They are the most daring, bloodthirsty and merciless killers in the Maoist ranks. And they ought to be in school. Children who have been plucked away from their childhood, indoctrinated in a violent ideology, and given guns that they train not only on security forces, but even their own kith and kin. They’re the ‘child soldiers’ recruited by Maoists across the ‘red belt’ of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and parts of Bengal.
Thousands of children, as the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent report highlights, have been conscripted by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) to impart an extra edge to its deadly killing machine. While many of these impressionable children have been lured by the gun and the power that apparently flows from its barrel, others have been forcibly taken away from their families and trained in handling arms, making bombs and planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs). And Maoist commanders have no qualms about using these kids, some as young as 8-10 years old, as foot soldiers in their attempt to overthrow the Indian state.
According to police and other sources, about 3,000 children in the age group of 6-16 have been inducted into the Maoist ranks in the rebel-ridden districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura in West Bengal over the last year alone. Across the entire ‘red belt’ in the country, the police claim that the number of child soldiers could be as high as 15,000. But this includes a lot who are non-combatants. The children are first taken into what are variously known as ‘bal sangam’, ‘bal mandal’, ‘balak sangha’ and, in the case of Bengal, ‘shishu sangha’ groups. Once in the ‘sangha’, a child is brainwashed—indoctrinated with Maoist ideology that inculcates a deep hatred for ‘class enemies’, ‘reactionaries’ and ‘the bourgeoisie’.
The kids are taught to act as spies and report not only on the police and security forces, but even their parents, siblings and relatives. As a senior officer at Midnapore tells Open, “There was this case of a 10-year-old kid in a ‘shishu sangha’ reporting on his maternal uncle’s conversations at home criticising Maoists. His uncle, a CPM branch committee secretary, Shambhu Mahato, owned a small cigarette and paan kiosk at Salboni near Lalgarh. Soon enough (on 14 September last year), a group of ten teenagers, all members of a Maoist hit squad, gunned him down in his shop. We got to know about this after the arrest of one of the killers, 18-year-old Sudarshan Murmu, a few months ago.”
Murmu provided a chilling account of how children are used by Maoists to gather information. “The kids are encouraged to report on all conversations that the adults in their families have,” says an officer who has interrogated many arrested Maoists, “and on everything that their family members, relatives and neighbours do. They’re told such spying is necessary for the cause of the ‘revolution’, which is far more important than family ties. This way, Maoists get to know everything that goes on in a village and even on what the villagers think and believe. Naturally, they’ve been able to terrorise the villages in the areas under their influence.”
Bhupinder Singh, Bengal’s police chief, corroborates this: “All the kids in the ‘shishu sanghas’ are given basic training in use of firearms, and the ‘promising’ among them taught to make and plant bombs and IEDs. Most have been so brainwashed that they are ready to kill even their family members.”
Many of the landmines that have been used with such devastating effect in India’s red belt had been planted and triggered by children, say the police. As an Amnesty International report on child rights in South Asia explains, children can blend in more easily with local civilians. According to an exhaustive report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled ‘Being Neutral is our Biggest Crime’, India’s Maoists often stop children from going to schools and induct them into their ranks: ‘Maoists apply all sorts of pressure on people to send their children to the ‘bal sangams’ or the village-level sangams...Abductions of children by the Maoists are also common.’ Bede Sheppard, HRW’s Asia researcher on children’s rights, sums it up succinctly: “Maoists are exploiting and harming children.”
THE CRADLE SNATCH
In many Maoist-overrun areas, parents have been known to send their children away to safer areas.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a global body, in its Global Report 2008-India, reports a huge increase in recruitment of children by Maoists since 2005. ‘Many children are taken away from school without their parents’ consent,’ its report says. Add to this a 2008 report by Amnesty International’s Meha Dixit, which made it plain that, ‘Maoists plan to recruit more than 10,000 child soldiers from east and central India to strengthen their military wing this summer. The recruitment is mostly by force.’
‘Given the Maoists’ brutal punishment of dissent, a mere recruitment request to families creates tremendous pressure,’ says the HRW report, which also contains an account of one Satyam David, a lad in his late teens who was forced to become a Maoist in Chhattisgarh: ‘In January 2007, when I was 14, I was taken away to a Maoist camp where a ‘people’s court’ was held. The Maoists accused me of being a police informer and sentenced me to death. My parents pleaded with them to spare my life and they agreed, on the condition that I won’t go to school. I was kept under close watch and forced to attend ‘bal sangam’ meetings. I ultimately joined the ‘jan militia’.’
The typical child is trapped at around age 6, and once he/she is 12 or so, depending on the child’s aptitude and skills gleaned in the ‘shishu sangha’, he/she is inducted into the armed wing. Others are inducted into other wings like the Jana Natya Mancha (which stages plays in villages promoting Maoist ideology) or the village-level committees that are again variously known as ‘gram sanghas’, ‘gram mandals’ and ‘gram sabhas’. Nearly 90 per cent of those in Maoists’ cultural and non-combatant wings are below 18.
