Schoolchildren are caught in the firing line between the government and the Maoists in extremism-hit Chhattisgarh.
Students are often seen marching under police security through streets of small towns and hamlets in Bastar region holding banners and placards, demanding peace and asking extremists to end killing of innocents, allegedly at the behest of state authorities.
This despite the SC in 2011 termed as illegal the Chhattisgarh government’s anti-insurgent militia of young tribals called Sulwa Judum. However, the passive aggressive campaign did not gone down well with the Maoists. The insurgents sent out an advisory to parents and teachers this week and also distributed pamphlets in the area asking them to desist from allowing children to participate in such “anti-people” rallies.
“We appeal to the parents of students to ensure their children are not used in anti-people (against the Maoist) events or rallies. We ask the school management and teachers too to not allow the students to be part of anti-people activities that are based on lies,” said the statement issued by Vikalp, the spokesperson of Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, the most powerful unit of the Maoists in central India — covering the entire Bastar region along with Malkangiri, Koraput areas of Odisha and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra.
The Chhattisgarh police promptly dismissed the appeal as “ridiculous”. “Are the Maoists not using children in their movement and destroying their lives? By issuing such statement, the rebels are trying to create a threat perception among the masses and gain the media hype,” an ADGP told HT. Nonetheless, this propaganda war has left parents anxious. “There is a lot of fear and uncertainty here,” said Idpa Ramvilas, a businessman in Geedam. Another parent said their children were the most vulnerable as the school could act against them if they refused to participate in the marches and the Maoists could strike if they did. Maoists are known to forcibly pick up children to induct as combatants, and also urge villagers to willing offer their children to be trained as “rebel warriors”.
“Madkami Hunga, 14, and Puja Markam, 16, from Aranpur in Dantewada were forced to join the Maoist organisation some three years ago...Puja was traced by Malkangiri police in Odisha on January 26 this year after she fled,” additional superintendent of police, Sukma, Santosh Singh told HT, adding that Puja was sent to a residential ashram in Dantewada for studies. Though the administration claims the student marches were voluntary and an attempt to counter the growing support for left-wing extremism among the youth, teachers admitted that the marches were conducted on the “directive” of the police and the district administration. “We comply with the orders given and ensure the participation of students as directed,” said a senior teacher of Bijapur government high school requesting anonymity.
Another teacher in Sukma, who did not wish to be named, said, “It is believed that when you rope in students to hold meetings or rallies, it might garner support from people but this will not win the hearts and minds of Maoists.”
But, not everyone is against the involvement of students in the anti-insurgency operation and say the children’s participation to create a terror-free environment was largely restricted to safer areas.
“Such initiatives might help build confidence in remote areas where the people’s trust in authorities remains abysmally low,” said Alok Shukla, a human rights activist. Anti-terrorism experts are not worried and see the “advisory” as a reflection of the Maoists’ frustration.
“With the local tribal population understanding the futility of the ideology of left-wing extremism, they are now increasingly going against the rebels — whose statements clearly show their desperation. The people in the affected areas yearn for peace,” said Brigadier (retd) BK Ponwar, director of Kanker-based counter terrorism and jungle warfare college.