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In the line of fire

Thousands of children from the Gothi Koya tribe in conflict-torn Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh have become the most tragic and innocent victims of the violence between the state and the insurgents. Rajashri Dasgupta travelled to Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh where the administration has set up residential schools for these orphans and refugees

My little hands haven’t learnt beautiful writing, oh brother!
My little armpit held the plough to work the field, oh brother!
The three feet long stick I hold to poke the 30 odd oxen
Running here and there in the wilderness
My tender little feet got bruised with thorns, oh brother!
When the light disappears and darkness descends
I take the path to return home and fall asleep before mother
And father return from the day’s labour (rough translation) 

children from the Gothi Koya tribe
Students of a residential school for the displaced Gothi Koya tribals in Bhardachalam, Khammam, AP

The lament in their voices pulsated within the four walls of the classroom as the children sang in chorus about their life in the village. They were seated in neat rows on the floor of a residential school in a building abandoned by the Red Cross in Chatti village,Khammam district, Andhra Pradesh. It wasn’t necessary to understand the words; the sadness in their eyes said it all. 

Marakam Raju, eight years old, avoids eye contact and looks straight ahead. He ignores my smile, his large, sad eyes consuming his tiny face. Tall and regal Marakam Bhima looks wiser than his 11 years. With their neatly combed hair and blue checked uniforms, they look like children in any school, except for the wariness in their eyes. And that is easily explained when school teachers and local NGO members narrate some of the horrors these children have gone through.  

Raju, Bhima and the others now live in this residential school, but once upon a time they lived in villages in the thick forests of Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh, now notorious as the location of the worst ever massacre of paramilitary forces by Naxalites/Maoists who have been waging a war against the Indian state for several decades now.  

Since 2005, thousands of children and their families from the indigenous tribe of Gothi Koyas have been forced to abandon their homes. Bhima fled with both his parents from his village Gangaraj in Dantewada to Khammam across the state border, hiding in the jungles and surviving on leaves. His once-peaceful village and the surrounding area have been transformed into a zone of conflict between the government security forces and the armed Maoists. In recent years, the Indian state has stepped up its armed presence in the region and launched a major military-style campaign called Operation Greenhunt to smash the Maoists and their tribal base.  

The Maoists claim they have the support of the mostly tribal people in this and other regions. In Chhattisgarh, they targeted corrupt local officials and unscrupulous traders who exploited the people. One of the most significant struggles in the last 25 years has been to force contractors to hike the abysmal payments for tendu leaf collection, a mainstay of the economy in the area. The payment was increased 50-fold, to 90 paise for four-five bundles of tendu leaves. The Maoists also built water tanks in an arid area that is bereft of irrigation and grainbanks in villages with money wrestled from relatively well-to-do farmers. Anil Misra, superintendent of police, Khammam district, which borders Chhattisgarh, says the Naxalities “are the only sarkar (government) these adivasis encounter in Chhattisgarh. Since no government aid has ever reached them, the Naxalites have emerged as their saviours.”   

Other activities of the Maoists are not so benevolent. They dismantled the traditional tribal village structures and elected panchayats, and set up their own village committees or sanghams, said Sonde Veeraiah, member of a tribal organisation in Andhra Pradesh called Girijana Sanghkhema. They also destroyed public works like roads, schools and panchayat buildings, in the process aggravating the hardship of an already beleaguered people who enjoy few public facilities.  

The Maoist defence is that security forces abuse public facilities. Village roads are used to hunt them down while school buildings are used as military barracks and torture chambers.  

The Maoists failed to selectively isolate and target their political opponents; in the process they killed traders and local collaborators and this created fear and even alienated a section of their tribal supporters.  

The state was waiting to exploit the situation and came down brutally on the Maoists, say human rights activists. At the forefront of the attack is the state-supported Salwa Judum, a highly controversial vigilante force constituted of local people.  

Since 2005, the Salwa Judum has been on a vicious rampage, burning down villages of the Gothi Koyas, hunting down, torturing and terrorising the population so that it does not provide Maoists with support and shelter.  

One of the Salwa Judum’s victims was Raju’s father who was killed brutally in Gangaraj village. Raju fled with his uncle to Chatti in Khammam district to start a new life.  

When Raju first came to school he was in a state of shock, his teachers say. He remained aloof from the children, refused to talk and eat. According to various reports, almost 100,000 Gothi Koyas have fled Chhattisgarh, half of them to adjoining districts in Maharashtra and Orissa, the others to Khammam and Warangal districts in Andhra Pradesh.  

Some of the worst sufferers of the conflict in Dantewada are the children. Thousands have witnessed mindless violence, were forced to abandon their homes and schools and flee to neighbouring areas. Many have lost their parents, while some have no clue about the whereabouts of their close relatives and siblings. Families have been torn apart, hundreds of tribals have been killed, while some continue to stay in their native villages hiding in the jungles. Entire villages, and even members of the same family, are divided in their support – some for the Maoists, others for the Salwa Judum.  

In schools in Bhadrachalam in Khammam district, teachers say countless children have lost their parents and other relatives to the bullets of the Salwa Judum, the Maoists, or the security forces of the state.

At least six children in one residential school in Chatti have lost either one or both parents to the wrath of the Salwa Judum. Their tales are horribly similar. Bhima and his parents were lucky to escape, but his parents made the fatal mistake of going back to their village in Dantewada last year. The Salwa Judum was reportedly lying in wait and slit their throats on suspicion that they were Naxalites.  

Nine-year-old Vekanama, her hair dressed in red ribbons, is an orphan. Her parents were killed by the Salwa Judum. She fled her village, Nendra in Dantewada, with other villagers to live with her aunt in Khammam.  

