Introduction Khaled Hosseini in his famous debut novel "Kite Runners" quoted:
"There are a lot of children in Afghanistan but little childhood."
However, as it turns out, this quote, to some extent is also applicable in India; although not in mainstream India but in the rural belts of India where conflicts and insurgency operations are rampant.
These insurgency outfits, notably the Naxalites, have expanded their ambit and today, have their presence in 10 central states of India, popularly known as the "Red Corridor". Other hotbeds of conflicts are the North Eastern states and the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Children in these corners of the country are voluntarily or forcibly recruited to serve the interests of not just the non-governmental forces but also the defense forces of the State in various forms of armed conflicts. The situation being a grave one demands the thorough attention of all the stakeholders involved: the government (both at the Center and at the State level), civil society, the international community, the family of the child concerned etc.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989, defines a 'child' as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention, has encouraged States to review the age of majority if it is set below 18 and to increase the level of protection for all children under 18. Thus, anyone, below the age of 18, employed as a soldier qualifies to be termed as a child soldier.
For the purposes of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund defines a 'child soldier' as:
"any child, boy or girl, under the age of 18, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity. This includes, but is not limited to, cooks, porters and messengers. It includes girls and boys recruited for forced sexual purposes and/or forced marriage."
The definition is thus wide and is not restricted to only children who use weapons but also perform other incidental functions that aid the functioning of the outfits concerned.
Both boys and girls are victims of such recruitment drives. Boys mostly are made to carry out both direct and indirect role in hostilities ranging from acting as cooks, porters (carrying heavy loads, including ammunition or injured soldiers), spies, messengers to carrying out frontal attacks and participating in suicide missions while girls become victims of sex slavery and are forced to become wives of the combatants to "alleviate their sadness" as reported by a case-study in Honduras of a 13-year old girl child.
Causes The causes of this global phenomenon of recruiting children as soldiers are easy to identify. Poverty, illiteracy, poor governance, lack of security, unemployment, ignorance, etc. in the under developed countries (mainly the African countries like Chad, Sudan, Congo, Cambodia, Liberia, Guatemala etc.) or the poorer regions of developing countries like India are the main causes. Children are prone to manipulation and are thus vulnerable.
Violation of Human Rights Childhood is the crucial stage for a child to develop his faculties and is the period wherein a child is expected to undergo education for a better future. However, for the unfortunate few who become victim of such recruitment drives and end up as child soldiers, it would not be wrong to ascribe such scenarios as a violation of their human rights.
The concept of human rights gained precedence post World War II owing to its devastating impact on humanity. Since then, the international community has come up with a number of international instruments centered on human rights, notably The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948 along with The International Covenant on the Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and The International Covenant on the Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both adopted in 1966, which, together with the UDHR is referred to as The Bill of Rights.
Human rights is a broad concept encompassing a host of issues in which the recruitment of child soldiers feature because this phenomenon deprives them of their basic right to education which apart from the international instruments also find reflection in the Indian Constitution (Article 21A) and is a violation of The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.
Even in their training camps, children are seldom provided with adequate nourishment or proper adequate medical attention and are subjected to slavery etc.
Situation in India in the context of the international community In India, although the situation is not as alarming as in Africa, yet, the picture looks grim if the statistics of child soldiers in India as mentioned in the report of the Asian Center for Human Rights (hereinafter ACHR) "India's Child Soldiers" is taken into consideration. As per the report, India currently has approximately 3000 child soldiers with 2500 involved in the Naxalite violence alone and some 500 in the North-Eastern region and Jammu and Kashmir.
In 2008, the Child Soldiers International (formerly known as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a UK-based non-governmental organization) released a report on the recruitment of child soldiers worldwide and concluded that the recruitment is carried out by the state along with the non-state actors. In fact, 63 countries allow for the voluntary recruitment of people below 18 in their armed force which include Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In India, in the year 2005, the State Government of Chattisgarh started the anti-Naxalite campaign Salma Judum that used child soldiers in its operations and on a petition filed by ACHR, was banned by the Supreme Court of India on 5 July, 2011. The Court held that the policy of the State violated the rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of those being employed as Special Police Officers in Chattisgarh and used in counter-insurgency measures against Maoists/Naxalites, as well as of citizens living in those areas. The approach and the stand taken by the Government of India in this issue deserve to be condemned.
