Manipur : Teens dropping out of schools to take up guns

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    Feb 23, 2009
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    Deeply disturbing news from Manipur


    Y Rakesh Meitei of Singjamei in Imphal is a worried man. “Manipuris have got used to living amid conflict, protest, blockades but the past two months have been different,” he says. “Today, every parent is afraid, just like me.” The horrifying death of Richard Loitam, a Manipuri youth in Bengaluru had sent shock waves across the nation. But nowhere is this more felt than in this Northeastern state. But, while cases of racial discrimination against Northeasterners in mainland India continue to make headlines, parents in Manipur have no choice but to send their wards outside the state for higher studies.

    A spate of abductions of half-a-dozen minors from places not very far from state capital Imphal has caused serious concerns. In two months, around 10 cases have surfaced in the Imphal Valley alone where parents and locals allege that minors were abducted or lured by rebel groups to be enlisted as child soldiers. Amidst widespread anger and protest, the rebels were forced to set free three children. “The children were returned this time because of the public outrage,” says child rights activist Montu Ahanthem. “There are two types of child trafficking — trafficking outside the state as domestic help and child labour. The other type is abduction by rebels to recruit as soldiers. Both kinds of abduction are on the rise and, perhaps, it is time for the state government to look at it from a social perspective, rather than as a law-and-order situation.”

    Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) Shanta Sinha, during the commission’s recent stock-taking visit to Manipur, had clearly aired his disappointment at the Okram Ibobi Singh government’s failure in spotting child-trafficking and abduction by underground groups. The trend seems to have been emulated elsewhere in the Northeast. The Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) of Meghalaya fighting for a separate Garoland, have recruited as many as a hundred minors. In Tripura, the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) has also followed suit. “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 also acknowledges the abductions as a ‘grave concern’. The state government has asked every district SP to put together special teams to check child soldier cases and put their forces on red alert. Manipur has one of the highest dropout rates; at the primary level, the dropout is around 64 percent. In the junior stages it is worse, at 70 percent. “Rebels are losing support here and insurgency is on the decline in Manipur. Thus, they are left with no other option but to recruit minors,” says the Manipur home minister G Gaikhangam.

    The life of a child in Manipur is not the same as anyone of his age in mainland India. He grows up amid chaos. “Look at the amount of toy guns being sold in the local markets. Children are getting attracted to the gun culture since the long-sustained conflict in Manipur is causing stress, trauma and affecting the thought process of children. They have perhaps started to feel that there is no answer to guns and that whoever has a gun is more powerful. We have come across several children with such thinking and we try to counsel them,” says a noted human rights activist Dr Laifungbam Debrabata Roy. His organisation, Centre for Organisation Research & Education (CORE) has been working with children in conflict in Manipur. “Rock music is immensely popular here. Rock is seen as a means of protest, thus the young generation wants to vent out its frustration through rock music. In rural areas, almost all villages have monuments built in the memory of martyrs; they have seen security forces use AFSPA in a barbaric way. Add to this, there is poverty, making it easier for the rebels to tap the young minds,” Roy opines. There are enough testimonies of minors being trained to shoot. “I have been to many rebel bases as a journalist and have been able to document the presence of child soldiers but it is a risky affair here,” says Bachaspatimayum Sanzu, a journalist and National award winning filmmaker from Imphal.

    Manipur has about 35 rebel outfits operating in its hills that have enough guns to arm children. The underground group, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), leads this bandwagon. There are reports that outfits like the Kuki National Army (KNA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) also employ minors in their armed wing. According to activists, between 2009 and 2012, 338 children from Manipur who were trafficked have been rescued from outside the state; ironically, no one has records for children trafficked within the state. Local journalists in Imphal count as many as 60 cases of minors being taken away by rebels for training them into child soldiers between 2008 and 2009. In reality the count could be much more. 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’.


