi­o­lence, ab­duc­tions, at­tacks on schools and hospi­tals, and de­nial of hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess. Such vi­o­la­tions are com­mon in the Maoist-con­trolled ar­eas. Par­ents re­fus­ing to hand over their chil­dren for re­cruit­ment have been shot dead. In Gumla, po­lice had to shift over 200 chil­dren from Bishun­pur and Ja­mati vil­lages to the Ranchi and Gumla dis­trict head­quar­ters in 2015 to save them from fall­ing into the hands of Maoists.

IN SOME DIS­TRICTS, Maoists ask for five chil­dren from ev­ery vil­lage. The vil­lagers have no op­tion but to give in. “The po­lice can take hours, even days, to reach. The Maoists are around for­ever,” says Manya, 16, from Katari vil­lage in Lo­hardaga. She spent two years as a child sol­dier be­fore slip­ping out while her squad was en­gaged in a gun bat­tle with a ri­val Maoist fac­tion last year.

The Maoists are ruth­less with the ab­ducted chil­dren. They are shifted to forests in other dis­tricts and told to aban­don all hopes of re­turn­ing. “They for­bid keep­ing any­thing that would re­mind a child of home,” says Lachhu. “Pic­tures of par­ents and sib­lings... noth­ing is al­lowed.” At­tempts to flee are met with harsh pun­ish­ment, in­clud­ing caning in front of the en­tire unit.

“The Maoists pick up chil­dren they be­lieve have reached fight­ing age, which is any­one above 12,” says S. Karthik, su­per­in­ten­dent of po­lice, Lo­hardaga. Across Jhark­hand’s out­back, es­pe­cially in the Maoist zones, par­ents have got chil­dren to leave home, as the rebels are known to burn down schools and abduct stu­dents.

Re­cruits are ini­ti­ated into vi­o­lence through ex­e­cu­tion of bru­tal pun­ish­ments pro­nounced in the Maoists’

jan adalats (peo­ple’s courts). Child sol­diers are made to chop off a thief’s ears or strip of­fend­ers naked and cane them. Mur­der is the most im­por­tant rite of pas­sage. A res­cued child sol­dier in Gumla re­calls, “The Maoists would say—if you don’t want to kill, you are not one of us.” The boy, now 18, ad­mits fir­ing at in­no­cents. “But I never killed any­one,” he adds hastily.

Lachhu says a month-long train­ing he went through in­cluded learn­ing to crawl on one’s belly, heft­ing ri­fles and us­ing IEDs and land­mines. Such train­ing is not with­out haz­ards. In Septem­ber 2013, Maoists sent

back the body of Pardeshi Lohra, a 14-year-old sol­dier. An IED he was han­dling had ex­ploded and killed him.

Af­ter train­ing, Lachhu was given a green uni­form and a ri­fle nearly as big as him. He was in­ducted into a squad of over a hun­dred foot sol­diers, what the Maoists call a ‘com­pany’. In ‘peace time’, the squad splits into groups of 10 dur­ing cook­ing. Each group has at least two chil­dren as sup­port staff. Dur­ing op­er­a­tions, typ­i­cally ‘area dom­i­na­tion’ ex­er­cises against the po­lice and paramil­i­tary, the squads had to keep mov­ing.

Lachhu es­caped dur­ing one such op­er­a­tion in Septem­ber last year. When his squad halted near his vil­lage, he made his way to his par­ents. The six-mem­ber fam­ily gath­ered their be­long­ings and fled the vil­lage, fear­ing reprisal. Now, the par­ents work as ca­sual labour­ers in Chaibasa town. Lachhu stays in a roadside hut tak­ing care of his sib­lings. School is just a dream.

THE MAOISTS ARE un­der mount­ing pres­sure in Jhark­hand. They have, for in­stance, failed to at­tack a po­lice sta­tion in the past two years, the long­est such hia­tus since the cre­ation of the state in 2000. While their di­min­ish­ing op­er­a­tional con­trol has given child sol­diers op­por­tu­ni­ties to es­cape, the Maoists have re­sorted to in­tim­i­da­tion and brain­wash­ing to ar­rest the trend. The new strat­a­gem is to feed the chil­dren with tales of po­lice bru­tal­i­ties. Chil­dren who have wit­nessed po­lice ex­cesses are es­pe­cially sus­cep­ti­ble to such strategems. “We were re­peat­edly told how so and so was tor­tured and killed by the po­lice,” re­calls 12-year-old Garima, a for­mer child sol­dier from Ja­mati vil­lage in Gumla dis­trict.

