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.
Yadav, the recruiter
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.
Sex slaves and bodyguards
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 24×7 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.
When the tide turned
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