Caressing her badly hurt hand, Somra Devi (name changed) waited for her turn to speak to police superintendent Bhimsen Tuti, who came to her village as part of a Jharkhand Armed Police patrol.
A week back, Maoists held a kangaroo court in the village, where they allegedly beat up at least six men and women, including Somra , for confronting their arbitrary demand of one child from every family to replenish their dwindling baal dast (child soldiers’ force).
Somra’s village, Jamti, around 70 km from Jharkhand’s Gumla town, is deep inside a dense forest identified as one of the Maoists’ safest hideouts in the state.
“When you come, stay with us here or else you don’t come at all,” Somra said, narrating her ordeals to the police superintendent. Other victims allegedly punished by the Maoists joined Somra, calling for a permanent police presence in their village, saying Maoists often come with arbitrary demands and they are left with no option but to meekly surrender.
Somra’s worries echo the concerns of thousands of rural families living in Gumla’s Jamti, Nirasi, Rehaldag, Temarkarcha, Katia and Kumari villages, where Maoists and other left wing extremist (LWE) groups run parallel governments.
Jharkhand’s 80,000-strong police force and close to 100 companies of central paramilitary force are still unable to contain these rebels -- present in at least 16 out of 24 districts in the state -- as they continue to harass, beat, abduct, rape and even kill the vulnerable rural population living in the fringe forest areas.
The Raghubar Das government has shown some promise over the last one year, minimising LWE activities. But in certain areas of Gumla, Latehar, Khunti, Palamu, Lohardaga, Chatra, Giridih and West Singhbhum districts, life has not changed for the local populace, as they continue to live under the shadow of the gun.
Surgi (name changed), who was at the meeting with the superintendent, said, “They (Maoists) dislike people questioning their decisions and demands. Those who dare often end up getting thrashed. If the police come and stay with us, we will join them in fighting the Maoists.”
There is tremendous anguish among villagers as they cannot keep their children with them. Most of the children have dropped out of school.
“The Maoists have once again fallen back on the villagers to replenish their dwindling strength,” said a CRPF officer, who is not authorised to speak to media. He said the Maoists, led by the zonal commander Nakul Yadav, held meetings at Jamti and Katia villages on February 28, where they exhorted villagers to voluntarily offer at least one child from every family to the ‘revolutionary force’.
He said the majority of families in these villages have sent their children to nearby towns and cities to keep them away from the Maoists’ prying eyes.
“The Maoists have certainly mounted pressure on the villagers to offer their children to them but so far they have not succeeded in the villages we visited last week,” Tuti said. He said the security forces have increased their visits to Maoist-affected villages to instil confidence and security among the villagers. “The Maoists have panicked and have reportedly fled to adjoining districts,” he said.
In 2015, the Jharkhand high court, taking cognisance of media reports, had reprimanded the state government for its failure to protect children from the rebels. The government had then submitted a list of at least 35 children abducted by the Maoists. Villagers say the number is several times higher. Meanwhile, the Maoists themselves have often denied recruiting children below 16 years in their armed groups.