Jamshedpur, July 7: Police arrested a 26-year-old rebel with 13 “new recruits” aged between nine and 13 years, five girls among them, at Sonua block in West Singhbhum, 140km from Jamshedpur, on Saturday evening, this sensational arrest triggering a full-fledged combing operation in the area today.
Calling the trend of Naxalite groups recruiting tribal children as young as nine to form young armies “highly dangerous”, West Singhbhum superintendent of police (SP) N.K. Singh said a joint police and paramilitary combing operation started today to stop the practice in West Singhbhum.
Underdeveloped Sonua block, flanking Saranda, is under the stranglehold of Maoist area commander Jeevan Kandulna, and overseen by zonal commander Krishnaji Prasad, is vulnerable to children being preyed upon by rebel groups.
SP Singh said the 26-year-old rebel, arrested in Gudri village while herding 13 children and identified as Cheimur, had told parents that he would put them in good schools and feed them well. However, the children were told they would get “arms training for six months and a monthly stipend of Rs 400 each”.
Of the 13, three boys and two girls were enrolled in schools, but all came from families so poor that scrounging for forest produce was their prime source of livelihood.
As in the case of Godda’s parents sending even five-year-olds to Kerala orphanages in the hope that they would be fed and schooled, West Singhbhum’s parents also took a similar gamble.
The mostly successful anti-rebel offensive in Saranda forced Naxalites to change tack, said the West Singhbhum SP. “Rebel leadership focused on training children. In poor villages, hungry, illiterate or barely literate children are most vulnerable. They are weaned away from homes under false promises or told glamorous stories of arms training and promised monthly stipends,” he added.
After Cheimur’s arrest, the 13 children were first handed over to their respective parents. Then, with the consent of parents, all 13 were lodged at Childline Centre, a reformatory home run by child welfare department in Sonua.
The SP added that the police became suspicious of fishy goings-on when two boys of Lodai village in Sonua block, 2km from Gudri, told their mukhiya last week they had escaped from a Naxalite camp in Porahat forests after staying there for two months.
One of the deserters, a 15-year-old former recruit, had told the mukhiya that they hated the Naxalite camp as they had been forced to learn how to handle guns.
They were neither treated well nor paid a penny of the promised Rs 400-per-month stipend, the boy was quoted as saying.
This incident caused the police to keep a close watch on Sonua, leading to Saturday’s sensational arrest.
“Right now, a combing operation is on both in residential areas and forests. We are interrogating every stranger spotted at Sonua. If rebels try catching docile children again, we are prepared to prevent it,” said the SP.
Two months ago, well-known Naxalite and area commander of Porahat forest Chakro Chaki was also caught and arrested at Sonua block while trying to recruit a group of children.