India has ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereinafter Optional Protocol) in 2005. The Optional Protocol was drafted "to increase the protection of children involved in armed conflicts." In the Periodic Report on the status of the implementation of the Optional Protocol, the Indian Government has blatantly denied the existence of any "armed conflicts" in India and the presence of child soldiers in them before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
However, the ground reality portrays an altogether depressing picture. In the state of Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, armed forces of the Government have about 300 orderlies below 18 years of age (also known as balrakshas) who are engaged in insurgency and are mainly described as child police officers by ACHR. The authorities justify the use of these children on the ground that such a measure supports them economically as these children are the ones who have lost their parents. They mainly perform work like carrying of files from one place to the other. The Government considers it to be a good will gesture.
Moreover, a lot of these child soldiers have surrendered before government officials. Thus, the mandate of the Government stands exposed. The State Government has thus failed to implement the Optional Protocol in entirety. Article 4 of the Optional Protocol provides that the State Government has a role to prevent such recruitment and the use of child soldiers along with the adoption of legal measures to prohibit and criminalize such practices. Not only has the Government failed to do so, but has denied the very existence of the problem at the international platform.
Issues and Challenges Recent decades have seen a paradigm shift in the nature of armed conflicts. Governments do not generally refer to insurgency operations within the territory as internal "armed conflicts" as classified by the 1949 Geneva Conventions or the 1977 Additional Protocols, under the belief that such a denial will prevent the application of international humanitarian law. Such a denial culminates in the situation being defined as an internal strife thus lending immunity to the Government from international NGOs like the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC).
Apart from the non-acknowledgement of the menace by the Indian Government, a host of other issues mire the evil of child soldiers' recruitment. The very rehabilitation and surrender policies are inconsistent with the Optional Protocol and the existent child laws like the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
The effects of this problem are not hard to decipher. Apart from the grave violation of human rights, the entire society gets affected. Parents send off their children to faraway places in the fear of forced recruitment, thus, hampering their education. Participation in conflict bears serious implications for the physical and emotional well-being of these children. Considering the fact that they have witnessed much abuse and killings, the psycho-social effects are many. Reintegration of the child becomes difficult owing to the trauma they had suffered in their training.
There is no international consensus on the minimum age for participation in hostilities and an endeavor is to be made to increase the minimum age of participation to 18 for both direct and indirect hostilities by all States. The surrender policies of the Government are in direct conflict with the Optional Protocol. The Indian Government require a public surrender of the combatant with proper disclosure of the identity of the person concerned to avail the surrender benefits. However, Article 21 of the Juvenile Justice Act clearly mandates that identity of children in conflict with law is to be kept secret. This anomaly needs to be corrected.
Another issue is recruiting children both by the armed forces of the Government and non-state groups without proper verification of their birth registration.
Conclusion The problem of child soldier recruitment is indeed on the rise in India if official reports are to be believed. As already mentioned, the situation is not as grave as in Africa, however, if the Indian Government fails to take appropriate action now, the problem may assume alarming proportions later.
Apart from the legislative amendments, a strong political will is a requirement. Firstly, the Government should refrain from denying the existence of such a problem. Secondly, the role mandated for the Government under the Optional Protocol must be taken seriously.
It is the Government's duty to verify the legal age of children before recruiting them through any means possible.
The Government and its agencies must ensure the proper rehabilitation and the social reintegration of former child soldiers and open avenues for them for their gainful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Moreover, it is required that the schemes of social reintegration and rehabilitation must be framed from the perspective of the rights of the child and not be adult-centric. Other steps include increased vigilance in strife-torn areas through the deployment of more security forces to counter such recruitment drives.
