From the highway, I walked towards the jungle. As I prepared to take my notepad from my vehicle, a vigilant CRPF personnel swiftly approached, urging me to halt.
"Beyond this marked boundary, Mam," he cautioned, "you are not allowed to go. Our dog squad team has swept only the marked area.”
I was in Nakulnar village, nestled within Kuakonda tehsil of Dantewada district in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh, an area deeply affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE), commonly referred to as Naxalism.
The Naxalites or Maoists operate from dense forests, their covert activities shrouded in secrecy, and anyone unfamiliar with the terrain becomes susceptible to their attacks, especially their infamous landmine-triggered explosions.
“We are, of course, their prime targets,” the soldier said. “They want our firearms, ammunition and boots."
For six decades, Maoists have been waging an armed rebellion against the government, claiming they are fighting for the most destitute and marginalised people.
Maoist literature says they are fighting "eco-imperialist exploitation" by multinational companies and the "social oppression" of India's caste system, but the government maintains they are anarchists seeking to overthrow the Indian state.
The rebellion has claimed thousands of lives, including many tribals who are routinely killed on accusation of being informers.
Chhattisgarh remains the worst-hit state in the country with half of the violent incidents involving the Maoists reported from Bastar region alone. However, the Narendra Modi-led Central government said last year that since 2014, incidents of LWE have come down by 77 per cent.
As we made our way back towards the road, the soldier said that the worst fate for his kind is to be caught alive in a Naxal ambush. "I witnessed one of our men being bound to a tree and set ablaze merely 50 metres away," he said.
“We helplessly watched him burn, his cries unbearable, while our commander forbade us from intervening. The chief said he couldn't risk the lives of many for the sake of one."
Though it was forbidden to venture into the forest, which seemed devoid of human habitation from the vantage point of the highway, hundreds of forest-dwellers were flocking towards us on 4 July.
The event was a camp organised by the Central government agency entrusted with protecting children's rights, presided over by chairperson Priyank Kanoongo. The venue was a government-run residential school for girls.
The villagers, almost entirely comprising of tribes such as Marias, Halbas, Dorlas and Gonds, cluelessly walked through the campus, clutching small polythene bags filled with government documents. Female volunteers, numbering nearly a hundred, guided the puzzled villagers through the counters.
Almost every villager wanted Aadhaar cards and birth certificates for their children. They were driven by a singular ambition — to secure admission for their offspring into the myriad of government-operated residential educational institutions lining the highways.
The camp, which in administrative parlance is called a “Bench”, was organised as part of an initiative taken by PM Modi to uplift 115 districts in India particularly low on human development indices. They were marked as ‘aspirational districts’ by NITI Aayog in 2019.
Dantewada found itself among the 10 Chhattisgarh districts included in this transformative agenda, alongside Bijapur, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Korba, Rajnandgaon, Mahasamund and Sukma.
In these Naxal-affected areas, well over half of the children find solace in the security of hostels, attending schools affiliated with these residential facilities. Parents typically meet their children during Saturday markets organised along the highways.
One such parent, Lakshmi, visited the camp solely to catch a glimpse of her daughter as a bus transported villagers to the school, facilitated by Anganwadi workers. Lakshmi's daughter, Roshni, said she wanted to join the police when she grows up (look at the feature image).
In this region, a palpable ideological rift separates those who inhabit the forests and those who reside near the highway — individuals frequenting government-run schools, colleges, hospitals, administrative offices, and security personnel encampments.
The latter is perceived as indifferent or hostile to the Naxalite cause. Village leaders involved in road construction are frequently targeted — roads symbolise the potential exploitation of forest resources by external entities, they say — and security personnel are bombed.
However, children and teachers appear to be exempt from the ire of the Maoists, and their families in the villages are usually untouched.
Over a decade ago, during the peak of the insurgency in Chhattisgarh, hundreds of schools in the Bastar region's forests were either burnt or forcibly closed by the rebels. They saw the schools as hideouts for armed forces.
From 2010 onwards, the government has been building a chain of residential schools called ‘porta cabins’, which are made of prefabricated material like bamboo and plywood to assure villagers that they would not be utilised by security forces.
I met Idme, who lives in Pedka, a sparsely populated village of 200 people, located about 30 kilometres into the forest. She belongs to the Maria tribe that is numerically greater in strength than other tribes but equally impoverished.
A school teacher who assisted as a translator from Gondi to Hindi, shared that Idme is a mother to two children, both under the age of five, and she aspires to enroll them in residential schools.
That would not only safeguard the children from the clutches of violence but also grant them an education free of cost.
Idme’s husband cultivates Kosra rice and paddy. Idme supplements their income by selling cow dung to the state government, earning Rs 1,000 per month.
This combined revenue sustains the household of Idme but remains inadequate to provide her children with education and growth.
The hundreds of hostel-cum-schools set up in the insurgency-hit areas of Chhattisgarh along the roads, provide free education and stay to children from primary to Class XII.
The Union Tribal Welfare Ministry, too, runs a chain of residential schools called Eklavya catering especially to tribal students. Under the Modi government, the number of such schools across the country has jumped from 119 in 2014 to 401 in 2022. Four such schools are operational in Dantewada alone.
