Thursday, January 31, 2008
I needed to earn money."
Childhood lost in India's war against Maoists
DANTEWADA, India (AFP) — Asha and Ranu were just in their teens when they were given khaki uniforms and .303 rifles to help local police fight Maoist rebels in the forests of central India.
"We thought we should do the same as these Naxals do, who come with knives and catch hold of people and beat them up," said Asha, a member of India's escalating war on the Naxalites, as the Maoist rebels are known.
"So we joined the police," said the bright-eyed 17-year-old, who says she was recruited about two years ago as a state-supported backlash against the rebels in central India's forests got underway.
Ranu is a year younger and was also recruited as a "special police officer" in the tribal region of Dantewada, the epicentre of India's Maoist insurgency.
"Every house has to send one person, so I went in," said Ranu, who along with her family fled her village in Chhattisgarh state and went to a state-run relief camp where thousands of people live under police security.
Maoist rebels, who control large swathes of the impoverished state, made inroads here two decades ago by fighting for better wages for villagers who live by gathering leaves for Indian cigarettes for a pittance.
The rebels have now been branded by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest single threat to national security.
With regular police shunning the combat zone in the south of Chhattisgarh, authorities appear to have enrolled child soldiers from the special security camps that now house 50,000 villagers who have fled or have been brought in from Maoist areas.
In the camps, officials urged families to send one member to the special police, a rag-tag force of 3,600 in south Chhattisgarh that outnumber the regular police.
Ranu, who, like other youngsters interviewed, is fearful of speaking out and does not want her full name used, said at first her task comprised of standing at a check post.
With rifle in hand, she asked people "where they were coming from and where they were going to."
As rebels began attacking the special police, she now mostly does guard duty in the camp. "We will be able to fire and we have fired," she said. But when asked when she had actually used her gun, she replied that she has only used it during training.
Officials, however, deny minors are fighting on behalf of the state.
"No minor as an SPO (Special Police Officer) is the stated policy of the Ministry of Home Affairs and we strictly adhere to that," insisted Dantewada superintendent of police Rahul Sharma.
"We have proper documented reports where their age is above 18."
Sharma also countered that the rebels recruit children as young as seven into their youth wing, using them as informants and to lay explosives.
But human rights groups say that youngsters in the police force appeared to be schooled to say they were eighteen in response to any inquiries.
And a lawsuit filed in India's Supreme Court last year by two noted academics and a former government officer called for an enquiry into human rights violations related to the state's anti-Maoist operation, alleging minors have been enlisted.
The SPOs, whose male members help guide paramilitary forces to remote villages to find Maoists, have been increasingly targeted by the rebels, with some 62 killed last year out of 188 security force deaths.
The young policewoman Ranu, who earns about 35 dollars a month, hinted that ages were indeed bumped up on paper.
"We have all been made 18," she said defensively.
Recruits are required to show that someone in their family lost their life or was hurt in some way by the Maoists -- implying that the authorities want a force that is bent on revenge.
Police say the requirement is needed to ensure their loyalty.
Munna, aged 18 and also living in a security camp, said he joined because his older brother was hacked to death with an axe by the Maoists two years ago.
"What was the point of just sitting around in the camp?" said Munna, dressed in a ribbed shirt and track pants, a self-loading rifle over one shoulder. "I needed to earn money."