The recent rumblings on India’s northeastern border and the movement of troops on that front make me uneasy. According to someone who’s been researching the topic, at any given time there are about 50 armed conflicts going on all over the world. And in most of them, children are involved, not just as victims or as “collateral damage”, randomly paying the price for the ‘adult’ predilection for arms and ammunition. They are actively co-opted into the business of combat: recruited, armed, trained and sent out as guerillas, rebels, and even on regular, ‘official’, military duty.
Some months ago, newspapers were full of the discovery that LTTE supremo V. Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son had been killed, pointblank. Photographs showed him one moment sitting innocently eating, the next lying dead, shot in the chest. It was horrifying. The stories of children in battle are grisly and unequivocally reprehensible.
The question of child soldiers impressed itself into my consciousness when I read a book a few years ago called Children of History, about the plight of children caught up in Zimbabwe’s (the former Rhodesia) struggle for independence in the 1970s and early 1980s. One of the important leaders of this movement was none other than Robert Mugabe, who appears to have shed his freedom zeal over the years. It’s a book of personal histories, recounted by children snatched from their homes, forced to fight, punished, indoctrinated. Since then, my search for information about child soldiers led to many books as well as articles/videos online.
I learned about them in Sierra Leone from Ishmael Beah and Mariatu Kamara, in Sudan from Emmanuel Jal and Valentino Achak Deng, in Uganda from China Keitetsi. Of course, the guns and fighting are only one part of the story. You don’t have to read anything to imagine the extent of physical and sexual aggression, mental trauma, psychological scarring… the loss of family, security, childhood, identity, freedom. Name it, and it’s gone, snatched out of their hands. In the case of Mariatu, she didn’t even have hands, they had been lopped off by insurgents in Sierra Leone.
But let’s not imagine that we in India are above all this. A study released this May by the Asian Centre for Human Rights says that there are currently 3,000 child soldiers in India. And we think we live in a state of peace! An online report quotes the study as observing that “the recruitment of child soldiers is rampant, and hundreds of children remain involved in the conflicts”.
The Maoists, and insurgent and separatist groups in Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, think nothing of getting children to fight their dirty fights. Suhas Chakma, who is the director of this centre, says that in certain places, families are forced to give up at least one of their children to the Maoist cause.
One more statistic: it appears that as of March, 197 out of 640 districts in India were affected by insurgency. Some months ago there was a small news item about UN troops intervening in a conflict somewhere in Africa. One soldier was quoted as saying that he was shocked to hear children’s voices calling out for their mothers and crying as the UN troops tried to quell the fighting. He says the UN contingent discovered, to its shock, that the group they had been dispatched to subjugate consisted entirely of children! But we don’t have to go so far as the killing fields. Even within our own supposedly safe homes and schools and playgrounds, we hit children, we humiliate them, we rape them, we abuse them, we deny them. And we expect that they will grow up alright.