‘Sapam Robin Hood of Anand Singh Higher Secondary School was hit on his face by tear gas shells lobbed by the police to quell a protest in support of the movement this afternoon at Minuthong area in Imphal East district. He was rushed to the hospital where the boy succumbed to his injuries, hospital sources said’
Children are the future citizens of any country. A society that provides its children with basic rights to support their survival, development and protection is likely to flourish. India is home to almost one third of the world’s extreme poor. Children are the most vulnerable of this marginalized populace. Although children represent about 39% of the total Indian population they have received a mere3% of the total Union Budget allocation for 2015-16. They often remain deprived of basic amenities that are essential for their development. The situation children living in conflict prone regions in India is more severe and barely identified by child centric reports, policies and schemes.
The civil uprising of 2015across Manipur, a state in North Eastern Region (NER) of India, illustrates how children and young adults get trapped in a vicious circle of violence. A 19 hour general strike called by the Joint Committee on Inner Line System demanded scrapping of ‘Manipur Regulation of Visitors Tenant and Migrant Workers Bill’ 2015, and its replacement by safeguards for the indigenous people of Manipur.(1) A student of class XI was killed in a confrontation during the protest organized by school students.
The NER, corridor to South East Asia, is an important geographical terrain for India’s ‘Act East Policy’. The region shares international boundaries with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Burma and Bangladesh clockwise from west to south. The land is a mosaic of diverse tribes and communities each with its unique ethnicity, culture, traditions and customs. During the 2014 general election, the Indian Prime Minister while offering his vision for the development of NER gave it the special nomenclature of ‘Natural Economic Zone’ (NEZ).(2) While hurriedly touring the region, he indicated various social, political, economic and ethnic concerns that he sought to address for the development of the NER.(3) Often observed as a land of armed and ethnic clashes, the new titles like, ‘Asta Lakshmi’ or ‘Natural Economic Zone’, given to the region has not changed its identity as an area of severe conflict.
Civil unrest has had a profound impact on the life of women and children across the region. The record of fatal ethnic and armed clashes in the past year alone show how a number of civilians including children are getting victimised by conflicts across NER. The mob violence, after the passing of three bills in Manipur Assembly, in Churachandpur district of Manipur claimed few lives, including a 10 year old child, while injuring many others.(4)
Prior to this violence, inter-ethnic clashes between the Bodos and Bengali speaking Muslims of May 2014, between Bodos and non- Bodos in February 2015 across the Bodo administered region of Assam, and the Assam-Nagaland border dispute resulting in violence of August 2014have disrupted civilian life and generated fear and animosity across communities. However different may be the root causes, the outcomes of these ethnic and armed clashes are similar. These clashes by and large have paralyzed civil life. A huge number of people have been displaced; most have lost their property, many have been injured and some faced death. Amidst such crackdowns, children witnessing violence get victimised by both physical and mental abuse.
Field research shows that children across the conflicted NER are at high risk of sex abuse, trafficking or becoming bonded labourers. They often face molestation by state as well as underground armed forces. A Study on ‘Child Rape in Manipur’, a retrospective study conducted over period of twenty years (1985-2004) reveals the severity of the problem. Out of 212 cases of child sexual assault, 52 cases (24.53%) were reported to be below the age of 12 years. The report observed that most child rapes occurred in rural region in 67.30%. The largest number of incidents occurred at the residence of the accused and 86.54% of the accused were known to the victims. These violent sexual assault cases especially that involving children are least reported.(5) If a case gets reported justice is highly delayed in state courts. Both physical and psychological damages caused by sexual crime are irreparable.
According to the Amnesty International (India) annual report 2014/15, a large number of children have faced death during encounters and counter encounters between the state and non-state armed forces in NER. A study conducted across NER,(6) reveals that, in some interior regions of Manipur, families of young adults are forced to send their children to serve underground armed groups. Such forced child soldiering largely goes unreported and there is no route for the young adults to return to normal life.
At a more mundane level, but no less important, institutions like schools, colleges, public health centres, community centres, administrative offices become dysfunctional during the conflict and after. The communal unrest of Manipur’s Churachandpur district shows that children are not only deprived of a regular civil life but are also marginalised in terms of family support networks as women and men across the district participated in long-lasting mass protest. The breakdown of social systems during and post warfare plays havoc with children’s lives. They are left bewildered fighting for their survival with little hope of receiving support from their distressed family or community members. Such circumstances affect both their cognitive and affective wellbeing.
