Lodged in a fortified remand home in a Jharkhand district overrun by Maoist extremists, 15-year-old Mohan Oraon has recurrent nightmares about armed guerrillas viciously thrashing his father a few years ago after the teenager refused to accompany them to their forest haven.
“They hit my father repeatedly with rifle butts. Unable to bear his suffering, I decided to leave with the fighters,” Oraon recalled, speaking to HT over the phone from the correctional facility for juvenile offenders.
In the Maoist camp where he stayed with other children, he was made to wash dishes, fetch water and haul baggage, before being caught during a raid by armed forces about two years ago. For being in conflict with law, he was declared a child soldier and sent to the remand home.
Like Oraon, scores of boys and girls are recruited against their will by left wing extremist (LWE) groups, including the CPI (Maoists) in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in a bid to bolster their military youth wing and replenish depleting forces.
The issue was in the spotlight this week when security forces found the bodies of three child soldiers in full battle fatigues after a fierce shootout in the jungles of Palamu district in Jharkhand.
“While the Maoists exploit children by voluntarily and forcibly recruiting them in armed conflicts, police are equal culprits as they show no maturity by pushing minors arrested from Maoist camps behind bars,” said lawyer Deepti Singh, who is also a tribal rights activist.
“Often they fudge the ages of the arrested child soldiers and implicate them in crimes they would not have committed. The children thus languish in jails for many years and, once out, they turn more violent,” she argued.
A report released by Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) in 2013 found that at least 3,000 children, some as young as six, were drafted by insurgent groups across India, with the majority recruited in Maoist-affected states.
UNICEF defines a child soldier as a person “under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters [and] messengers.”
Lucky ones like Oraon manage to survive. But dozens have died fighting a war that has no meaning for them.
The death of 10-year-old Jaguri Birhor while planting a landmine in Jharkhand’s Latehar district two years ago and of the three unidentified child soldiers on Monday are glaring examples.
Recruitment of child soldiers has intensified in the past three years since the Centre and states launched coordinated offensives against the militants.
In the absence of domestic and international monitoring systems on the use of children in conflict zones, HT contacted some child soldiers who shed light on the patterns of recruitment by extremists and their use in the rebel-affected heartlands of Jharkhand.
After he escaped from a Maoist camp this month, 15-year-old Dheeraj Karmali told police the Maoists hold sway in his village. “Armed guerrillas came to our locality, held a friend of mine and me by the collars and dragged us along with them while the village elders shut themselves in their homes,” he said.
At the Maoist camps, children are assigned tasks based on their fitness, built and intelligence. “The fittest ones are selected for arms training while young girls are mostly employed in cooking, washing clothes and strengthening the cultural troupes to propagate Maoist ideology through songs and music,” Karmali revealed.
Mailini Kharia, another child soldier who was nabbed by authorities in March from Latehar district with a bullet injury to her hip, echoed these views about children in Maoist captivity. “Please get them freed,” said Kharia, who was abducted twice by the rebels after she escaped.
Villagers from the worst-hit districts like Gumla, Lohardaga and Hazaribag say hundreds of children are picked up by the militants, but no one dares to speak for them, not even the parents.
Jharkhand DGP DK Pandey noted some children are so highly indoctrinated that they return to the camps after being rescued by authorities.
Maoist spokesperson Deenbandhu told the media they do not arm children below 16 in their camps, while stressing that they encourage voluntary recruitment.
“Maoists recruiting children is no new phenomenon. A high level of poverty, lack of food and employment has been a major cause for children joining the Maoist squads in Jharkhand,” said Hazaribag SP Akhilesh Jha. “It is easier to indoctrinate them.”
(Children’s names changed)