The conflict in Indias Chhattisgarh state has irreparably damaged childrens lives. All parties to the conflictMaoist rebels (Naxalites), state-supported anti-Maoist vigilante groups (known as Salwa Judum), and government security forceshave recruited children in different capacities that expose them to the risk of injury and death. The dramatic escalation of the conflict since mid-2005 has also caused massive displacement, resulted in the destruction of dozens of schools, and severely impacted childrens access to education.
The armed movement by Maoist groups, often called Naxalites, spans four decades and 13 states in India. They purport to defend the rights of the poor, especially the landless, dalits (so-called untouchables), and tribal groups. Their repeated armed attacks against the state led the Indian prime minister in 2006 to describe the Naxalite movement as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by the nation. Naxalites have maintained a strong presence in southern parts of Chhattisgarh since the 1980s.
The Naxalites recruit children between ages six and twelve into childrens associations called bal sangams, where children are trained in Maoist ideology, used as informers, and taught to fight with non-lethal weapons (sticks). Naxalites typically promote children above age 12 to other wingschaitanya natya manch or CNMs (street theater troupes), sangams (village-level associations), jan militias (armed informers), and dalams (armed squads). In sangams, jan militias, and dalams, Naxalites give children weapons training with rifles and teach them to use different types of explosives including landmines.
Children in jan militias and dalams participate in armed exchanges with government security forces. Children in bal sangams, sangams, and CNMs do not directly participate in hostilities, but are nevertheless open to attacks by government security forces during anti-Naxalite combing operations. Children recruited into dalams may not be permitted to leave, and may face severe reprisals, including the killing of family members, if they surrender to the police.
In June 2005 popular protests against Naxalites in Bijapur district in southern Chhattisgarh sparked the creation of Salwa Judum, a state-supported vigilante group aimed at eliminating Naxalites. Salwa Judums activities quickly spread to hundreds of villages in Bijapur and Dantewada districts in southern Chhattisgarh. With the active support of government security forces, Salwa Judum members conducted violent raids on hundreds of villages suspected of being pro-Naxalite, forcibly recruited civilians for its vigilante activities, and relocated tens of thousands of people to makeshift government-run Salwa Judum camps set up along main roads.
Salwa Judum leaders have coerced camp residents, including children as young as 12, to participate in Salwa Judum meetings and raids along with government security forces. During these raids, children have participated in beatings of villagers, pillage, and burning of villages. Families who refused to participate in Salwa Judum activities have been beaten or subject to fines.
To counter Naxalite activity in Chhattisgarh, the central government has deployed over 10,000 government security forces, including the Indian Reserve Battalions (IRBs) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). In addition, since mid-2005, the Chhattisgarh state police have recruited camp residents, including children, as auxiliary police or special police officers (SPOs) to assist government security forces in conducting anti-Naxalite combing operations and providing security to camp residents. Since mid-2005 around 3,500-3,800 SPOs were appointed, including children as young as 15 years.
Police give SPOs some basic weapons training but in general their training is far inferior to that given to civil police. The Chhattisgarh police often use female SPOs for guard duty, while deploying male SPOs along with paramilitary police on anti-Naxalite combing operations, relying on their knowledge of the area to help navigate the jungle terrain. SPOs perform the roles of paramilitary police while on such operations, and execute orders to kill or beat captured suspected Naxalites. SPOs are often caught in armed exchanges with Naxalites on such anti-Naxalite combing operations. Many SPOs, including an unknown number of children, have died during such armed exchanges and in Naxalite detonations of landmines and improvised explosive devises (IEDs).
Police have recruited SPOs with little regard for minimum age standards. Some school-going children have dropped out of school and become SPOs because the monthly SPO salary of 1,500 rupees (roughly US$37) presented an alternative livelihood opportunity for camp residents who had lost their homes and access to their fields. Becoming an SPO, however, places children not only at risk of attack during armed operations, but also at increased risk of reprisals from Naxalites as perceived traitors. As a result, many believe that SPOs can never return to their home villages.
Neither the Naxalites nor the Indian authorities have taken effective steps to end the use of children in armed hostilities. Indeed, the recruitment and use of children from age 16 is part of CPI (Maoist) (a prominent Naxalite political party in India) policy and acknowledged practice. Chhattisgarh police officials claim that underage SPOs have been removed from SPO ranks, but villagers and SPOs themselves confirm that children continue to function as SPOs. Neither the Indian central government nor the Chhattisgarh state government has a plan for the rehabilitation of such children, whether from the ranks of the SPOs, or from the Naxalites. There is also evidence that the Chhattisgarh police arbitrarily detain and torture suspected child Naxalites.
The conflict has also prevented many children in affected areas from continuing their education. The havoc of the conflict coupled with the violence unleashed by Salwa Judum members and government security forces has forced some parents to stop sending their children to school. Government security forces have used many school buildings for military purposes, leading Naxalites to destroy many of them in the area. Human Rights Watch has information about approximately 20 schools that Naxalites have destroyed.
The Chhattisgarh government has merged or relocated many residential schools to locations in or around government-run Salwa Judum camps. The Dornapal residential school, for instance, was originally a day school, but now houses 12 residential schools for around 1,000 children. Children study under tents and in corridors for lack of space. This shift of residential schools from interior locations to camps has, in some cases, forced children to break or limit contact with their families living in interior areas. Despite the consolidation of schools in the camps, an estimated 40 percent of children residing in the camps still do not attend school.
Children of families that fled to Andhra Pradesh state face a language barrier to education. These children were educated in Hindi in Chhattisgarh and now face an alien medium of education (Telugu) in the government schools of Andhra Pradesh. As a result, local NGOs report high dropout rates among displaced children of school-going age. Despite being aware of this problem, the Andhra Pradesh authorities have yet to address it.