India: All Sides Using Children in Chhattisgarh Conflict

For Immediate Release

India: All Sides Using Children in Chhattisgarh Conflict

Rehabilitate Children in Armed Groups

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."   

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

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. 

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