Their mother died from fever. Their father was addicted to toddy and in a state of constant inebriation.
Kartam Shankar was then 12 and his brother Ramesh two. For about a year, they fended for themselves. Until one day, the men in green arrived in their village, deep in the jungles of Chhattisgarh’s Kutru region, bordering the uncharted Abhujmaad. They took the children with them, promising to clothe and feed them.
A decade later, Shankar has emerged from the jungles after working with the Maoists. He has surrendered to police. Ramesh still attends a Maoist school in the forests.
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Shankar’s demands are simple — food and employment. And that his brother is brought out too. In exchange, Shankar has become the police’s latest source of information on life inside a “bal sangham”. Speaking to The Indian Express in Raipur, Shankar said the Maoists came to his village of Tekla in 2005. “My mother died from fever. My father drank constantly and had no affection for us. We had to fend for ourselves. I had to ask people for food. So when the Maoists came, the villagers said there was nobody to take care of us. They took us with them.”
Shankar said that Day Singh, the man who led the team, took them to a “bal ashram” in Mundmal, on the border of Abhujmaad in Narayanpur district. There they stayed a few days, until the brothers were separated.
“Mundmal has 30-35 children under five years of age, and one teacher called Manoj. They stay there until they are ready to join the bal sangham,” Shankar said.
Shankar — at that time of “bal sangham” age — was taken to Rajmeta, where he stayed with 15 boys of his age, under the tutelage of an area commander named Aashu. There they were conditioned for the life of a rebel.
The children would wake up at 4 am and sit in silence till 6 am, or when the first light broke. “This was when police movement is at its highest, so we were told to be awake and aware,” Shankar said.
Between 6 and 8 am, the children would work in the fields, some planting tomatoes, others rice. Then there would be lessons. “In the bal sangham, we are considered almost ready to fight. So there isn’t much theory. There was one book, which the commander taught us. It said that capitalists were taking away our jungles and people’s way of life, and we were fighting to protect them,” Shankar said. With a premium on ammunition, all weapons training was done with bamboo poles fashioned into makeshift rifles.
Carefree as they were, self-preservation was built in. Each child had a uniform akin to government schools, and “civil clothes”. “If the police came, we were told to run in different directions to a village so we could blend in,” he said.
Shankar spent a year at the sangham. At 13 he joined the Rajmeta militia. Quick on the uptake, he was soon promoted to the National Park military company no. 9 in 2007, and handed a .303 rifle. But there was growing disenchantment, and a failed escape attempt. “We got nothing. No money, no peace of mind, no regular food. I didn’t know what I was fighting for, and didn’t like killing. So I tried to escape with my gun and got caught. Then I got demoted to the Buri militia,” Shankar said.
One of the reasons for his disillusionment was the failure to meet his brother, he said. He made his way to Mundmal, but was told nobody could meet the children.
DM Awasthi, Special DG Anti Naxal Operations and SIB, to which Shankar had surrendered, said, “This surrender has given us much information about how the bal sangham and schools operate. He has been part of big incidents like the Murkinar camp attack, which left 11 dead, or the Ranibodli camp attack, which left 55 personnel dead. We now have information on how they were carried out.”
On Shankar’s right ankle, a linear scar runs deep. It was in the Ranibodli attack that he first fired his .303 in an encounter, and was shot in the leg. The stitches amateurish, the wound still hurts eight years later. It is this life he wants to pull his brother out of.