Alice Kamei is a 14-year-old girl from the Zeliangrong sub-tribe of Nagas, living in the hills of Manipur. Her parents Chakri Kamei and Sundari are farmers, who grow organic vegetables to earn a living in Chingphu Kabui village in Bishnupur district. Like many lower middle class families in rural Manipur, they had a dream: to see their daughter excel in sports, which would ensure a government job. Alice had the potential; she had won a bronze medal at the 15th International Tribal Archery competition held in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh, in 2012.
But today, Alice is probably being trained not to become a national-level archer, but to turn into a ‘rebel’ — a ‘child soldier’ who would soon carry an M-16 rifle and wage war against the State. Missing since 10 March, Alice’s story flies in the face of the Indian State’s claim that there are no child soldiers in any terror group operating in the country. It is this blatant lie that allows rebel outfits in Northeast and the Naxals in other parts of India to continue with impunity their decades-old practice of recruiting children from impoverished, rural areas. By force or by various inducements, children are trained by these groups to become part of their armed cadre, forcing them to kill or get killed even before they turn 18.
Alice was a student of Class 9 at the Grace Reach Academy in Thoubal, close to the Imphal valley. Two days after she went missing from her hostel, the Revolutionary People’s Front — the political wing of the outlawed Manipuri rebel outfit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — claimed that she and her classmate, 15-year-old Khaidem Sanahanbi, had joined the outfit of their ‘free will’.
Though Manipur has been traumatised by the menace of ‘child soldiers’ since more than a decade, it was only in 2008 that it gained prominence in the media after Angom Rita, a 34-year-old widow from Lourembam in Imphal, went to the local police station to report the abduction of her only son, Angom Langamba. Then only 11-years-old, Langamba and his friend Yengkhom Naobi, 13, were lured away by two men to a rebel training camp of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak. Sources say there were four other boys of the same age group at the camp. It was Rita’s bold step of approaching the police that blew the lid off the ‘child soldier’ problem. Soon several other cases came to light. Civil society rallied around the demand to get the ‘child soldiers’ released and Langamba had to be set free, but not before the rebels paraded him in front of the media. “We were ordered at gunpoint to tell journalists that we had joined the outfit on our own,” says Langamba. This was just one of numerous such instances as other rebel groups in the Northeast, including the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) operating in Meghalaya, have been notorious in luring minors to join their ranks.
In 2012, another spate of child soldier recruitment was reported from Manipur. TEHELKA in its investigation, Why children are picking up the gun (14 July 2012) profiled around 10 cases of abduction that had surfaced in the Imphal valley alone in 2012. Parents alleged that minors are being abducted or lured by rebel groups to be trained as child soldiers. According to Manipur Police sources, at least 66 children aged between eight and 17, have been kidnapped and recruited as child soldiers by the rebels in Manipur in the past five years.
“The actual number is much higher, but many parents do not report abductions to the police, fearing retribution from the rebel outfits,” says Montu Ahanthem of the Manipur Alliance for Child Rights. “A commitment to seek a political solution to end the long-drawn armed conflict, instead of a repressive militarisation policy, is clearly missing on the part of the government, and the children end up as victims. In conflict-torn areas, child rights face extraordinary denial and violation.”
Forget political will to keep children away from armed conflict, it seems New Delhi believes in denying that the problem even exists. In 2011, in its first ever report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the ‘Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict’ India categorically stated that the country “does not face either international or non-international armed conflict situation”. The report was prepared by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development.
The government’s denial of armed conflict involving ‘child soldiers’ recruited by terror groups has irked rights activists. “Recruiting child soldiers and using them in armed action is a war crime in which rebels groups of the Northeast and the Naxals are involved,” says Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR). “It is an open truth. By denying it in the report submitted to UN forum, India has indirectly supported the use of children in armed conflict”.
The ACHR has come up with the first ever comprehensive study on child soldiers in the country. The report, ‘India’s Child Soldiers’, estimates that at least 3,000 children in India are involved in armed conflict: over 500 in the Northeast, recruited by terror outfits, the majority of which are in peace parleys with the Centre; and the remaining 2,500 in Naxal-affected areas. “Our estimate is conservative as the Maoists follow the policy of forcibly recruiting at least one cadre from each Adivasi family in their strongholds,” adds Chakma.
At a time when the International Court of Justice has given verdicts against terror groups in Africa for using child recruits, India has perhaps missed the bus. “This is an opportunity lost for India. Had India admitted that the Maoists and the rebels in the Northeast are recruiting child soldiers, the UN would have condemned the practice and the rebel groups would have suffered a major image crisis. But it seems there is little seriousness in tackling this issue,” laments Chakma.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, visited Manipur in April and admits that “it is crucial to acknowledge that the hands of State and non-State actors are behind these violations”. But the government is still in denial mode.
Until the government admits to the existence of child soldiers in various terror groups, there is little hope for Alice’s parents and many others like them in some of the nation’s remotest corners.
With inputs from RK Suresh in Imphal