Confrontations with security personnel is fairly routine for journalists reporting in Bastar in Chhattisgarh but this was the first time I had encountered a child soldier among the security personnel. It was November, 2006.
We were in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh's bleeding heart, to see how well the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was functioning in the midst of conflict and it was clear that the situation had worsened considerably in the last couple of years.
In village after village, we found burnt remnants of homes, empty shells of primary healthcare centres - polio slogans fading. Anganwadis were abandoned, walls charred, grains spilt and trodden on.
Families had been driven away to government camps in the name of security by members of the government backed anti-Naxal force, Salwa Judum, which controls four blocks of Dantewada. We found notices nailed to trees warning villagers not to return or else face severe consequences.
At the checkpost, I found it hard to strike up a conversation looking down the barrel of a gun. But I wanted to know how the boy soldier was carrying firearms. In the interiors, I knew the government had set up Village Defence Committees but none of them had guns.
Fortunately, intrigued by the camera, the teenager let down some of his guard. He told us that he had been hired as a Special Police Officer (SPO) by the Salwa Judum to monitor the movements of adivasis and vehicles. He confirmed there were many like him. His own brother was posted at the Errabore relief camp.
So far, it was fairly well known that Maoists recruited children as sangam members to work as informants or simply as porters, ferrying necessities to their hideouts. But now it was clear that the Chhattisgarh government wasn't shying away from using children either.
Chief Minister Raman Singh says he wants to stamp out every vestige of Naxalism from the state. Ironically, the job has been entrusted to these young boys with adult faces. At every roadblock, they clutch rifles bigger than them and stare defiantly at those who pass by.
In a region that is slowly turning into the bloodiest battleground in India's recent history, these child soldiers are the government's first line of defence against Maoists.
And the price they pay is steep. When Naxals attack police posts, it is usually these young, semi-trained SPOs who get shot as we saw in Rani Bodli, a small outpost in Bijapur, where 55 security personnel were killed in a midnight attack, 39 were SPOs.
But other than a head count, the police gave out little information. What they forgot to mention was those who died were mostly minors, who were dead drunk and unable to fire a single bullet because they were frightened out of their wits.
And with good reason. Picture this. The Rani Bodli post is a small school building with no lights that stands in a rough clearing, surrounded on all sides by dense forest. Sandbags offer the only protection from guerilla attacks which Maoists mount.
The 303 rifles that the government has kindly provided the SPOs with, don't always work. All their lives they have watched their fathers and brothers use bows and arrows or axes to hunt. With the Naxalite problem escalating, rifles have been thrust into hands unused to steel.
On most days though, the guns come handy. In a world defined by exploitation, guns provide a new identity synonymous with power. Finally, there's an opportunity to assert even if it mostly against their own kin. Unfortunately, it's just another form of enslavement from which there is no escape.
Losing lives apart, the community too is splitting up into shards. Brother has turned against brother - every family must choose either join Salwa Judum or else get branded as Maoists. There is no space for negotiation.
A father who refused to allow his teenage son to take up the gun was burnt to death before his son. The boy is an SPO today but who knows why? Fear drives most decisions in Dantewada these days.
A British journalist who visited Dantewada compares it to Darfur (Sudan). The devastation may be of the same scale but for me, there is a crucial difference. Sudan has caught international attention while Dantewada is nobody's baby.
Curiously, the central government, which is helping the state fight Naxalism with funds and manpower ... has so far maintained a stony silence on this issue.
But the question is, where surveillance helicopters and armoured vehicles, supercops and trained paramilitary forces have failed to control Maoist violence, arming adolescents cannot make much sense.
Friday, August 3, 2007
Senior Editor, Health and Technology
Friday, August,3 2007 (New Delhi)
The rifle cocked a bit to the left, the boy peered into the car. His face was puffy, hair wiry and dull brown a sure sign of malnutrition. He barked at me, demanding to know where I was coming from. He walked with a faint swagger in ill fitting fatigues, surveying me and my camera-person, as we looked on confused.