The traumatic experiences of a child under situations of conflict leave bitter impressions on their mind, often creating sense of fear, depression, anxiety and other Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) syndromes. These feelings multiply over a period of time under recurring conditions of violence as in the case of NER. The report prepared by NESRC in 2013/14 reveals that some children have harboured animosity against conflicting communities due to long drawn conflicts and the damages it caused to their families. Most of them often became victims of depression and anxiety during and post conflict situation. (7)
The psychological and social restoration of children affected directly or indirectly by conflicts across NER is extremely important. Unfortunately, this has been neglected. Short term monetary aid provided by the state post warfare does not suffice to compensate for greater losses. The loss of parents, guardians, relatives, loved ones and the consequent collapse of community life drains a child emotionally leading to multiple behavioural issues. Under such circumstances, a child is in immediate need of social and emotional support; the problems relating to their emotional instability require urgent attention. It becomes a joint responsibility of the state, civil society bodies and the community as a whole to help children during this emotional crisis. These agencies together can help in building a safe environment for conflict affected children by providing them with services like camps for informal education, activity or play sessions, counselling sessions etc. Such services remain scarce or are absent in case of children living in the conflict regions of North East India. On field observation indicates that most of the state level commissions, departments and legal bodies responsible for assisting emotional and developmental wellbeing of children are either not operational or are dysfunctional. The dire condition of child care institutions and services across NER is in marked contrast to the provisions mentioned under the law covering children in India (Juvenile Justice Act, 2000).
India is a signatory of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which came into being on 20th November 1989 (ratified by India in year 1992), and is legally bound to comply with its protocols. The Optional Protocol introduced in 2000 clearly mentions the state’s responsibility towards children who are victims of or witnesses of armed conflicts. The Indian government has ratified the Optional Protocol, but without provision son the ground which genuinely comply with it. There are schemes introduced by the Central Government in order to meet commitments reflected in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 as well as the UNCRC but their role in the conflict regions of the Northeast remains ambiguous.
The functioning of important state agencies responsible for supplementing child’s development and protection through implementation of child centric schemes, has collapsed across conflict affected NER. The national imperative programmes and schemes like-Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), Reproductive and Child Health Programme etc are not properly implemented in these regions.
The social political situation of the NER compels a number of questions. Who should be held responsible for gross violation of the rights of children victimised by warfare? Is the central governement’s vision of a developed North East too restricted to economic growth without addressing the rights of children? There is a need for special child centric policy or scheme that addresses the ordeals arising out of incessant conflict situations. An arrangement of a structured process for rehabilitation of social, psychological and physical needs of children in conflict regions is prerequisite for reclaiming rights of these children. After all, every child has right to live with dignity and to receive adequate care and protection irrespective of their ethnicity, origin and gender.
(1) Joint Action Committee (JAC) formed against the State Assembly’s Act. It includes several organizations including- students, women organizations. The chief convenor of the newly formed JAC is Ex-ADC Churachandpur EM Mangchinkhup.
(2) The Times of India. 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises to develop Northeast into organic hub. [E-Newspaper] [ed.] TOI. Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, India : The Times of India, 20 February 2015.
(3) 2014. India’s Northeast is Natural Economic Zone: Modi . [E-newspaper] 1st December 2014, Kisama, Nagaland, India : The New Indian Express, 1 December 2014.
(4) The Tribune, 2015.8 killed in Manipur violence. [E-newspaper] Imphal, Manipur, India : s.n., 03 September 2015. The Tribune.
(5) A study of Child Rape in Manipur conducted in year 2006 under Department of Forensic Medicine, RIMS, Imphal by Dr. Th. Bijoy Singh (Asst. Professor); Dr. OT Lepcha (Junior Resident) & Dr. Kh Pradipkumar Singh (Demonstrator); JIAFM, 2006: 28 (4).
(6) This study, ‘Impact of Conflict on Children’, was conducted at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati (2013/14) in Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura state of NE India. The study will be published shortly.
Ankita Gupta works with the North East Action Research Working Group in India as a Research Consultant. She is currently working on a report on ‘Local Governance in North East India – its impact on the socio-political issues in the region’.
Image: Police personnel fire tear gas shells to disperse students during a protest rally in Imphal. Picture Courtesy: The Hindu; July 9, 2015, Imphal.