Be­sides the psy­cho­log­i­cal scars, the child sol­diers of­ten end up in the line of fire. In June 2015, 12 armed Maoists were killed in a gun­fight with the po­lice in Bhal­wahi vil­lage in Palamu dis­trict. Four of them turned out to be mi­nors. Bimla, 16, is a lucky sur­vivor of one such gun bat­tle. In March 2015, she was res­cued from a jun­gle in Late­har af­ter she sus­tained a bul­let in­jury in her leg. The Maoists aban­doned her and fled. Bimla is yet to re­cover from her or­deal. She is ex­traor­di­nar­ily quiet for her age, talks slowly, at times in­audi­bly, and nar­rates tales of abuse.

On April 12 this year, Nakul Ya­dav, a sub-zonal Maoist com­man­der, sur­ren­dered to the Jhark­hand po­lice. He con­fessed to hav­ing ab­ducted 90 chil­dren and mur­der­ing three vil­lagers in Bishun­pur when they re­fused to hand over their chil­dren for re­cruit­ment. More than a fourth of the child re­cruits are girls. in­dia to­day met a dozen-odd girls from Ranchi, Lo­hardaga and Gumla. They con­firmed hor­rific sex­ual ex­ploita­tion. While Maoist lit­er­a­ture hails gen­der equal­ity and women’s lib­er­a­tion, things are dif­fer­ent on the ground. Women—even in the armed squads—are pri­mar­ily tasked with cook­ing, car­ry­ing food­grain and en­ter­tain­ing com­rades.

In Jan­uary 2016, 16-year-old Tara, who was pre­par­ing to join col­lege in Lo­hardaga town, was way­laid by Maoists in Kerar vil­lage. “Some­one told me my daugh­ter was be­ing taken away by Maoists,” says her fa­ther. “I ran as fast as I could and fell at their feet. I said noth­ing but cried with folded hands.”

A mar­ginal farmer, the Maoists told him they would trans­form his child into a fierce com­rade. Eight months later, he was sum­moned to the Peshrar for­est in Lo­hardaga. Tara was preg­nant, the Maoists in­formed him. In front of him, Nakul Ya­dav got one of his squad mem­bers to marry her. They then or­dered her fa­ther to take Tara home. She gave birth to a boy. Her ‘hus­band’ has not vis­ited her even once. Tara hardly speaks, mostly star­ing blankly into the dis­tance.

Ji­ta­mani Devi, a widow in Lo­hardaga’s Chain­pur vil­lage, has not seen her daugh­ter Su­naina since the Maoists ab­ducted her last year. “I don’t know if she is alive,” Ji­ta­mani wails. Two of her sons moved to Ut­tar Pradesh, to work in a brick kiln and stay away from the Maoist drag­net. The youngest son, 9, has been shifted to Ranchi, where an NGO has ad­mit­ted him into a govern­ment res­i­den­tial school. “I have asked my chil­dren not to re­turn,” says the mother.

With­out a ded­i­cated re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme, the lucky few who es­cape the clutches of Maoists find their prospects bleak. While Jhark­hand’s sur­ren­der pol­icy of­fers com­pen­sa­tion for the sur­ren­der­ing Maoists and free ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren up to col­lege, there is noth­ing spe­cific for the child sol­diers. “The govern­ment must for­mu­late a pol­icy for a sys­tem­atic re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of chil­dren res­cued from the Maoists,” says Ganesh Reddy, so­cial worker and for­mer ad­vi­sor to the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Pro­tec­tion of Child Rights. “These chil­dren must be treated with ut­most care to bring them into the main­stream. Else, their scars will re­main for­ever.”

The po­lice, though, have taken some ini­tia­tives. Bimla is lucky to have been re­cruited as a child con­sta­ble, draw­ing half the salary of a con­sta­ble. The Lo­hardaga and Gumla po­lice have got some of the res­cued chil­dren ad­mis­sion in school. Many girls have been en­rolled in the state’s Kas­turba Gandhi res­i­den­tial schools. But for scores of oth­ers, it’s a stare at an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

SOMNATH SEN

DEADLY AIM Child Maoists train at a camp in Jhark­hand’s Late­har forests

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