In Abujh Maad — a 4,000 sq. km forest area mostly in Chhattisgarh — on December 12, police fired on tribal children attending a Maoist camp and killed a teenager, Chainu Mandawi, and arrested nine others. The police say that they were unaware of children attending the camp when they fired. The few armed Maoist cadre in the camp escaped and the police rounded up the children and sent them to a remand home.

In another part of Abujh Maad, which lies in the Maoist-controlled areas of the Chhattisgarh, a security operation in March resulted in the death of another teenager and several arrests. In June, several children were killed in a CRPF operation, this time in Bijapur, outside Abujh Maad area.

Around 240 policemen raided the day-long camp that was being attended by over 20 tribal children between the villages Sitram and Bala in Paralkot Reserve Forest area, 10 km inside the Maad. The night before, a few Maoist cadres arrived in the villages to select boys and girls, mostly below 14 years of age, for the camp.

The Maoists control the area, which has little police presence otherwise, and villagers would have no choice but to send their children if the Maoists asked. “They [Maoists] said, there would not be any arms training but asked my son to carry his Bharmar [a country-made gun], which he uses for killing wild boar,” said Munglee Mandawi, Chainu’s mother. After the post mortem, Ms. Mandawi was given Rs. 1,200 by ‘someone’ in Pakhanjore civil hospital, for the last rites of Chainu, the breadwinner of the family of six.

The Superintendent of Police of Kanker, Rahul Bhagat, in charge of the operation, acknowledged that the trainees in the camp were “children and teenagers.” “We showed sufficient restraint when we realised that most of them are unarmed children or teenagers,” said Mr. Bhagat. Regarding the death of Chainu Mandawi, Mr. Bhagat said, he was a “gun carrying member of the party and a militia commander of Bala village.” “He was killed in an encounter,” said Mr. Bhagat.

The camp set up in a rectangular space – about thirty by forty feet in size – closed from all sides by thick bamboo trees, wore a deserted look four days after the operation. Two severely underweight girls, presumably in their early teens, who were in the camp, said about 25 children had completed their morning drill when the firing started. “Around 8 a.m. we heard the sound of gunfire. There was a lot of smoke. We heard someone shouting for help but we ran,” said Dipika Metami (name changed).

Family members of the teenagers picked up by the police said their children had never visited a Maoist camp earlier. The parents were shocked when their children were lined up in the police station. “My son was wearing a tee shirt when he was picked up, but in the police station he was wearing Maoist battle fatigue,” said Sunita Mandawi of Sitram village whose son Sachin was arrested by the police.

Masuram Usendi said her daughter went to meet her friends in the camp when she was picked up by the police. Another girl, Raje, had come to meet her parents from her uncle’s place. The exact age of these children and teenagers are difficult to ascertain as the villagers keep no record of the age of their children.

The Kanker SP refused to comment on some local newspaper reports that the arrested girls were sexually abused by the Maoist cadres in the camp. The family members of the girls, in presence of other villagers categorically said that their children were never sexually exploited by the Maoists. “My daughter went to a camp for the first time last week – how can she be sexually exploited for years?” said Judu Koache, Raje’s father.

Villagers are angry that the police had fired on children. “If the police were unaware [of the children], it is an intelligence failure and they should not have been firing,” said an angry villager who refused to be identified. The Director General of Police Ram Niwas told The Hindu he will “verify” the facts.