The newest recruits to enter the Maoists’ fight against the ‘Demons of Democracy’ are barely old enough to hold college degrees. Maoists groups in the Western Ghats are increasingly recruiting adolescents, targeting in particular tribal students who are studying at universities in cities like Mangalore, Chikmagalur and Udupi and towns like Karkala, Kundapur and even villages.
They train the students in extortion, intimidation and regularly send them on rounds to neighbouring villages to demand protection money from residents and landlords. The acts linked to such tribal youth have set residents of the targeted areas on edge and have inspired fear in them, which the villagers say might soon turn to hatred.
The latest incident concerning an extortion bid happened in Koothagudu in Sringeri police limits. A group of armed Maoists visited the house of a local landlord, Sandesh Hegde, and demanded protection money. The police visited Hegde and confirmed that he did not give in to the group’s demands.
This is not an isolated case. The residents of areas surrounded by Maoist territory complain of frequent extortion bids. A farmer in Mandagadde said: “People in these parts have guns and some ammunition as the last line of protection against wildlife and human intruders. The first thing the Maoists ask us is if we have a gun in our house. If we answer in the affirmative, they ask us to hand it over. The next thing they ask for is money and many times we have to hand it over, fearing for the safety of our families.”
Citing the case of Mangalore University student Vittal Malekudiya, who was picked up by the Anti-Naxal Force (ANF) in March for alleged links with the Maoists, DG&IGP AR Infant confirmed that tribal youth were easy prey for the Maoists.
After the ANF was formed in 2009 (headquartered in Karkala), the infiltration from Raichur and Andhra Pradesh completely stopped and the Maoist commanders of South Karnataka, headed by Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, started recruiting local youth into the force, their first target being tribal youth.