The enrolment in residential schools in Chhattisgarh is high, but so is the dropout rate.
It's common for families to withdraw their children from schools to contribute to farming duties or make them take extended breaks during the chilli crop season in February and March when tens of thousands of villagers migrate to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for chilli harvesting.
Consequently, children either toil as chilli-picking labourers or remain at home, tending to younger siblings in their parents' absence.
These dropouts become susceptible to Maoist recruitment, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson Priyank Kanoongo told Swarajya, adding, “particularly those lacking in essential government documents like Aadhaar cards and birth certificates. That renders them outside the reach of governmental monitoring.”
In close proximity to Idme's village lies Aranpur, the site of a bomb attack two months ago, which claimed the lives of 10 policemen and their driver at the hands of the Maoists. Notably, four out of the 17 arrests made in the incident are of children (below the age of 18). Most assailants originated from Idme's village, Pedka.
I met Yuvraj Singh Bhaskar, an eyewitness to the 26 April blast. Yuvraj, driving the convoy's second vehicle, narrowly escaped by sheer fortune. "I had trailed behind the lead vehicle and happened to slow down just minutes before the blast occurred," he said.
Vividly recalling the horrifying scene, he said the front vehicle abruptly soared into the air before it burst with a loud explosion. It reduced to rubble within seconds.
Armed officers emerged from his vehicle, weapons at the ready. Yuvraj sought refuge beneath the vehicle. Fifteen minutes of incessant gunfire ensued between the police and Maoists before he seized an opportunity to retreat.
While hiding, Yuvraj activated the camera on his iPhone by swiping left and captured part of the firefight. This footage was later played by news channels. Yuvraj now recollects spotting groups of two or three children at various points along the road leading to the blast site, saying they may have been informants.
Maoists are known to maintain a separate faction dedicated to children, known as "Bal Sangham”. The young recruits undergo ideological indoctrination and training to act as informers, disarm security forces and plant improvised explosive devices. They play a vital role in the Maoist guerilla warfare strategy.
As per police, the minors arrested in the attack were members of Bal Sangham.
I met Lachchu, a resident of Bijapur district, who joined Bal Sangham over a decade ago at the age of 14 but surrendered to the police in 2015.
When asked about his motivations for joining the Naxals, Lachchu said that during the peak of the Salwa Judum movement between 2005 and 2008, he, like many other youths, was compelled to make a choice — either align himself with the Naxals or with the state-sponsored anti-Maoist civil militia composed of tribals.
He opted for the former. His decision was primarily influenced by the prevailing Maoist influence in his village rather than a comprehensive understanding of the Maoist ideology. “Our village was a meeting point of the Naxals,” he said.
At the time of his recruitment, Lachchu had only completed his seventh grade education and quit studies.
During his tenure with the Naxals, he recalls attending numerous gatherings where leaders fervently championed tribal rights over "jal, jungle, zameen" (water, forest, land) and made strategic decisions concerning the movements of their cadres.
Occasionally, higher-ranking leaders from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh would come to Bastar, erecting tents, setting up their computers, and conversing in Hindi or English.
Over time, Lachchu grew weary of the movement and became disillusioned with the proclaimed goal of achieving equality.
In early 2015, Lachchu severed ties with the Naxals. He quietly left them after leaving a letter penned in Gondi, declaring his decision, and pleading with the leadership to spare his elderly mother, who resided alone in the village.
Lachchu reveals that he last saw his mother in 2017. “She looked frail and old,” he recalls.
Lachchu is now employed with the police force.
At the camp, all visitors were handed a token number — more than 600 tokens had been issued by the time the camp wrapped up — and individually asked about their problems.
Sunil, who had come from a hamlet of 250 people called Doridas, wanted to resume school after Class VI, but did not have Aadhaar.
In absence of the document, his school had refused to provide him uniform and books. So Sunil dropped out.
His application was promptly taken. An official from the district administration marked his case as priority.
Sannu Madia from Khutepal, which is about 11 kilometres into the forest, told in broken Hindi that he wanted his children to stay away from the village. Sannu wishes his children study and move to a town like Jagdalpur for a job.
By the end of the camp, it seemed that schools and Aadhaar enrolments have become a mode of silent communication between the insurgents and the government.
The enthusiasm suggested that this communication is moving in a healthy direction. The villagers and the government, it was clear, want well-being of the children.
Camps like these are risky for organisers and participants. The one on 4 July had permission only until 3 pm. Beyond that hard stop, the security personnel called it unsafe even for villagers.
Officials who Swarajya spoke to, said the turnout was overwhelming and that they had not expected even half the numbers.
In the next two days, the camp moved to Bijapur and Sukma.
Sunita Ramchandra Godbole, who shifted from her native state of Maharashtra to Chhattisgarh in early 1990s along with her husband to work for the tribals, said the forest dwellers were increasingly pushing their children in education.
Godbole had briefly shifted to her native state in 2010 when the insurgency was high but returned to her “karmabhoomi” after a few years.
“A lot has changed since those times,” she says.
“Villagers now want their children to study. But the schools located in villages are either closed or are without teachers. Moving out of the forests is an obvious outcome of education,” she adds.
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