    Sairemkhul, Manipur

    Fourteen-year-old Sapan Suranjay was one of boys lured to join an underground outfit on 5 April this year. Suranjay, his parents, and four younger sisters live in Sairemkhul, an hour’s drive from capital Imphal. Abject poverty made Suranjay turn to the rebels. His father, Nauba Sapan Singh, is handicapped and his mother Baijanti Devi, a brick mason, has to feed the family of seven. Living on a mere Rs 2,500 per month was not an easy thing for the family, and Suranjay had to drop out of school in class VI. Suranjay and his friends — Sanjay and Santikumar — were brainwashed into joining a banned outfit by a local recruiter Emao.

    “It is very difficult to procure even the daily meals in our family. My mother was taking the load all alone. The recruiter promised me adequate money for my father’s treatment. I was not sure where he would take us, but I thought it would help my family so I went with him,” Suranjay says.

    Emao, the freelance recruiter, took Suranjay along with his two friends Sanjay and Santikumar, in a van to Imphal, where they were handed over to another middleman named -----hai. They were kept in a sleazy hotel for two days and later driven to the border town of Moreh, which is about 110 km away from Imphal. They reached Moreh at night. “We were slowly feeling sad and anxious. My other two friends also come from poor families and they too were lured into joining the banned outfit. By that time, I understood we were heading towards the rebel base. We had no choice,” Suranjay smiles.

    The rebels were waiting for the children to arrive. After crossing a stream and dense jungle, they reached a small village where they had to spend the night. “We all were dead tired. We were given food and we went to sleep. I remember the house we were put up, people could speak both Burmese and Meitei, and we understood we were almost on the Myanmar border.” Suranjay recollects his tale of reaching the rebel base.

    At dawn, an SUV came with two people and took the children to a nearby jungle. The two men then led them through a dense jungle on foot for an hour, to reach the camp. “When we reached the camp after many hours, we were not able to come to terms with what we got ourselves in. We desperately wanted to run away but knew we were trapped,” Suranjay adds.

    Suranjay and his friends were lucky. The news of their disappearance was published in local dailies; the locals in their village Sairemkhul started a vigorous protest. “Soon, we could sense from the behaviour of the top leaders in the camp that we might be set free.” The camp where they were taken had around 50 cadres. The minors were responsible for housekeeping duties. They helped in the kitchen. One week into their ordeal, the boys were asked to go back home. “We were washing clothes when we were called and told to leave immediately. We were happy but not sure if we would be trapped again,” Suranjay explains.

    The three returned by the same route, with a caution from the rebel to "not reveal any detail of your stay with us, else you know how dangerous we are”.

    Soraisam Sanjay, 14

    Sairemkhul, Manipur

    Photo: Urmi Bhattacharjee

    Suranjay lead us into a 300 sq foot hut where his friend Soraisam Sanjay lives with his parents and four siblings. Sanjay had also been lured and taken away along with Suranjay on 7 April to join a rebel group as a child soldier. Sanjay was lying on one side of a cot, shivering with high fever. “Ever since he returned, he has been unwell. We fear he has Malaria, but we do not have the money to take him to Imphal. The rural hospital here is never open,” says Rubita Devi, Sanjay's mother. Sanjay’s father Samungou Soraisam is a daily wage labourer, and hardly earns Rs 3,000 a month. Sanjay has three brothers and two sisters. The villagers informed us that Sanjay’s elder brother Soraisam Boicha, 17, had suddenly disappeared, never to come back. “We do not know where he went. We tried to find him but to no avail. So this time when Sanjay disappeared we thought we'd go mad,” Rubita adds. The locals feel that Biocha has joined a rebel group as a child soldier.

    Sanjay could hardly speak. “I had to leave my studies in class three because of lack of money. Schools in our area do not function properly; there is no teacher, so education had no meaning. Right from childhood, I have seen gun-totting rebels and police commandos. I had always felt they wielded a lot of power, so when I got the offer to join the rebel outfit I did not stop myself. The gun was an incentive. The man who took us promised us money, cell phones and good clothes,” Sanjay admits.

    Sanjay adds that the recruiter took them to a village deity and made them take oath to not reveal anything about their sudden disappearance. “I was not frightened but the other two friends of mine were. I thought a rebel’s life was better than this penury,” Sanjay says.

