When an argument broke out among the Maoists over alleged sexual affairs, seventeen year old Shanti saw her chance to escape, leaving behind a life that had proved miserable.
For Budhunu Munda, nicknamed Shanti, life with the Maoists was a life of servitude.
The seventeen-year-old escaped from a rebel camp in the deep forest, walking for five days without food or water until she reached her village home. On August 6th, accompanied by her mother, she surrendered at police headquarters in the Angul district of Odisha state.
During a brief press conference the same day, Shanti said the Maoists had lured her to join at a time when her family was struggling financially.
"After my father died, my family which comprised of my mother, a small brother and sister and myself, were in hard times," she said. "[A recruiter] came and promised me money each month. I knew nothing about the Maoists and what they stood for."
According to Shanti, her work was limited to "that of a day labourer and carrying the baggage of fellow members in the camp."
Manmohan Praharaj, Director General of Police (DGP) in Odisha, told Khabar South Asia that such experiences are not atypical. The Maoists, he said, recruit impoverished youngsters in almost the same fashion as labour contractors.
"In Shanti's case she was promised a certain sum of money each month, which actually made her a labourer not a comrade-in-arms. She was not told of the Maoists’ larger dream, but only made to carry loads on her head."
Maoist recruiter was "sleeping around"
Life in the camp was volatile and harsh, Shanti told reporters, confirming there were cases of sexual abuse. She added, however, that she herself had not been raped or otherwise abused.
Her chance of escape came when a massive argument broke out among the guerrillas. Distracted, the guards failed to notice Shanti's getaway.
"One evening a major fight broke out between Sushil, her 'recruiter', and his wife, Sonu, in which everybody got involved. Sonu was hysterical that Sushil was sleeping around with other Maoists. Shanti, who saw everybody distracted by this development, made a run for it,” said Narasingha Bol, the Angul Superintendent of Police (SP).
Incentives for surrender
It was after returning to her village that Shanti heard about the government amnesty schemes offered to surrendering militants. As part of the amnesty, she will also be entitled to cheap housing, free education and even government financial assistance if she gets married in the future.
Last month, in one of his last decisions while holding the office, former Home Affairs Minister P. Chidambaram substantially boosted the incentives for surrendering. The minimum award is Rs 150,000 ($2,710) in cash, while the amount can be as high as Rs 500,000 ($9,045) if a militant also turns in a light machine gun.
In West Bengal, also afflicted by insurgency, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has gone even further. At an August 9th public rally in Belpahari, West Midnapore district, she pledged government jobs for militants who lay down their arms.
Helpless accessories to terror
Shanti is the 17th Maoist to surrender in Odisha this year, according to Praharaj, the state's DGP.
She has denied ever taking up a gun, but admitted being on the scene when guerillas attacked a tea estate, a drinks shop and local police stations.
"Though these recruits don't wield guns, they happen to be around when raids are held, [and are used] either as human shields or porters of ammunition. But in our eyes they become 'involved' and so we treat them as Category-A insurgents, which entitles them to Rs 250,000 ($4,517) to begin a new life with," Bol, the police superintendent, said.