The advantage with children is that they can be moulded in any way as the family or society would like them to be. This can be both a virtue and a curse. The latter, when the family and state together fail the child and that is the first foundation of a failed society, and ultimately, the nation.
Kashmir has witnessed militancy since 1948 in one form or another. What used to be the odd stone pelting at military vehicles passing by once in a while, has now turned into full-fledged armed militancy against the state authority. However, that is neither new nor the biggest challenge for the state and central government. It is the recent phenomenon over the last 100 days of state-wide militant protests, led by stone-pelting children, some as young as 8 and 10 years, that is truly disturbing.
From 2000 onwards, it seemed that the state was limping back towards a semblance of normalcy; led by relatively free and fair elections, increased infrastructure developments like the Baramulla-Banihal rail link, which had been welcomed by local people, and for a while it did seem that Kashmir valley was making slow but steady progress towards order and development.
The lost cause of Burhan Wani
The last 100 days has changed all of that. The trigger to the current spree of stone pelting and violence was the killing of Kashmir-based self-styled Commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, by security forces. The separatists saw an opportunity to come back onto the centre stage of Kashmiri attention, stoked state-wide protests and for the first time, children, some as young as 8 years, were used as a shield and fronted the stone pelters.
In another first, women took on the security personnel in challenging them knowing fully well that they would not respond aggressively.
So, how did the Kashmiri society change its values so drastically that it now seems indifferent to children being put on the frontline, before a well-armed and well-trained military force?
Children are dying and children are being scarred for life, but have all stakeholders given a serious thought on the impact of this new development on Kashmiri society in coming times?
Looking into the mind of a militant child
In several conflicts, children have been used and abused in armed warfare across the world by vested interests, who find them easy to influence and willing to act as ‘sacrificial goats’.
Children have been used actively in brutal sectarian warfare in several parts of Africa. They are easy to recruit as most are recent orphans of war or have been separated from their families. Arming them with a promise to avenge the injustice against their parents or relatives is very alluring to an innocent child, who is deeply traumatized, confused and in emotional conflict. Hand him a weapon and he becomes a mobile ticking bomb for his controller.
Besides being coerced into brutal militancy, sexual exploitation by adults only hardens them and they grow up into being even more brutal versions than their handlers. Power at a very young age is as intoxicating as it is to an adult, only that now we have a child dying for a cause that he barely understands.
But if you do survive, then more power and brutality are the rewards. Children initiated into militancy at a very young age learn quickly the way into a brutal world, but no one ever learns the way out of it, unless it happens in a coffin. Burhan Wani learnt that the hard way. But he was at least a young man. What about these young and vulnerable children of Kashmir?
How Kashmir is going South
Kashmir is not quite there yet but make no mistake, the early signs in the making of a suicidal Jihadi is emerging. It all starts with young ‘boys’ playing out for long hours, unsupervised by their parents. With no school to attend, older boys, who mostly happen to be only a year or two older, start the initiation process.
This is further backed by fanatics at the local mosque who validate the older boys’ actions. Soon a chain of command begins to fall in place with initially innocuous tasks such as conducting surveillance of security forces, passing information on their movements, etc., which are rewarded with petty cash and food. Each child is made to feel like a ‘hero’ and soon each level begins to look up to the older level and try and emulate them. And in the process, a childhood gets lost forever.
In Kashmir, not all children who are part of the stone-pelting brigade are organized or even controlled. Many have formed themselves into petty gangs extorting money from locals to feed their own addictions and sense of power. In many cases, what is a simple case of spoilt unsupervised brats acting in a group, soon becomes the target for recruitment by ‘talent spotters’ of various militant groups.
These children are shown propaganda videos that show the power of the gun and the rewards that come with it. ‘Azadi’ is the central theme sold to naïve children who have no clue or idea about mainland India or even the concept of India. They are made to parrot Azadi as their main goal in life; consequences notwithstanding.
But this was never a problem for the self-centered separatists, most of whom have sent their own children to safe havens in metro cities of India or overseas, while they continue to prey on unsuspecting children from weaker sections, as they play out their hidden agenda against the state authorities.
Is there any hope for militant children of Kashmir?
There is. But it will take all stakeholders to commit themselves to the betterment of children. At the moment, there seems very little chance of state authorities, security forces, families of militant children, community leaders and school teachers to come together and discuss the future of these children, away from the influence of parochial politics.
The conflict in Ireland saw children being used by militants to gather information and act as bait to draw British security forces. Though not as brutal as what we see in parts of Africa and now the Middle-East, nevertheless, what seemed impossible sometime back is now a fairly peaceful region; where children pursue what they should be at their age, knowledge and play.
Kashmiri society was never violent, it’s not in their DNA and that should give us hope for a truly inclusive and serious discussion initiated by the authorities, which will surely get a sober response from all stakeholders. A beginning has to be made and it must be made now.
It’s time to once again listen to John Lennon’s song: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
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