The child soldiers in Indian Maoist ranks (Comment)

December 18th, 2008 - 11:53 am ICT by IANS  

Minister of State for Home Affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal told the Rajya Sabha Dec 11 that the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) has set up a special squad of minors in Chhattisgarh. These child soldiers are forcibly recruited into Maoist ranks. But this is not a new phenomenon.For many years, child combatants have been used by Naxalites in many ways in their fight against the Indian state. In Orissa, the children are known as ‘Baal Sangam’. In Chhattisgarh they are constituted under the ‘Krantikari Adivasi Balak Sang’. The governments in both the states have outlawed these groups. According to a scholar on the Naxalite movement: “At least 300 children are being trained in the dense forests of Dhanbad and Giridih in Jharkhand under a crash course in the use of small arms.”

In Andhra Pradesh, the Maoists, in their earlier avatar, the People’s War Group (PWG), maintained for some years their own children’s corps, known as ‘Bala Sangham’. R.S. Praveen Kumar, the then superintendent of police in Karimnagar district, told this author in December 2003 that at one point there were some 800 children with the Naxalites in the state. Available reports indicate that the ‘Bala Sangham’ has been disbanded.

Similar reports of recruitment of children emanated from Chhattisgarh way back in 2002, if not earlier. At that time, parents in the vicinity of Tanda and Bagh rivers had sent away their children to far-off places when the Naxalites ordered each family to contribute at least one child to their ranks. Further, in the same year, media reports said the Naxalites trained boys and young women in the jungles in Palamau district, Jharkhand.

Two years later, the security forces rescued a group of girls from a camp of the erstwhile Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) in the same area. Soon thereafter, they were admitted to a vocational training institute run by missionaries.

Amnesty International noted in a report titled “Children in South Asia: Securing their Rights” that the erstwhile PWG had recruited children between the ages of eight and 15 “believing that they could train children more effectively than women to resist police interrogation”.

Both boys and girls operate in rebel ranks. They have been utilised to gather intelligence, carry food and weapons, and to serve extortion notes. “These young children, being in an impressionable age, are susceptible to indoctrination,” explained Praveen Kumar.

A young woman who joined the rebels when she was 15 years old and quit the outfit a few years later told this author in 2003 that she was inspired by the lyrics sung by a Naxalite squad that visited her village in Warangal district, Andhra Pradesh.

Conversations over the past few years with residents of Naxalite-affected regions reveal the reasons for children joining the Maoists.

Some admire and ‘hero worship’ the weapon-wielding cadre or commander of the squads that frequent their area. Boys and girls from deprived sections of society are awestruck that the armed men ‘order’ and ‘threaten’ their village headman or a rich landlord, sometimes an upper caste person who otherwise looks down upon and humiliates the poor and the downtrodden.

Besides, the rebels become a source of inspiration for physically exploited women. In some cases, as has been reported from Bihar, joining the Maoists is a way out of poverty and starvation.

Young persons initially develop intimacy with the group and gradually turn sympathisers and spies. Some eventually join the rebels. A family member, relative or someone known to the family in the party could act as a facilitator.

Desertions from Maoist ranks and attrition in security forces operations are other reasons for the Naxalites targeting children. G.P. Singh, the deputy inspector general of police in Chhattisgarh, told this author in November 2008: “It is not uncommon for the Naxalites to eye inmates of welfare hostels run by the government for recruiting child cadres.”

Singh said that in Bastar, where he had served until early this year, high school passouts are potential recruits, especially because they have no other avenue to pursue.

In some instances, children move around in the jungles with the Naxalites for some weeks or months but return to their boarding houses after getting tired of the rigours of an underground life. In Andhra Pradesh, there have been many instances when they were lucky enough to be accepted again and have been able to pursue their studies.

Though exact statistics are hard to obtain, some children continue to be with the guerrillas while others join each year. Official sources indicate that their numbers are not a cause for concern.

Nevertheless, to prevent children from associating with left-wing extremists, security officials periodically visit hostels and counsel the students about the difficulties they could face if they join Naxalite groups. Children who understand the futility of joining the rebels keep pursuing their avocation while those who get carried away by the Naxalites leave their studies and enter the jungles to fight alongside their elder colleagues.

(18.12.2008-P.V. Ramana is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at palepuramana@gmail.com.)

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