By Ratnadip Choudhury
Y RAKESH MEITEI of Singjamei in Imphal is a worried man. “Manipuris are used to living amid conflict, but the past three months have been different,” he says. “Today, every parent is afraid, just like me.” In the past three months, around 10 cases of abductions have surfaced in the Imphal valley alone, where parents allege that minors are being abducted or lured by rebel groups to be trained as child soldiers. Amidst widespread anger and protest, the rebels were forced to set free three children. Montu Ahanthem, a child rights activist, says these incidents are on the rise. “The state government should look at it from a social perspective, rather than as a law-andorder situation”.
Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) Shanta Sinha, during the commission’s recent stocktaking visit to Manipur, had clearly aired her disappointment at the Okram Ibobi Singh government’s failure in controlling child-trafficking and abduction by underground groups. Elsewhere, groups like the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) of Meghalaya and the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) have also recruited minors in hundreds. “The commission has decided to take up this issue suo moto, contingent on the situation in Manipur and Meghalaya, and raise it with the Union Home Ministry,” says NCPCR member Yogesh Dube.
The Manipur government has asked every district SP to put together special teams to check child soldier cases. Manipur has one of the highest drop-out rates: 64 percent at the primary level, and 70 at the junior level. “Rebels are losing support here and insurgency is on the decline in Manipur. They feel minors are an easy recruit,” says Manipur Home Minister G Gaikhangam.
Dr Laifungbam Debrabata Roy, of the Centre for Organisation Research & Education (CORE) in Manipur, says children are attracted to the gun culture early on. “They think having a gun wields power. They have seen security forces use the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in a barbaric way. And then there’s poverty, which makes it easier for the rebels to tap the young minds,” Roy opines. Another activist, a National award-winning filmmaker and journalist, Bachaspatimayum Sanzu, says, “I have been able to document child soldiers in many rebel bases, but it is a risky affair here”.
A top commander of a banned outfit, on the condition of anonymity, revealed to TEHELKA the modus operandi: “Minors are an easier lot to train. Initially, the boys cry but they also fall in line quickly, because they are fresh and smart. By the time they are fully trained, they can serve the party for a long time. We even recruit girls, but they are not given arms training. There are some collaborators and freelancers who recruit minors for us on a commission basis.”
Manipur has about 35 banned rebel outfits operating in its hills and valleys. According to activists, 338 children trafficked from Manipur were rescued from outside the state between 2009 and 2012; ironically, no one has records for children trafficked within the state. TEHELKA contacted four families who had lost their children in 2008, never to come back, but all refused to talk because their child is now a ‘rebel’.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.