Children, on being inducted into a ‘dalam’ (an armed squad), take an oath: “I have no family anymore. You (the dalam) are my family.” This steeling of resolve and hardening of heart paves the way for Maoist cadres turning against their own folk, neighbours and friends. “The children in the Maoist militias and the People’s Guerilla Liberation Army (PGLA) are much more trigger-happy, fearless and violent than the adults,” says Manoj Verma, West Midnapore’s superintendent of police. Maoists accord a lot of attention to having their child recruits snap off all family ties. “It makes it easier then to mould a child, for whom adult Maoists then become guardians,” says psychiatrist Durlab Sen.
But it isn’t as if children themselves are always reluctant to join the rebel ranks. Says the HRW report: ‘These kids in the hinterland from extremely deprived sections see armed Maoists come to their villages and order or threaten the exploitative landlord or village head, who cower in fear. So the kids start hero-worshipping the rebels. In many cases, joining the outfit is the only way out of poverty and deprivation.’
Take the case of 17-year-old Sushil Hembram, prime accused in the late February murder of Rabilochan Moitra, inspector-in-charge of Sarenga police station in West Midnapore. Hembram, who was arrested on 8 May, was given arms training at a forest in neighbouring Bankura district between November 2009 and February 2010, says Verma. “Hembram dropped out of school in class five,” says the police SP. “And the power that Maoists wield over villagers must have played a major role in getting Hembram, and many like him, to join them.”
LITTLE MASTERS OF WAR
That Maoists don’t flinch in deploying children at the frontline of dangerous operations is also apparent from the 15 February attack carried out on an Eastern Frontier Rifles camp at Silda in West Midnapore that left 24 jawans dead. “We arrested three teenagers who were in the forefront of the attackers,” says Verma, “Our interrogations have revealed that they don’t really understand Maoist ideology. It’s just the thrill of the kill, especially when the victim is a man in uniform, which motivates these kids. In the eyes of their peers, they become heroes.”
The trio arrested for the Silda attack were batchmates of Hembram in the Bankura training camp.
There is evidence from other states wracked by Maoist terror as well. Orissa, for instance, made public chilling video footage of child soldiers with deadly weapons at a camp in Malkangiri last year.
Sometimes, personal vendetta plays a role in the recruitment. Consider the case of 14-year-old Sushil Hansda, prime accused in the killing of Kartick Mahato, a teacher at a school in Salboni in West Midnapore on 14 September last year. Hansda was a student of the school till he dropped out of class 6 and became a red recruit two years ago. “This boy apparently held a grudge against Kartick Mahato, who had spanked him a few times in class,” says a senior police officer, “When the name of Mahato, who was also a CPM supporter, was put on a Maoist hit list, Hansda volunteered to kill him. This was revealed by two of Hansda’s teenaged associates in the same Maoist hit squad who we arrested a few months ago.”
The majority of those arrested over the past couple of years for killings, abductions and extortions in the Maoist-ridden districts of Bengal are teenagers, the youngest being nine! What’s more shocking is that they don’t have any regrets. “They say they did the right thing and would do so again,” says a police officer from Bankura who has questioned many of the arrested kids, “They’re defiant, and we suspect the senior Maoists teach them to lie if they’re arrested. These kids often make us go around in circles.”
What makes the police’s task of extracting useful information from these kids devilishly difficult is that harsh methods aren’t applied on youngsters. “They’re kids, after all,” as the Bankura officer says, “We’re humans and have children of our own. I can’t beat up a kid to get information.” Their Maoist handlers, however, have no such compunctions; they are even known to torture the kids to discipline them; nor is it uncommon for senior cadres to exploit some of them sexually.
However heinous it is, the Maoist leadership continues to conjure strange justifications for exploiting children. Ganapathi, the supreme commander-in-chief of the CPI (Maoist), is on record as having said: “Making a fuss over age makes no meaning in a situation where the enemies of the people are targeting children too without any mercy. If the boys and girls do not resist with arms, they will be eliminated completely. The intellectuals of civil society should understand this and not raise idealistic objections (to recruitment of children).”
Worse, perhaps, is that these child soldiers cannot ever be rehabilitated properly. They can never lead normal lives. “De-inducting them from the ideology of violence and gore, and bringing them back to normal life, would be a nearly impossible proposition,” says Kolkata’s prominent consultant psychiatrist Siladitya Ray.
By the experience of under-age militancy in Nepal, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and other parts of the world, ‘child soldiers’ are scarred beyond redemption. Thus, tens of thousands of kids across the bleeding edge of India’s red belt are staring at a bleak future with little hope of returning to a life free of violence. Traumatic stress is followed only by post-traumatic stress. Would Mao have been pleased?