Babes in the woods

Posted on: December 5, 2011

As the Maoists and the security forces battle each other, the children of Bastar are being used by each group to spy on the other.

BOYS TO MEN: Youngsters who have been recruited as special police officers in Bhairamgarh police station, Chhattisgarh

Ranga Baghel hasn’t been following his textbooks for a while. Instead, he has been handling bows and arrows.

Four years ago, the 15-year-old villager from south Dantewada was picked up by a group of Maoists when he was returning from school. He hasn’t gone back home since then. He attends classes conducted by Bal Sangam, a children’s association run by Naxalites in Chhattisgarh.

“My job is to spy on every government or police car that passes by Konta,” Baghel says, referring to a busy Dantewada block. “I also inform local Maoist leaders about meetings organised by politicians in nearby villages.”

Idma Sodi is in the battle too — but on the other side. He was 15 when the police recruited him as a special police officer (SPO). Sodi was staying in a camp in Dornapal set up by the Salwa Judum — an anti-Maoist militia group supported by the government. “We were told by the police that at least one member of each family would have to join the SPO if we wanted to continue living in the camp. I had no option,” says Sodi.

As Maoists and security forces battle each other — Tuesday’s massacre of 75 security men by armed rebels is a grim reminder of the ongoing war — the children of Bastar find that they are caught in the crossfire. Both the warring factions are recruiting children, mostly used as spies to gather information or to pass messages.

Seetala Atra, 14, has been doing just that. He joined the Maoists after his village in Dantewada was burnt down in an alleged attack by the Salwa Judum three years ago, killing his parents and brother.

“I would never join the police or the Salwa Judum after what they did to us. Now that I have nothing more to lose, I might as well retaliate,” Atra says.

Armed guerillas often use child warriors in their battles. Groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been accused by human rights organisations of recruiting children. Closer home, in the forests of Chhattisgarh, more and more children are being enlisted by the Maoists.

“It is easy to convince a child to join the rebels,” says a Dantewada social worker. “No one is suspicious of a child when he collects information while roaming around in a school uniform or herding cattle.”

The villagers hold that the trend of recruiting children is on the rise. “Once the Maoists forced their way into our school and tried to interact with our children. But we resisted. So they abducted me for a night and have threatened to kill me if I don’t give in to their demands,” says Bima Ram Markam, the sarpanchof Nilavaram village in Sukma.

Coercion is the method for recruiting some SPOs as well. Though there are no official figures on the number of minor SPOs in Dantewada and Bijapur — the two worst affected districts in the Bastar belt — a visit to any of the barracks tells a horrifying story. Teenagers, in ragged shorts, shirts and boots, walk around with guns in their hands.

SPO Swayam Butta, 17, says he was forced to join the force after his father and three siblings were killed, allegedly by members of the Mudiya tribe — traditionally Naxal supporters — in Errabore, Dantewada, three years ago. “My mother and I fled to the Salwa Judum camp in the area. To survive in the camp, I had to join the police,” says Butta.

But Butta believes he is now on a mission. “I want to take revenge on the Naxals who killed my family,” says the frail boy, as his thin shoulders droop under the weight of an AK-47.

The SPOs are trained for five months to use rifles and heavy arms and are paid a monthly salary of Rs 2,150. But the youngsters stress that the battle against the Maoists is an unequal one. “We go out for operations carrying our .303 rifles while they come with hand grenades and AK-47s. Where is the comparison? So we fail in most operations,” says Raju Ram Lekha, 17, posted in the Bhairamgarh police station.

The police, however, insist that there are no minors in the force. “It was only in the first year that a few minors were recruited since they insisted on joining the police for protection,” says Rajendra Das, additional superintendent of police, Bijapur. “These men look younger than their age.”

The Salwa Judum, on the other hand, has no qualms in talking about training the young. “We hold seminars to make children aware of the atrocities perpetrated by the Naxals. We tell them that they should not join them but join the police. It is easier to convince them at this young age,” says Ajay Singh, a leader in the Bhairamgarh Salwa Judum camp.

The children, however, have a different story to relate. “The Judum leaders force us to go to the jungles and look for the enemy. We are being trained to use bows and arrows, and daggers and axes,” says Kichhiya Shankar, 14, of Bhasaguda camp, Bijapur.

Some youngsters believe their future lies in obeying orders. “If I perform well as a Sangam member, I will be promoted to the Chetna Natya Manch (street theatre group). I am learning some revolutionary songs that talk about our rights to education and health,” says Atra, who wants to join the Dalam (armed group of Maoists) in a few years.

But many would rather live in peace. Marwi Joga, 19, posted in the Dantewada police station since 2008, was once an active member of Bal Sangam. And he’s had enough. “Though the ideologies of the two sides are different, the purpose they serve is the same. Neither of them is taking us anywhere,” says Joga. “Does our life have to revolve around the barrel of a gun?”

Unfortunately for Joga, the battle has just intensified.

Some of the names have been changed


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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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