Local media can sensitize the public by reporting such news. The parents of the victim child as well as other people in the society must not fear retribution and courageously step forward to report such incidents should any come to their knowledge.
Lastly, the very root of such insurgency operations must be studied and steps taken to contain them. It is true that insurgency operations like the Nagaland Movement or that of the Naxalites are decades old, yet, the approach of the Government should be peaceful and one of negotiation and not based on using military options alone like the current situation (operation of Acts like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958), that has further aggravated the problem and thus proved to be counter-productive.
Read the well-written article. The author has tried to present her argument in a logical manner. However, I would like to state that it is not always true that children indulge in criminal activities and terrorism due to poverty and related issues. I am giving some examples:-
(a) Delhi was rattled by Nirbhaya rape case around four and a half year ago. Among the rapists, the behaviour of the juvenile was most brutal. Was it due to poverty?
(b) In Kashmir, many teen-age students take up the guns because they think that the guns would provide them special privileges, power and beautiful women. Recently killed Hijbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani is one such example. Poverty is not the reason.
(c) Once upon a time, I got the opportunity to talk to many young drug-peddlers who themselves became drug-addicts. They willingly joined this treacherous path only to get some excess ready money; not because of poverty.
I can give many such examples. I would only like to state that the phenomenon of child-soldiers is not only due to poverty, there are various other motivations behind this alarming phenomenon. I would request the author not to over-simplify this. Over-simplification and putting the entire blame on poverty would not serve the purpose of eradicating this alarming problem.
Thank you so much for the feedback and for sharing your insight as well. I totally agree with the fact that poverty is not the only reason. But poverty in India is like a vicious circle. Once a person is trapped in it, it is very difficult to wriggle out.
As for the case of Nirbhaya, I would like to state that one of the reason the juvenile indulged in that act could be poverty and the resultant illiteracy and subsequently ignorance. Had that juvenile been from a well-educated family, his chances of doing that act would have been slim, although I'm not ruling out the fact that even educated people commit rapes. My point is that: poverty is one of the reason and a very grave one at that.
Further more, the very genesis of the Naxalite violence is equality. The insurgents in that battle are a deprived lot. They are struggling for equal resources. Once again, poverty becomes a factor. Poverty hinders literacy and breeds ignorance.
Had proper awareness and resources been provided to these people, the situation could have been different. The Government needs to intervene in a rational manner.
A look at the profile of the countries that face this problem like Chad, Sudan, Congo, etc. establishes the fact that they are all backward and impoverished countries.
I would like to affirm my point, thus, that poverty is indeed a contributing factor. The article does not say that poverty is the only factor.
It is really very astonishing that the author has tried to find the reason of extreme brutality of the juvenile rapist in poverty. How can brutality be associated with poverty? In my opinion, such behaviour speaks of criminal background. These criminals must be punished irrespective of their age. They certainly don't deserve any sympathy.
So far as Naxal movement is concerned, the movement failed in West Bengal during late sixties and early seventies because middle-class young people under Charu Majumdar were at the forefront of this movement. The poor people didn't have much sympathy or connection with this movement. The present Maoist movement is also going to fail simply because the leaders have no connection with local people. They are not helping the poors, they are extorting money from them as well as from the industries of the region.
Sir. If you read my comments properly you would find that nowhere have I associated brutality with poverty. I'm saying that poverty could be a factor behind him performing the act of rape. Rather poverty could have been a factor as to how he got associated with a gang of criminals in the first place. Brutality is a subjective thing. I have clearly not associated the same with poverty. When people are illiterate they tend to be ignorant most of the time and that's how they can become vulnerable. These are probable statements. They are tentative and established on the basis that most of these people are poor. And there is a pattern in that regard. The reason the Naxalites have thrived is because they are well aware of the impoverished conditions of the people.
Regarding the outcome of this movement, I shall not make any statement because that is beyond the scope of this article.