Bhubaneswar, Feb 2 (IANS) “I thought it would be fun, but now I realise that I should go back to school…I was tortured in the Maoist camp,” said 12-year-old Rajani Mota Majhi, who has surrendered before police in Orissa. Officials say one out of every seven rebels in the state is a child.
Children like Rajani are getting entangled in the conflict between security forces and Maoists. Child rights activists have expressed their shock at the recent cases of arrest and surrender of juveniles.
“It is a matter of great concern,” said Anuradha Mohanty, a child rights activist and programme director of Bhubaneswar-based NGO People’s Cultural Centre.
“It is the responsibility of the state to provide a protective environment to the children. They should not be exposed to violence,” she told IANS.
Five tribal Maoists, among them a juvenile, surrendered early in January in Orissa’s mineral-rich Jajpur district. Five women rebels aged less than 17 surrendered Jan 6 with arms and ammunition in nearby Keonjhar district.
Similarly, a 12-year-old girl was among the five killed in a gun fight with police in the district of Keonjhar Jan 2. Last month, a girl aged 12 surrendered in the southern district of Gajapati.
A villager, on condition of anonymity, said parents in remote areas do not have a choice. If they inform the police, Maoists will kill them. And if they allow their children to join the rebels, they will face the wrath of the police.
Many poor tribal families and their children are living a life of duress, an activist said.
Officials say the number of children who surrendered, were arrested or killed during the past six months in the state could be over a dozen.
“Maoists are inducting more children in their cadres to use them as a shield against security forces and police during anti-Maoist operations,” Inspector General of Police (operation) Sanjeev Marik told IANS.
“Some of the children who laid down arms recently said they were forced to join the left-wing extremists,” he said.
Left-wing extremists are active in more than half of the state’s 30 districts. In each district, they have formed three to four area committees called ‘dalams’, Rayagada’s Superintendent of Police Anoop Krishna said.
Rayagada is one of the worst insurgency-hit districts in Orissa.
“Around 10-15 of the dalam’s 30-40 members are juveniles,” he said, adding that efforts are on to bring back such children to school.
Citing Rajani’s case, he said the team in which she was working had at least 10 child soldiers aged 12-14 years. The children are attracted after they see the dance and song performed by the left-wing extremists in their villages, he said.
Maoists are forcing the villagers to send their children to their camps, where they get training in arms, cooking and how to play the role of a conduit, he said. Many children are not allowed to go back to their homes.
Child rebels who have surrendered said they were disillusioned with the Maoist ideology and were facing physical and mental harassment by top rebel leaders.
A senior official of the state intelligence department said that around 700 hardcore Maoists are operating in Orissa, with at least 100 of them being juveniles.