(New York) - Indian security forces and Naxalite rebels should immediately end the use of children in the conflict in Chhattisgarh state in central India, Human Rights Watch said today. Using children under age 18 in armed operations places them at risk of injury and death and violates international law.

All parties to the Chhattisgarh conflict have used children in armed operations. The Naxalites, a Maoist armed group, admit that it is their official practice to recruit children above age 16 in their forces, and have used children as young as 12 in armed operations. Government-backed Salwa Judum vigilantes have used children in violent attacks against villages as part of their anti-Naxalite campaign. The Chhattisgarh state police admit that they had recruited children under age 18 as special police officers (SPOs) due to the absence of age documentation, but claim that all children have been removed from the ranks. However, Human Rights Watch investigators in Chhattisgarh found that underage SPOs continue to serve with the police and are used in counter-Naxalite combing operations.

“A particular horror of the Chhattisgarh conflict is that children are participating in the violence,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch and member of the research team. “It’s shameful that both India’s government and the Naxalites are exploiting children in such a dangerous fashion.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Indian central and Chhattisgarh state governments to develop a scheme to identify, demobilize, and rehabilitate both underage SPOs and children among Naxalite ranks.

The 58-page Human Rights Watch report, “Dangerous Duty: Children and the Chhattisgarh Conflict,” updates information on the use of children by all parties to the conflict, the harm they have suffered, and the adverse impact of the conflict on children’s education. The report is based on information gathered from more than 160 interviews with villagers, Salwa Judum camp residents, police, SPOs, and former child Naxalites in Chhattisgarh state.

Human Rights Watch found that since mid-2005 the Chhattisgarh police have recruited and used an unknown number of children among the more than 3,500 in Dantewada and Bijapur districts of southern Chhattisgarh. Most SPOs are recruited from indigenous tribal communities that have been displaced to Salwa Judum camps. They assist government security forces in counter-Naxalite paramilitary operations in the region. Many eyewitnesses of joint raids by government security forces and Salwa Judum members described seeing dozens of children dressed in police uniforms armed with rifles. Several camp residents recounted how police and Salwa Judum members urged them and other children to enroll as SPOs, and they recounted recognizing children who were school dropouts serving as SPOs.

In late 2007, the Chhattisgarh police admitted to Human Rights Watch that they had accidentally recruited underage SPOs, but claimed that they had since removed around 150 officers from the ranks, including children. While there is no evidence of new SPO recruitment since March 2006, both SPOs and community members confirmed that SPOs under age 18 continue to serve with the police. Several SPOs interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the police had recruited them when they were underage, and boasted that they continue to serve at the forefront of dangerous armed operations. They were also unaware of any initiative of the Chhattisgarh police to identify and rehabilitate SPOs that were underage. None of them reported being asked to produce age-related documentation or having undergone age verification tests in the recent past.

In July 2008, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs denied as “absolutely false” Human Rights Watch’s finding that underage SPOs were recruited by the Chhattisgarh police. This denial contradicts the Chhattisgarh police’s admissions both to Human Rights Watch and to government bodies such as the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, that they had recruited underage SPOs.

“Police recruitment of children as SPOs has made these children prime targets for Naxalite reprisals,” said Becker. “Instead of vacillating between admissions and denial regarding their use of children, India should act to immediately conduct age verification tests for all SPOs, remove those under age 18, and provide them with education and alternative employment.”

Even after three years of their initial recruitment, the Indian central and Chhattisgarh state governments have yet to develop a rehabilitation scheme for those underage SPOs they have allegedly removed.

Naxalites in this region have recruited and used children for more than a decade. They deploy children to gather intelligence, for sentry duty, to make and plant landmines and bombs, and to engage in hostilities against government forces. They organize children between ages 6 and 12 into bal sangams (children’s associations), indoctrinating, training, and using them as informers. Typically, children above the age of 12 are recruited into other Naxalite ranks and trained in the use of rifles, landmines, and improvised explosive devices. Children in Naxalite dalams (armed guerrilla squads) are involved in armed exchanges with government security forces. Even those children who are not part of dalams are at high risk, as evidenced by an SPO who said he was instructed to open fire on a group of children, believing them to be a Naxalite street theater troupe.

“Naxalite use of children in the name of a ‘people’s war’ is completely unacceptable,” said Becker. “Naxalite commanders should release all children from their ranks, and take strict measures to prevent further recruitment, training, and use of children in any capacity.”

Children who desert Naxalite ranks and surrender to the police seeking protection find themselves in a vicious cycle. Not only are they subject to brutal reprisals by Naxalites, but they may be re-recruited as informers or SPOs by the Chhattisgarh police, under the garb of “rehabilitation for surrendered Naxalites.”

Human Rights Watch also found that the Chhattisgarh police have arbitrarily detained and beaten suspected child Naxalites. Child Naxalites who are arrested by the police should be treated in accordance with established international and national juvenile justice standards, and a separate rehabilitation program should be devised for them, Human Rights Watch said.

India is party to the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The protocol sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in hostilities, for both government forces and non-state armed groups. It also obliges the Indian government to assist in the rehabilitation of children who have been recruited and used in violation of international law.

The conflict in Chhattisgarh has also severely impaired children’s access to education. Once Salwa Judum began its operations in mid-2005, many children stopped attending school for fear of abduction. The Naxalites have destroyed many schools, ostensibly to prevent their use for military or Salwa Judum operations. Schools have been relocated to camps, where displaced children study in crowded conditions, many of them separated from their families. Those camp residents who want to return to their home villages do not have access to schooling facilities. Children who fled across the state boundary to Andhra Pradesh state seeking refuge from the violence in Chhattisgarh have been forced to drop out of school due to the language barrier in the Telugu medium public schools. Despite repeated requests to initiate bridge courses or a Hindi medium school for such children, the Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh state governments have yet to take any action.

Extracts from accounts:

“I joined the military dalam when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was studying in an ashram school [government-run residential school] – eighth standard – when Naxalites came to my hostel. I didn’t want to go. They said I could study until the 10th [standard], but I should go with them. … We got weapons training, learnt about landmines, and a little karate. … [Finally] I had an opportunity to run away. … One year after I ran away, both my younger brothers (age 8 and 12) were killed [by the Naxalites in retaliation]. They beat my mother and broke her arm. They burned our house and took all our things.”
– Former child dalam (armed Naxalite guerrilla squad) member, December 2007.

“The police asked me also to become an SPO [special police officer] but I refused because I did not want to become an SPO and commit heinous crimes. I did not want to shoot and kill people. … They do not ask anyone how old they are. Even 14-year-olds can become SPOs if the police want them to become SPOs.”
– Poosam Kanya (pseudonym), former resident of Errabore camp, December 2007.

“In Bhairamgarh, about 15 to 20 children dropped out of high school [after class 8 in 2005] to become SPOs – both boys and girls. I live in Bhairamgarh and many of these children also stay there. Now they are all SPOs. Their entire schooling has been ruined – they can never go back to school because they have discontinued education for over two years.”
– Government teacher in Bijapur district, December 2007.