Paru Majhi, 38, crouches restlessly along with other villagers at a CPI Maoists’ den in his village, Jamti, a tribal hamlet around 200 km from Ranchi on March 14.
An armed gunman walks towards a brass pot and fishes out a paper chit from it. For a few seconds, the villagers’ heart beats stop.
“It’s Paru’s daughter Sheela (name changed),” announces the militant.
For the next 10 minutes, a distraught Paru tries his best to plead to the gunmen to spare his daughter. She is an innocent child who goes to school and dreams of becoming a teacher, he says.
But his pleas fall on deaf ears. The cadre take away two girls from the village that day, 10-year-old Meera being the other.
They aren’t the only one. Maoists have taken to holding public lotteries to draft children into the force. This new strategy by rebels is aimed at augmenting dwindling numbers and armed strength to fight against a ferocious onslaught by state security forces.
The guerillas say this “unprejudiced process” was adopted as parents weren’t ready to “gift” their children to the insurgent force.
Now, Maoists call villagers to a meeting; prepare chits containing the names of men having more than one child and draw lots.
For years, the Maoists have boasted of several bal dastas (child soldiers) who either voluntarily join or are “gifted” by parents driven by the rebels’ “friendly” approach.
The Maoists are accused of abducting scores of children every year but traditionally use them for low-risk jobs, training them in computers and technology.
But since the insurgents started to use children in armed combat and allegedly sexually exploiting girls, no parent wishes to send their children to the rebel group.
The lottery system has sparked fear among villagers, who have sent their teenage children to relatives in other states. You hardly see any teenager in Maoist affected villages these days.
In Gumla town, 38-year-old Fandu Munda — a villager living in hiding — says slain Maoist leader Sylvester forcibly took away his daughter Sanjeeta when she was barely 11 and groomed her into a guerilla fighter. “Six years later when she abandoned the rebel outfit to start life afresh, they accused her of being a police informer and killed her,” he rued.
Villagers never go to the police station to complain against the Maoists’ high handedness, sources say. Hence the police have no record of children being recruited by the Maoists.
“For God’s sake, please spare the children,” said Baidyanath Kumar, member of NGO Diya Seva Santhan.
In the past, Maoist leaders have denied recruiting child soldiers. “We never arm a child below 16,” rebel group spokesperson Deenbandhu had said in an interview.
But villagers say the rebel leaders ask every family with more than one child to voluntarily spare at least one and threaten they will be taken away through lotteries otherwise.
Sources told HT the Maoists have suddenly upped their recruitment drive for child soldiers in Jamti, Borha, Nirashi, Kumari, Rehaldag and Katia.
“The Maoists have certainly mounted pressure on villagers to give away their children, but we have no information about them taking away children through lottery,” said Gumla superintendent of police Bhimsen Tuti.
Forces led by Tuti carried out extensive operations in the affected villages for three days last week but the Maoists allegedly returned soon after.
The villagers are now demanding permanent police camps as these short operations are doing no good.
“The police come like guests and go. We are left at the mercy of the Maoists. Challenging their decision invites punishment hence I have driven my husband and children away to a nearby town and stay alone here,” said a government teacher.