Militants in insurgency-ravaged Manipur appear to be engaged in child’s play. But this game has already cost the homeland-seeking rebels heavy, and could well put them on the back foot. Insurgents in Manipur are actually into the business of kidnapping little children to make them join their ranks. This unprecedented trend that came to light with the May 6, 2008 disappearance of two children could well be a turning point in the State’s insurgency movement. For the first time in Manipur’s four-decade-long history of separatist insurrections, people are out on the streets, condemning the rebels for an act they describe as ‘unacceptable.’ It is possible if the rebels do not put a halt to this practice or if those rebel groups who are not in the game of recruiting child soldiers clamp down on their erring comrades, there could be a mass revolt against the insurgents. Yes, the rebels could see their oxygen of life, that is, the people’s support, cut off completely.
Nava Kishore of the NGO collective called United Committee, Manipur, which is at the forefront of an initiative to ensure that the child kidnappings stop, feels that things are not so simple. “It is true kidnapping of children or rebels inducting children in their ranks as child soldiers are unacceptable. But, we need to ascertain the forces behind such unprecedented acts because it may not just be the work of some militant groups,” Kishore told this writer. He said a fact-finding mission from the Centre is arriving in Imphal later this month at his group’s initiative to examine the development. That’s fine, but the fact remains that children are disappearing from the Imphal Valley and two factions of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) have been identified as the groups behind recruiting child soldiers forcibly.
A few questions arise: why have rebel groups in Manipur embarked on a child recruitment drive that has incurred the ire of the masses? The United Committee, Manipur has listed 32 missing children till the time of writing this column. The above question is more than valid because there has hardly been any opposition, not to speak of a revolt, by the people against the insurgents so far. The only exception has been the demand by villagers in Heirok and some other places for weapons to tackle militant excesses. This time round, however, there has been large-scale condemnation, including sit-in demonstrations against the militants’ recruiting children. A group of children in Imphal East district even went to the extent of stripping and taking out a naked protest, accompanied by scores of school children in their uniforms. The militants’ action is surprising in a State where protest against alleged excesses by the security forces is rather common, even a way of life.
Manipur’s usually tight-lipped or reticent authorities have suddenly received a much-needed opportunity to face the media and speak out against the rebels’ action. “The kidnapping of children by militant groups indicate they are getting desperate. It clearly means the rebel groups are not getting mature people to join their ranks,” Manipur Director General of Police Y. Joykumar Singh said. Up to 17 active militant groups in Manipur have managed to keep the authorities on tenterhooks. Besides pushing their demand for secession from India or maximum autonomy, these militant groups have been sucking traders and businessmen dry. Professionals too have been at the receiving end. And yes, the media has also been facing the rebels’ wrath for airing the views of their rival factions or groups.
If the situation in Manipur has been a generally lawless one, the coming out of ordinary people on to the streets against certain action of the militants could well swing the balance in favour of the authorities. That precisely is the reason why bigger groups like the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) have come down heavily against some outfits kidnapping children to swell their ranks. Aided by angry sections of the populace, and a local media that is not so happy with the rebels, the authorities could well be on top in their anti-insurgency campaign. As I have said, this could be the turning point that may put the militants in Manipur on the back foot for a long time to come, if not permanently.