Maoist child soldiers reclaim their lives lost in the jungles of Jharkhand
When children of her age ought to have been solving simple arithmetical problems, Sara (name changed) was learning guerrilla warfare in the dense jungles of western Jharkhand with men and women more than twice her age.
Taken away forcibly from her parents in Lohardaga by then dreaded Maoist zonal head, Nakul Yadav’s guerrilla squad when she was only 11, Sara, youngest of three siblings, didn’t realize when and how she transformed into a Left insurgent ready to spill blood for the elusive proletariat’s rule in society.
Indoctrination turned her into a hardcore rebel within a year. She was ready to take on the mighty state ‘because it stifled voices of the down trodden and the oppressed’. By the time she was 13, she became a People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) commando trained in handling sophisticated weapons.
By 14, she became a sub-zonal commander, often moving with the strike party and engaging forces in gunfight whenever they came face-to-face. The disfigured index finger of her right hand that was more often used in pulling the trigger of the guns than handling pens is testimony to the hazards of using firearms with nimble fingers.
In 2016, when forces raided the Maoists hideouts, killed several cadres and forced many to surrender, she fled to Uttar Pradesh but was caught and brought back to Lohardaga. After spending few days in a remand home, she is back to school, post a gap of nearly four years, fiercely independent, laden with lot of inner strength.
But life isn’t easy for this former child soldier in the civil society as she carries the taboo of being a rebel ‘who cannot be trusted’. Having lost four crucial years of schooling, it’s extremely difficult for her to catch up with studies. At home, the parents are so poor that they cannot assure her two square meals a day.
Sara is not the lone child soldier struggling to reclaim her life after coming out of the jungle life. The nearly three decades of left extremist in the country has robbed the childhood of scores of innocent children who were forcibly recruited.
In Jharkhand, their official number was 32 as submitted in a petition by the government in the high court three years back, but unofficial numbers were in hundreds if not thousands.
While some of these child soldiers managed to escape and were rehabilitated, many of them after escaping from their hideouts migrated to other states fearing reprisal from the red outfit. Few who chose to continue with the jungle life are now in their twenties and early thirties serving in different ranks in the outfit.
In Lohardaga district, once a Maoist stronghold but now a peaceful town, the police have done exemplary work rescuing and rehabilitating some 22 child soldiers over the last three years. Nine of them have been admitted to schools, ten have been reunited with their parents as they preferred to go home, one is in remand home as he had cases against him, while two are in the process of getting admission in a residential school.
HT spoke to some of these rescued children, who narrated horrendous stories of their forcible recruitment and experiences in the jungle.
Maoists’ regional commander, Nakul Yadav, now in jail after he surrendered along with another associate in May this year, is the biggest culprit when it came to forcibly recruiting children and grooming them into fighters. He had a direct or indirect hand in the abduction and recruitment of children in the districts of Gumla, Latehar and Lohardaga.
Popular as Budha, Nakul would often swoop down on villages with his armed squad comprising no less than 10 guerrillas, assemble the parents and advise them to part with a couple of children failing which he would threaten them with dire consequences, prevent their entry into the jungle for firewood and seize their farm land. Petrified parents dared not defy his diktats.
“It was a hot summer forenoon when Budha came to our village and held a meeting with elders. I was aimlessly watching the meeting from a corner of our house when suddenly the men with guns came towards me, held my hand and dragged me towards the jungle. As I cried bitterly unwilling to go with them, I saw three more children, two boys and a girl, who was my immediate neighbour, being dragged in a similar manner,” said Neeta (name changed), 15, who spent four years in the jungle before she escaped and landed in the safe hands of police.
Currently enrolled with the Kastruba Gandhi Residential School, Senha, Neeta says the initial days were full of struggle but she soon resigned to her fate and adapted to their ways of survival. “Whenever I cried to go home, they would threaten to kill my parents,” she said.
Damyanti (name changed), who was abducted and recruited along with Neeta said, since Nakul was the boss, everyone feared him and his word was the law. She said, at times, when directives came from his superior, Arvindji, a central committee member, few of them would go and join his team.
Nakul, the female child soldiers said, often slept with new girls who never objected for fear of death. “One day when I was summoned to visit his tent, I denied forthright,” said Sara, adding, “He felt ashamed and thereafter never forced me. But I would often hear their taunts. He would say bahut doodh ki dhuli hai (she is as pure as driven snow/ flawless).”
On the day of his surrender, Nakul had refuted allegations of recruiting child soldiers. “These are mere allegations and hence I would not like to comment,” he had said at the office of the deputy inspector general of police in May.
Almost all minors either rescued or escaped from the rebels over the past three to four years had a similar story. All of them are tribals and hailed from remote villages where policemen never went till 2012-13. They were forcibly recruited around 2009-10 to 2014. The girls were mostly used for cooking and carrying loads while travelling. The bright ones were picked up for combat training, while many ended up as sex slaves. Few of them were married to the men in the squad.
A majority of the minor boys were educated and trained in guerrilla warfare. They also served as sentries and couriers as the suspicion levels on them were minimal. The commanders would keep the brightest ones with them as their bodyguards and personal assistants.
Dharampal (name changed), 16, forcibly recruited by Nakul’s squad in 2013, turned out to be most lucky among the lot. His smartness impressed Nakul that he adopted him. “I stayed with him 24x7 and handled everything, including the levy money and firearms,” said Dharampal, who walked out with Nakul when the latter surrendered in May this year. Police rehabilitated him in a residential school.
“These minors were so highly indoctrinated that they did not fear engaging with a company of CRPF. Sara and Dharampal have fired on me a couple of times,” said a senior officer, who led many operations against Nakul.
Over the last couple of years, Nakul and his men had been under intense pressure from the security forces.
“Forces storming his bastion, choking the flow of finance, seizure of his known assets and three close encounters where he escaped by a whisker compelled Nakul to fall on his knees and surrender in May this year. That proved to be a turning point as all his followers and foot soldiers followed suit. This gave the much needed opportunity for all the child soldiers in his camp to flee,” said Lohardaga superintendent of police Karthik S. He hopes the former child soldiers will be able to pick up the threads of life once again.
“I am happy that these former child soldiers are back to school and aspiring to become successful citizens,” he said.
Last month, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi who was in Ranchi during his Bharat Yatra campaign against child sexual abuse appealed to the red rebels to spare children. “Please do not use children in your fight as it violates their child rights,” he had said. With most of the Maoist leaders either killed or in jail and the police pickets coming up in former Maoist strongholds, these former child soldiers do not fear being taken back into the jungle