    “We found friends. Amuthoi and Naharol were the same age as us and had been at the camp since 2009. They trained as ‘child soldiers’ and were given the responsibility to help newcomers ‘ease’ themselves into the camp,” he adds.

    Chanam Shantikumar, 14

    Sairemkhul, Manipur

    Shantikumar has been a restless child. He left school after class III due to poor health. Later, owing to the deteriorating financial condition of his family, he could never resume schooling. His father Menglenjao Chanam, 57, tills his own land and mother Sanajaubi, 40, works as a daily wager. Shantikumar’s elder brother dropped out in class IX and helps his father in the paddy field and his younger sister Urmila goes to school.

    Shantikumar loves to play football. He was in the village football ground with his friends, Suranjay and Sanjay, when they were approached and persuaded by Emao, the freelance recruiter. “Suranjay went because he was promised money, Sanjay thought it more like an adventure. I blindly followed my friends. I also got lured by gifts like mobiles, which were promised,” Santikumar explains.

    Shantikumar says during their stay, they saw a lot of young recruits being brought to the camp. “There were some young girls who came; they were elder to us, fresh recruits. After coming here, we miss Amuthoi and Naharol, the two who were fully trained. They played with us, took care of us, perhaps had we stayed back we would have become one of them.” He recalls how the paramedic in the camp treated his eyes after it got infected during the trek to the rebel base.

    “You can see the face of our village. Broken roads, irregular power supply, no regularity in PDS, no rural hospital, no MNREGA or BPL card, no administration at all. Thus, these cases of child-trafficking are on the rise in the area. For decades we have been caught in the crossfire,” says Santikumar's father Menglenjao.

    Yambem Ningthem, 16

    Sairemkhul, Manipur

    Forty-four-year-old Megha Yambem and his wife Kunji Devi (40) are eagerly waiting for the return of their older son Ningthem, who disappeared this April. Incidentally, Ningthem had got married only a month back and his wife Nungshi, a minor, is now staying in her parent’s home nearby.

    While Megha Yambem did not want to speak about the disappearance of their son, his wife Kunji opened up. “After his wedding, he told us that he would be away from home for a few days, but has not come till date.” Locals in the area claim that the family had been contacted by a rebel outfit and that Nighthem has joined the rebels. “We have not got any call from any party (read: rebel outfit) and why should we? We do not have any relation with them, our son was innocent,” Kunji says.

    Ningthem’s family depends on agriculture for a living. Ningthem, like many in his age group in rural Manipur, dropped out of school in class IX due to lack of money. Like many of his friends, he married early on in life. “My son was a normal child, with no ill intentions. He could never complete his studies but he never complained. He set foot outside the village and worked in various places before working with the truckers. He wanted a better life for himself, his wife and all of us”.

    While the family remained tight-lipped about why Ningthem suddenly disappeared, the buzz around the village is that the minor has taken up arms at his own will.

    Aheibam Johnson, 12

    Takyel Kolam Leikei, Manipur

    Aheibam Purnimashi (76) is waiting for the return of her grandson, Aheibam Johnson, 12, who disappeared on 8 April. Johnson was still studying in class VII. His father Khogen Aheibam died in 2009, and his mother left home after a dispute. His grandmother brought him up.

    “My grandson has been abducted by the rebels. We are protesting here and trying to put pressure on the underground group to release him and I will try till my last breath to rescue him,” says a resolute Purnimashi.

    Johnson was last seen with a surrendered rebel from Johnson’s locality, identified as Kanhai. Meanwhile, Johnson’s grandmother has been toiling all over to trace her only grandson and bring him home before he's tangled up in the grip of militancy. According to Johnson’s friend, Kanhai approached them and told them that if they joined the outfit, they would have all their desires fulfilled. “We were at a shop when Kanhai came to us. He pestered us to join a UG group. Then he told me to put my hand into his pocket, there I found a grenade. I declined his offer and left him at the shop with Johnson.”

    In Manipur, many grandmothers like Purnimashi are waiting for their grandsons to return to their lap, to their home, to their studies, but the darkness looms large.

    India's Independent Weekly News Magazine — — Readability

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