Adults fight wars, but often they drag children into it. The Spartans of Ancient Greece created a highly martial society, with boys as young as seven being introduced to rigorous military training. But these were exceptions rather than the rule, and children were never a vital component of any military force in history. But the nature of war has changed, and an alarming trend in ongoing armed conflicts is the involvement of children in huge numbers as insurgents and soldiers. There are as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 presently serving as combatants around the globe in different capacities.1 Their average age is just 12 years old, and the youngest ever was an armed 5-year-old in Uganda.2 Scholars working on conflicts have suggested that with the rise of asymmetric conflicts in which weaker but highly motivated guerrilla forces fight powerful but less motivated national armies, the tendency to recruit children in the irregular forces have sharply risen.
“¦unlike the Maoists in central India, the rebel outfits in the Northeast have not engaged children on a large scale in combat or associated activities.
The phenomenon of child guerrillas in India is far more widespread than most realise but perhaps still much lesser than in Africa or other countries in Asia like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In India, children have swelled the ranks of many insurgent groups covering a vast swathe from the heartland to the extreme edges of the Northeast on account of interplay of several factors.3 But unlike the Maoists in central India, the rebel outfits in the Northeast have not engaged children on a large scale in combat or associated activities. The situation in the region comprising the seven states is unique, having few parallels with situations in the rest of the world.
Defining a child guerrilla is fraught with problems. For one, notions of childhood are culturally constructed and differ across societies. Western countries view a person less than 18 years as a child, but in non-Western societies, particularly among rural communities where traditional idioms remain strong, a person is regarded as an adult once he or she has completed the culturally recognised initiation ceremony into manhood or womanhood. Such rites usually take place before the person has reached 18 years. Besides, many developing societies view childhood and adulthood vis-à-vis social roles and responsibilities. Due to this gap in perception, a 14-year-old boy brandishing an assault rifle and moving with an armed outfit could be seen as a child by international human rights observers but the same individual might be viewed as a young adult by people in a rural society. However, even though the definition is contested, many elders and government officials in developing countries regard a person less than 18 years as too young to join insurgent outfits.
There are as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 presently serving as combatants around the globe in different capacities.
“Child guerrillas” are a specific category within the better-known term “child soldiers,” which means all children under the age of 18 attached to both insurgent outfits and regular government forces. A widely accepted definition of child soldiers is given by the Cape Town Principles, constructed by leading scholars and practitioners convened by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 1997. It says that a child soldier is “any person less than 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has arms.” Inside armed groups, children perform diverse and multiple roles, only one of which is fighting. Although the majority of child insurgents are boys, armed groups also recruit girls, many of whom perform the same functions as their male counterparts.
In India, child guerrillas abound in sizeable numbers in the Maoist-affected states and the Northeast, both in insurgent outfits and government-sponsored counter-insurgency irregular formations like the Salsa Judum in Chattisgarh, which is taking on the Maoists. In the Northeast, though, a replica of Salwa Judum is not found but the police and security forces actively take the assistance of overground rebels of all age groups against the underground.4 Across the northeast, a majority of the 70-odd insurgent organisations have been found to recruit and make use of children in varying degrees. The highest enrolment has been observed among the Kuki-Chin-Mizo outfits active at Chandel, Churachandpur and Senapati in Manipur, North Mizoram and some areas in the hill districts of Assam. All the 19-odd outfits belonging to this ethnic group have signed the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the government in 2008 after a brief period of an informal ceasefire.
“¦the general feeling of alienation and neglect so rampant in the region and which have drawn thousands of adults into militant groups have undoubtedly served as examples for and played a role in motivating a section of children to take the plunge.
In Manipur and Nagaland, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (IM); the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), or NSCN (K); and the Naga National Council (NNC) have children with arms in their ranks though the numbers are much less than in the Kuki-Chin-Mizo outfits. These apart, children are seen in all the ceasefire-designated camps of the four militant groups—Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), Black Widow, United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front—in Assam’s hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong.5 According to a commander of the UPDS, approximately 6–7 per cent of the army comprise children below the age of 18 who are adept in handling different weapons.
Causes of Recruitment
Research conducted by scholars in Africa and Latin America indicate that many factors contribute to enrolment of children by insurgent outfits and some causes discernible among other countries are also prevalent in the Northeast. To begin with, the general feeling of alienation and neglect so rampant in the region and which have drawn thousands of adults into militant groups have undoubtedly served as examples for and played a role in motivating a section of children to take the plunge. That the government has not been able to frame adequate strategies to come to grips with the situation is evident from the number of armed groups that now operate in the region compared to the situation three decades ago.