How left-wing extremists are preying on tribal children for their cause

Due to dwindling numbers, the cadres actively seek out girls as potential combatants.

 |  4-minute read |   26-05-2016
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Gomti Devi is a tribal woman eking out a living from selling forest produce in a village affected by left-wing extremist violence in eastern India. She has three children. One of them, a boy of 12, was kidnapped on the way to school and never seen again.

The whole village knows that he was kidnapped by the cadres for training for insurgency but nobody dare speak out and Gomti has resigned herself to never seeing him again.

27maoist2_052516090242.jpg A tribal holds her baby in Naxal-prone Bhairamgarh in Chhattisgarh. 

Gomti knows that even if he is sent back home for a "normal" school life, he is still taken away when required. Her choice is not to see her son again or accept this "double role" her son is playing while being part of the family. She is fearful for her other two children - one of whom is a 14-year-old girl, also in danger of being kidnapped for the same reason.

Due to dwindling numbers, the cadres actively seek out young girls as potential combatants. Gomti has pulled her daughter out of school and keeps her close to home. This is no guarantee of safety, however.

When an NGO comes there with a programme on training for adolescent girls, some of whom have dropped out of school for safety reasons, including Gomti's daughter, the cadres, not so discreetly, encircle the school where the training is taking place to ensure that the training is innocuous and does not harm their cause.

Gomti can, at least, exercise some choice because she is not as poor as her neighbour who had to agree to her daughter joining the cadres in return for a good sum of money that would keep her out of grinding poverty for a few months. Gomti's husband runs a grocery shop in a nearby town.

When the manager of a social start-up met him to tell him about the opportunity for upgrading his skills, new service offerings and entrepreneur building so that he can vastly improve his income from his shop, he nervously took the person aside and said he wanted to participate but would be in trouble with the cadres if he became "too successful".

He already pays the cadres a "fee" for allowing him to run his shop. And the company businessman he deals with for sourcing the goods for his store pays an even bigger sum every month to ensure that he can keep running his business. This is not fiction or a make-believe script for a movie.

This is a lived reality of hundreds and thousands of tribal families in left-wing insurgency-affected areas of eastern India. Children are recruited for direct combat and support operations.

It is reported that 40-60 per cent of child soldiers in left-wing insurgency are female. Tribal families are torn between their own aspirations for a better life from the new opportunities for skill and entrepreneurship becoming available and support for cadres who they see as "their own people" fighting for tribal rights, even while being fearful of them.

Gomti's daughter, along with a 100 other girls in her own and neighbouring villages visually represented their hopes on paper in a training program. The pictures were a striking mix of professional aspirations and existential needs. Some drew the pictures of nurses, others of teachers.

They were familiar with these professions as there were teachers and nurses in the villages. Still others drew pictures of girls in uniform - police or insurgent uniforms, it did not matter. They were familiar with both these "professions" as well.

Some, who had lost siblings to trafficking by insurgents, drew pictures of a happy family together once again.

Will these girls have the opportunity to see and experience frontiers beyond? Serious and intricate as it is, this conundrum is not easily resolved through academic polemics or ideological pronouncements.

Reams have been written on the Maoist insurgency and it has been recognised as the single biggest threat to internal security. However, the young middle-class, in particular those who are eager to participate meaningfully in taking India forward, need to understand these complexities through means and medium that they can identify with and quickly grasp.

To that extent, the recently released Hinglish feature film, Buddha in a Traffic Jam, is a creditable attempt at raising awareness on the complexities in conflict.

It opens the space to find creative ways to raise and resolve issues that can resonate with young India on a subject that is otherwise removed from everyday public consciousness.

Perhaps, it will lead privileged young people to steer in the direction of Gomti's village to seek and solve. Gomti's children deserve it.

Writer

Vanita Viswanath Vanita Viswanath

Independent professional in gender and entrepreneurship and advisor to social enterprises.

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