Nine-year-old Vekanaresh is a veteran survivor, his family killed or scattered. The Salwa Judum killed his father, his mother escaped and remarried, while his younger brother was left behind in the village with his grandmother. Muchika Veera Badra at 12 years is an orphan living with his uncle; both his parents were slain by the Salwa Judum in Nendra village.  

Leaving behind a violent past, these first-time learners, children of the displaced Gothi Koyas, are struggling to build a new life. The Khammam district administration, following pressure from human rights groups, runs 10 residential schools for them assisted by local NGOs. As boarders, the students get three meals a day and two sets of uniforms every year. Little Raju is so poor the uniform is all he has. Communicating with the children is a huge problem since it’s extremely difficult to find teachers who speak Telugu and the native language of the children, says the district collector of Khammam, Usha Rani.

Local NGO workers say the children also suffer from malnutrition, chronic diarrhoea and skin diseases. The Andhra Pradesh government provides mid-day meals in some areas which have helped stave off malnourishment to some extent. In remote forest habitations, NGOs like SITARA (Society of Integrated Tribal and Rural Action) and ASDS (Agriculture and Social Development Society) are organising mobile medical camps, nutrition for pregnant women and schools for the children. “There is so much that needs to be done for the displaced adivasis, but our services are so inadequate and so are our resources,” says Dr Haneef of SITARA.      

The Gothi Koya children in Khammam have the chance of acquiring an education, but across the border in Dantewada, what little educational infrastructure existed has been destroyed by the conflict. Since 2005, schools, ashrams and hostels in Dantewada have reportedly become war zones. Eleven schools and hostels have stopped functioning as learning centres since they are occupied by central military forces and the state special task force. At least a dozen other schools and hostels have been destroyed by the Maoists. The children have been crammed into the few functioning schools. Many children have simply dropped out.    

Dantewada in southern Chhattisgarh is one of the most backward districts of the state with the lowest literacy rate in the country at 30%. In December 2007, a three-member team of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) visited Dantewada to assess the situation of children’s education, health and fundamental rights.  

Major recommendations of the Commission were to declare schools as zones of peace, out of bounds for all but educational purposes; restore and rebuild disrupted education and health services and infrastructure in camps and villages; assess the malnutrition levels of children; provide meals through schools and anganwadis, and monitor and support inter-state displaced children and their families.  

A year later, in 2008, the National Human Rights Commission enquired into the violation of human rights in Chhattisgarh, and among several recommendations, directed that the state should desist from housing security forces in school buildings or other facilities meant for students.  

In August 2008, NCPCR conducted a review to analyse the level of implementation of its recommendations in a pilot project. The reviewer visited Dhornapal, the largest relief camp in Dantewada with more than 60,000 inmates. While the camp is built on one side of a highway, the school is built on the opposite side on a tract of barren land. The 1,350-odd students in the Dhornapal camp school, according to the NCPCR report, are originally from five ashram schools that were once run by village panchayats but were abandoned due to the trouble in the area.  

The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), perhaps the only NGO working in the region, built toilets and taught the children cleanliness in the Dhornapal camp. But like many other organisations and individuals working for adivasi welfare, the VCA has been accused by the state security forces of being a ‘Maoist sympathiser’ and since January 2010 its director, Himangshu Kumar, has been hounded out and his ashram burnt down.  

At the Dhornapal camp, many students live in dormitories next to the school. They complained to the NCPCR reviewer that there were no toilets close to the classrooms or dormitories. At night, fearing to go out and get caught in the crossfire, they would relieve themselves next to the classrooms. The report mentions that during the day children could hardly bear to sit in the classrooms because of the stench.  

One of the most controversial fallouts of the conflict in Dantewada has undoubtedly been the misuse and destruction of school buildings, ashrams, hostels and facilities for purposes other than education. On the afternoon of June 3, 2008, when the Central Reserve Police Force occupied the boy’s hostel in Badi Shetty, the villagers grew apprehensive. They knew what would happen next. Within hours, the Naxalites attacked nearby Gondera village and destroyed the school building and hostel for girls so that the security forces could not occupy it. In May of that year, in Japra, security forces occupied an ashram school for boys, forcing more than 100 students to sleep on the classroom floors at night. 

Trees have been cut down to get a better view of approaching vehicles and people. The district collector S R Shori told the NCPCR reviewer that there was once peace in the area, but since the security forces came to this area, the Naxalites have stepped up their attacks. “It is clear that Naxalites are attacking schools and buildings because they fear these will be occupied by the security forces.”   

In response to the petition filed in the Supreme Court by Professor Nandini Sundar and others against the violent activities of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, senior counsel for the state, K K Venugopal, said in February 2010 that following the court directive, security forces had vacated occupied schools in the troubled area. The chairperson of NCPCR, Shantha Sinha, confirmed that the security personnel had vacated “a few” schools and children were back in their classes.  

District collector of Khammam, Usha Rani, says there is still no coordination or interaction with her counterpart in Dantewada regarding the displaced Gothi Koyas. Therefore, there has been no joint monitoring and support of the displaced children, as recommended by the NCPCR. “Dantewada administration should provide concrete support to the adivasis to win their confidence,” said Usha Rani. “We in Khammam cannot bear the entire responsibility.”  

Given the fact that the conflict in Dantewada has taken an ominous turn with the government stepping up Operation Greenhunt and the Maoists striking back hard to retain their political base, it is doubtful how long schools in Dantewada will remain centres of learning and not barracks to house security forces. This also means that children like Bhima and Vekanama can hardly dream of returning to their native village free of fear.  

Infochange News & Features, April 2010