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 marched them into the jungles of Saranda.
Lachhu found himself in a bizarre Maoist-controlled 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.
Illustration By: Anirban Ghosh and Tanmoy Chakraborty
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.
Photo: Somnath Sen
Abducted from West Singhbhum in June 2015
Experience: Stayed with Maoists in forest camps in Saranda. Was trained in firearms
Status: Escaped in September 2016. Fearing Maoist reprisal, his family left their village and settled in Chaibasa town.
Photo: Somnath Sen
Abducted from Gumla in June 2015
Experience: Worked as a porter, washed utensils and stood guard at night
Rescued from: Kerar forests in Lohardaga on April 23, 2017
Status: Escaped on April 12 with five others after Maoist commander Nakul Yadav began handing over children of his squad to other Maoist groups before surrendering.
Photo: Somnath Sen
Abducted from Gumla in August 2015
Experience: Sexually abused by Maoists. Sent back to village
Rescued from: Nakul Yadav on April 14, 2017 with a one-month-old child
Photo: Somnath Sen
Role: Zonal commander of CPI (Maoist) and member of its regional committee
Cases: 41 (including murder of 20 policemen)
Status: Surrendered to Jharkhand police on April 12, 2017. Plans to contest 2019 Jharkhand assembly polls. Confessed to kidnapping 90 children in the past two years
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.
(Names of all minors changed to protect identities).