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India’s Forgotten Children Of War

By Meha Dixit

05 December, 2007

Child soldiering is a phenomenon which has swamped large numbers of young people in a whirl-a-gig of violence. It directly and deeply impacts those involved in this devastating practice. Repercussions of this crisis- physically and psychologically scarred children and youth, maimed individuals, heart-stricken communities, a bruised, disfigured society and a run down state marred and exhausted by years and sometimes, decades of bloodshed- all deal a blow to the functioning of a healthy and a normal society.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child 1989 (UNCRC) defines the child soldier as any person under 18 years of age who is recruited or used by an army or armed group. Some of the countries where young people below 18 years of age have been recruited or are being recruited either as part of the government forces or armed opposition groups or both include Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, Israel Occupied Territories and Colombia. The use of child soldiers is not confined to the developing world or countries affected by armed conflict. Developed countries including United States have been regularly recruiting young people below 18 years of age in their armed forces. In Europe, Britain has the lowest deployment and recruitment age. According to Amnesty International, it is the only European country that has routinely sent under-18s into armed conflict.

Child soldiers in Asia

In several countries and regions across the Asian continent, young boys and girls are increasingly being recruited by both the armed forces as well as armed militias. In 2000, the first ever survey on the use of child soldiers in Asia carried out by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSC) reported, "From Mindanao to Manipur, Aceh to Jaffna, children are recruited to serve war's ends -- as porters, 'safe' carriers for bombs, couriers, spies and combatants" (Amnesty International 2000). This report identified Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Cambodia as the countries worst afflicted by the widespread use of child soldiers.

In this Report, Coalition head Rory Mungoven identified Burma as ‘one of the world's single largest users of child soldiers,’ observing that Myanmar's military regime as well as ethnic insurgent groups together enlist thousands of children and youth as soldiers, porters and "sexual slaves." Recently the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported, ‘Myanmar is filling the ranks of its depleted armed forces with children as young as 10 and may try to capture even more boys after the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests’ (HRW 2007).

In India, child soldiers are not as wide a problem as in some neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Burma, however, if this disturbing trend is not given the attention it demands by the government of India then it is likely to reach alarming proportions. In India, child soldiers are present in several conflict zones. The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) reported that currently, at least 118 of India’s 604 districts are facing armed anti-state activities. In all of these conflict-affected districts, child soldiers are being recruited by both parties to the conflict (ALRC 2007). Children and youth are involved with insurgent groups in a number of states including Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir.

In March 2006, Asian Centre for Human Rights released its report, “The Adivasis of Chhattisgarh: Victims of Naxalite Movement and Salwa Judum Campaign”. The ACHR team which visited Chhattisgarh discovered that children were being recruited as Special Police Officers (SPOs). Suhas Chakma, Director of ACHR commented, these children were being recruited ‘with the blessings of none other than Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh,’ (ACHR 2006). In Chhattisgarh, the Naxalite child soldiers’ wing is called the Bal Mandal (Child Forum) while the members of Salwa Judum (a state-sponsored private militia) are known as ‘Special Police Officers’ or SPOs. As far as Andhra Pradesh is concerned, the ALRC claims, ‘there were reportedly 75 Bala Sangams in the state, including an estimated 800 children in their ranks in 2003. This number has likely increased by 2007, as the Naxalite movement in the State has steadily increased since 2003,’ (ALRC 2007). During an interview (2006) Mr.VaraVara Rao, former emissary of the CPI (Maoist) told me that young people below 18 years of age (16 and 17 years old) are often found in the Naxal ranks in Andhra Pradesh.

Further, the Asian Legal Resource Center recently reported that extremist factions like the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, the Jamaat-i-Islami-Hind and the Islamist Sevak Sangh have their own child soldier units. For instance, the Viswa Hindu Parisad (VHP) is reportedly recruiting girls to a group known as the Durga Vahini. In May 2007, NDTV reported on the recruitment of children by the insurgent groups on the Indo-Myanmar border. According to the NDTV report, militant outfits like the NSCN, the UNLF, and the PLA openly recruit children. Unfortunately, the issue of child combatants in India, particularly in the North East, has been relegated to obscurity.

While international attention has focused on the plight of child soldiers in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, and in Asia mostly Sri Lanka and Myanmar, there is hardly any substantial discourse on the plight and status of child soldiers in India. Although, International agencies like the United Nations do claim the existence of child soldiers in several parts of India, there are hardly any government documents and reports accessible to the public on the recruitment of children as soldiers in India. Now, to begin with, its time for a public discourse on the plight of child soldiers in India, particularly in certain Naxal strongholds and the Northeast of India.

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