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IN Exclusive: The ‘child soldiers’ of Kashmir

Youth pelt stones on security personnel in Kashmir in 2018 (Photo: IANS)

The killing of a 14/15-year-old standard-10 student of National Innovations Public School Zainapora, Faisal Gulzar Ganai, along with two more teenage militants in an encounter at Hadipora in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district on April 10, has made it clear that the recruitment of children, particularly the young high school students, is still continuing on behalf of different terror organisations in the Valley.

Security forces and the Jammu and Kashmir Police claimed to have recovered one AK rifle and two pistols along with the three young militants’ bodies from the site of the encounter. Officials maintained that the operation was launched on specific information regarding the three militants’ presence. During the encounter, the holed-up militants took shelter in the village mosque. Troops neutralised them without blowing up the hideout with rockets and improvised explosive devices which are used in most of the encounters.

According to Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, the Police and the security forces suspended the fire for about 10 hours as Faisal’s parents were facilitated to reach the spot and appeal the militants to release their only male child. The family’s repeated appeals over the public address system yielded nothing. Faisal had earlier called his father Gulzar Ahmad Ganai and told him on phone that he was among the three militants trapped in the operation.

Faisal’s 85-year-old grandfather Ghulam Hassan Ganai is all praise for the Police and security forces that they left no stone unturned to rescue the child militant and facilitate his surrender. “Unfortunately, they couldn’t get him out alive”, Ganai said. More than his grandson’s death in the encounter, he looked traumatised over his burial at an isolated cemetery in Handwara, over 150 Km from his community graveyard.

By inciting or forcing children to join their ranks, terror groups operating in Kashmir, have joined the ranks of infamous armed groups in at least seven African countries such as Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

After conversion of the erstwhile State into the Union Territory and withdrawal of its special status in August 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Police have not been handing over bodies of the militants killed in different encounters to their families. The official argument is that their burial in local graveyards attracts crowds which stage anti-national demonstrations and attack the forces. Gun salutes by militants and funeral processions, allegedly organised by the militants, in the past are believed to have encouraged many more youngsters to join the militant ranks.

Two days after Faisal went underground his family issued passionate appeals to the militants to send him back. In the videos that went viral in social media his middle-aged father and mother were seen beseeching for mercy—telling the militants that he was the only brother of his four unmarried sisters.

“Two of my daughters have undergone surgeries. Their only support is Faisal. His jihad is nothing but to support his family at home and have his sisters married off”, Faisal’s mother says. “If you guys don’t send him home, you will have to answer on Doomsday”, says his father, crestfallen for fear of losing his son. Their apprehensions came true in two days.

Youths, including teenage students and school dropouts, were engaged with the Kashmir insurgency from its day one in 1989-90. Still the average age of the fresh recruits in the first 20 years was 20-22 years. Notwithstanding Afzal Guru’s execution and the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s apprehensions of a massive revival of militancy, the number of militants dipped to the lowest level in 2013. Kashmir witnessed the most peaceful years from 2011 to 2014.

But all this was to change, and the recruitment of child “soldiers” by ruthless terror groups, desperate to revive militancy was not far away.

It all began when detained separatist icon Massarat Aalm’s was released by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in a week of his taking over as Chief Minister in the PDP-BJP coalition in March 2015, brought a sense of security and confidence to the groups lying dormant since long. A grand reception for hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, permitted by Mufti’s government and organised by Aalam in front of the J&K Police Headquarters, made a generation of the teens euphoric about the dream of ‘azaadi’.

Hizbul Mujahideen militants like Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, enjoying access to the internet, uploaded text, audio and video messages on social media. It was under their influence that hundreds of the young and brilliant students like Ishaq Parray ‘Newton’ deserted their studies and picked up the arms. Many others became stone pelters.

Wani’s death in an encounter came as a trigger for a turbulent summer in 2016. Over 70 persons got killed and thousands injured in the clashes that lasted for about four months. The valley witnessed its worst times of the decade from July 2016 to June 2018 which resulted in dismissal of the Mehbooba government.

Many spectacular terror attacks were to follow. On 31 December 2017, Fardeen Khanday, 16-year-old son of a Police official, launched a suicide attack with his associates on a Central Reserve Police Force encampment at Letapora. It was for the first time that a suicide bomber got a video message recorded for the valley’s youths before striking on his target. Three militants, including Fardeen, and five CRPF personnel died. Fardeen’s 15-year-old militant colleague Faizan had already died in another encounter in May 2017.

On 9 December 2018, 16-year-old Saqib Bilal Sheikh and 14-year-old Mudasir Rashid Parray of Hajan Bandipora got killed in an encounter at Mujgund on Srinagar outskirts. Both had joined the militant ranks.

Conflict analysts invariably believe that the over-ground networks of different militant organisations have taken maximum benefit of an unbridled social media in indoctrination and motivation of the valley’s youths in the age group of 14-24 years to join as their cadres. Children in the tender age of 14-18 years care little about the consequences of his bravado. Officials claim that money as well channels of indoctrinations and recruitment have been operating from Pakistan and some other countries.

“International humanitarian laws expressly forbid armed groups from using children as combatants. It is primarily the responsibility of parents to keep a watch on their children but incidents like Faisal’s death need an introspection at the societal level,” Noor Ahmad Baba, former professor and head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Kashmir asserts.

The use of children for military or militant operations is a violation of various national and international conventions on human rights and children. Article 38 (3) of the Convention of the Rights of the Child prohibits the recruitment of children below the age of 16 years to engage in hostilities.

Dr Asima Hassan, Member Justice Juvenile Board Srinagar believes that as per Section 83 (1) of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, any non-state, militant group or outfit that recruits or uses any child for any purpose shall be liable for rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to pay a fine of Rs 5 lakh.

“The idea of owning a gun and enforcing their will has somehow taken hold of many young minds in Kashmir and radical groups are taking advantage of it. Radicalization is more effective in south Kashmir, where socio-politico-religious organization Jamaat-e-Islami has a huge influence,” she reportedly told a newspaper.

A US State Department report on human trafficking in India in 2020 stated that non-state armed groups continue to recruit and use children as young as 14 years in direct hostilities against the government in Jammu and Kashmir.

Recognising the devastating impact of conflict on children, the United Nations has defined six grave violations of children’s rights – including the recruitment and use of children. In 2002, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) came into force, defining the recruitment and use of children in conflict as a violation of international law.