Of late, G. Gaikhangam, the Home Minister of Manipur, has been speaking to the media on the situation of minors below 18 years of age being forced to join the militant outfits in his state. He has been pointing to the increasing instances of kidnapping for conscription, making the case for reversing the situation, and highlighting the action taken by the Ibobi Singh Government in putting all police stations on red alert, etc. This phenomenon of the extremist militant outfits, particularly the Meitei groups, kidnapping Manipuri children and grooming them as their cadres, is not a new phenomenon. However, the situation seems to be gradually worsening.
The forcible recruitment of children, nurturing them during custody, and when in custody, looking after their day-to-day needs of food, clothing and shelter and gradually indoctrinating them to the operating philosophy of the militant outfits, has been evident for over nearly a decade, if not more. This indicates the inability of the state machinery to provide educational facilities and employment opportunities for the youth as well as the abject failure of successive state governments to provide a milieu in which normal life can be led by the citizens. To an extent, the trend also shows that the political parties working within the state have virtually no concern or space for the minors, and even indicates the acquiescence of the local civil society to the decline in social and family bonds, parental responsibilities and control of adults over their children.
This is an unenviable situation. On the one hand, the state does not act decisively against the militants who are destroying the very fabric of family life and the future of the local children. And, on the other, the people at large are either so terrified by the militants and also demoralised by the ineffectiveness of the state machinery that they see no alternative but to submit to the deteriorating situation and cannot organise themselves to reverse the phenomenon.
The militants have been resorting to this method of recruitment owing to the apparent difficulty in maintaining their cadres from grown-up youngsters or middle-aged people. Furthermore, the advantage of having minors who are less expensive to maintain than adults in the age range of 20 to 30 years, and accept the ideology or norms of insurgency by virtue of having impressionable minds, have not been lost sight of by the militants. However, some of the child recruits did get disenchanted while in captivity-cum-controlled environment within the outfits. In small groups, when they organised themselves and tried to break away from captivity and return to their families, exemplary punishment by way of death by shooting them before their compatriots, was resorted to, to instil fear in their minds. It was out of sheer necessity of circumstances and also, consequent on their reappraised methods of functioning wherein, well-knit versatile small groups of militant youngsters operating in a spirit of camaraderie on a long-term basis were deemed more cost-effective and optimum, that the militants embarked on recruiting their child cadres and managed to retain them under their control.
For over a decade, Manipur has been on the downslide in every respect, be it in administrative functioning, policing or financial management. Governance has been on the decline. The political leadership, particularly of the dominant parties led by the Congress, and except perhaps the Communist Party of India led by Dr. Nara Singh, have been accused of lack of probity. Sagacious intercession in the matters of the state by the Manipur Governor, Gurbachan Jagat, has also been minimal. In this backdrop, the serious long-term implications of the forcible recruitment of children or minors do not seem to have been duly considered by the governmental authorities despite periodic public protests. There have been outcries from the affected parents but the state government has only paid lip service to the issue; it has been virtually unresponsive in the matter of taking effective coercive action against the hard-core militant groups. As a result, the common people are in a state of helplessness.
The state of all-pervasive corruption prevailing in Manipur needs to be counteracted in order to bring about a turnaround in the situation. The condition of joblessness among the youth cannot but demotivate the youngsters. Therefore, instances of minors being lured away by the militant outfits with promises of money and mobiles are not uncommon. Only attractive alternatives can wean away the children from the enticements offered by the militant outfits. An approach which is community or locality based could be an alternative, involving the families at least in the Imphal Valley districts. The principals, headmasters and teachers of schools must be required to be associated with the parents of the child students not only in the matter of education but also in the beyond-the-school-hours activities of the students, and promote vocational and youth activities that empower the latter and enable them to achieve gainful employment. The Government of India may perform a catalytic role to activate such community-cum-family based endeavours with particular emphasis on sports-related and youth activities—areas in which the Manipuris naturally tend to excel—inter-alia by promoting tie-ups with youth organisations in other states. This is because the state government machinery has proved to be totally incapable of performing any positive role in this regard owing to all-pervasive corruption abetted by the governing politicians in connivance with the contractors and suppliers with a behind-the scene nexus with the large group of militant outfits.
If action to counter the child conscription phenomenon is further delayed, a generational schism may develop in Meitei society, reinforcing the militancy, anarchism and mafia-like activities presently prevalent in Manipur, thus making it more ungovernable. This would be a sad outcome to a princely state which merged with the Indian Union on 21 September 1949 with a functioning Constitution of its own and concomitant institutions and polity in place, as against the Union of India which was just about to inaugurate its Constitution after independence from the British.
Gautam Sen served as Financial Adviser of North Eastern Council with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.