Chhattisgarh’s Children, Nobody’s Children

By Manipadma Jena,Womens Feature Service

A traumatised Sunita Hemla, 13, has lived every moment of her father’s last hours – a thousand times over. Three years ago, in the dead of the night, seven masked Naxal men came to their home in Santoshpur village of Bijapur block in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. They demanded that her father step out or else they would kill Sunita and her two siblings. Fearing for his children’s lives, Masa Ram gave himself up. At dawn, his battered body was found in their backyard.

Sarita Netam’s father, Ganapat, the headman of the Ambelli ‘gram panchayat’ in Bijapur, was killed because he would not give the Ultras the 24 boys and girls they were demanding for induction into their cadres. “Two days after they took him, my elder aunt in the neighbouring village found him in her millet field, his limbs tied together, with multiple hatchet wounds. He had been repeatedly dunked into the village pond with the objective of extracting information and then left to die,” says Sarita, 14, in a whisper.

Mahesh Gagda, a Chhattisgarh legislator from Bijapur in Bastar district, recently alleged that Maoists had strapped arms – even AK-47s – on children in order to dodge police security.

Chhattisgarh has been one of states most affected by Naxalite violence. According to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs figures (2004-2008), 1,483 people have been killed, of whom 828 are civilians. Since 2005, Dantewada district in particular has been locked in a civil war-like situation, with the security forces; the insurgents; and an armed vigilante anti-insurgency mass movement known as the Salwa Judum (ironically meaning a movement to restore peace) mounting attacks on one another and their supporters.

The Salwa Judum started in Bijapur district in June 2005 as a force to counter Naxalism, and later spread to Dantewada. It soon became a vigilante outfit spreading its own brand of terror. The Salwa Judum would visit villages, hold pre-announced meetings exhorting local tribals to resist the Naxalites and then proceed to capture alleged Maoists who often ended up killed. There were many occasions when the Salwa Judum would run amok, burning down the houses of known or suspected Naxalites in the region.

The resultant atmosphere of conflict and uncertainty forced local tribals to flee, deserting their homes and villages. They would either shift to government relief camps guarded by Salwa Judum activists – often forced by Salwa Judum activists to do so – or move to the bordering districts of Andhra Pradesh. Others would disappear into the forests seeking the protection of the Naxalites.

Caught in the crossfire are thousands of innocent children. Not only have they been dislocated in every way, having lost their homes, access to schooling, food security and healthcare, in many cases they have also been left orphaned. Both the Salwa Judum and the Naxalites have used them as ‘soldiers’ and ‘weapons’ in this ‘war’.

There are also many young boys and girls who have joined the Chhattisgarh police service, as Special Police Officers (SPO). Recruited for a salary of Rs 3,000 (US$1=Rs 48.13), under Section 17 of the Police Act, 1861 and Section 9 of the Chhattisgarh Police Act, 2000, these youngsters are often in the frontline of the offensive against the extremists.

As is apparent, the biggest casualty of this conflict has been the education and well-being of children. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Dangerous Duty’ (September 2008), around 40 per cent of the children between ages six and 16 residing in government sponsored rehabilitation camps are not attending schools. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in its inquiry report (2008) on Chhattisgarh conducted in response to writ petitions alleging excesses by security forces and Salwa Judum cadres and the miserable living conditions in the relief camps, has noted that many schools buildings have been occupied for months and are being used as operational bases by the Salwa Judum and security forces. The Naxalites, in turn, have attacked these bases, destroying many school buildings. Inadequate teacher strength, and a reluctance to seek postings in this troubled area is another major problem.

International humanitarian law under the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) prohibits the destruction of schools, considered civilian objects, unless such buildings are occupied by the military. The Indian National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights (NCPCR) has also recommended that schools should be recognised by all players as ‘zones of peace’.

According to the Chhattisgarh government, in order to prevent the indigenous people from joining the ranks of the Naxals, 50,000 people from 480 villages have been housed in 23 government sponsored makeshift relief camps in Dantewada and Bijapur. But this has added to the dislocation. Since 2005, when these government camps came up, 260 schools from deserted villages in Dantewada and Bijapur have been relocated or merged.

The highest concentration of tribals in a state that has a tribal population of 32.4 per cent (Census 1991, some Census 2001 data unavailable for Naxal impacted districts) is in Bastar and Dantewada. The long drawn out conflict in the area has only worsened the situation of this community that is already marginalised in terms of literacy and health care. Dantewada’s literacy remains abysmally low – 20.5 per cent for women and 39.5 per cent (2001 data) for men, compared to the state average of 65.18 per cent. The district has very high drop-out levels.

In fact, in both the affected districts, education beyond Class V is almost impossible for local children. These are children with a lost childhood, exploited by political activists as informers, or as planters of landmines and bombs. They are also sometimes made to engage in direct armed hostilities.

And there are no winners in this never-ending conflict. Take Kamli Hapka, 37. She narrates how she lost her husband Mangu, a Sarpanch (village council head) of Ghumra in Bijapur, to Naxal violence. Later her son was lost to her because he joined the Salwa Judum. Her daughter Aarti, 12, had to be sent away to the Kanya Ashram (residential school run by the government) in Dhonora. But the ashram was set on fire and today Aarti lives at a Raipur shelter for children affected by conflict. Although she is safe, she is also 500 kilometres away from her family and the environment that she had once called home.

Aarti, Sunita and Sarita live with 26 other girls in Raipur. The government has allowed such relocations. That is because in many camps there is inadequate security, shelter, sanitation and healthcare. Mobile health services set up in a few camps are often ill equipped and ‘anganwadis’ (government child-care centres) are few and far between. People still prefer visiting local medics dealing in traditional healing practices to seeking government health care facilities which are in any case pathetic. The District Collector of Bijapur is on record for stating that there is only one doctor in the entire district. Nine Community Health Centres and 34 Primary Health Centres make up the total health care infrastructure in Dantewada, most of them bereft of qualified staff.

In India, as elsewhere, Maoist movements were born largely out of economic and social injustices, and violence. Today the legacy of state neglect has all but destroyed the future of hundreds of families in Chhattisgarh today. A whole generation of Sunitas, Saritas and Aartis have been rendered as nobody’s children.

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