Child soldiers of Northeast: Straddling between boundaries  


Patricia Mukhim

The issue of child soldiers drafted by the NSCN (K) has troubled parents of these young adolescents for a long time now. Children who should be in school charting out a future for themselves are instead, taught to handle the deadly Kalashnikov rifle. Young girls who do not qualify to fire guns will have to look after the welfare of the male soldiers.

Many parents complain to the Indian security forces about this forced abduction of their children but are told that bringing back the children from across the Myanmar border is not their brief.

This issue causes much pain and anxiety to people of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur who reside along the international borders where child-soldiers as young as 12 years of age are being drafted by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) led by SS Khaplang a Zemi Naga from Myanmar.

The problem of the Indian army is that it would have to enter unfamiliar territory which is under the control of various rebel outfits, with the NSCN (K) leading the pack. The last reported incursion by the Indian security forces to launch an offensive in Myanmar territory to revenge the deaths of Indian soldiers who were mercilessly lynched by the rebels drew a lot of flak from that country. The Indian army was left red-faced to explain their position. Of course that misadventure was also largely amplified by a voluble, cacophonous electronic media.

India's border with Myanmar extends over a length of 1641 km and passes through the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The Naga, Kuki, Chin and other tribes straddle the border at over 150 border crossing points. This is considered normal by people on both sides of the divide since they are of the same stock and kinship ties.

Boundaries are political lines drawn by countries to establish their sovereignty. These lines are fairly recent if one takes into account the centuries old social and familial ties between people of what is called the larger South East Asia which is an extension of what is today North East India.  My Tangkhul friends tell me of their relatives who cross over to purchase their rations, stay back for a couple of day and return.

In September 2013 there was a controversy when the Myanmar authorities demolished houses and churches in Hollenphai village in the Chandel District of Manipur inhabited by the Kuki-Chin people. The Myanmarese claimed that the land on which these structures lay are within Myanmar territory. A Committee of the Kuki-Impi of Manipur lodged a complaint with the Manipur Government but the Principal Secretary (Home) Suresh Babu informed that the fencing being constructed by the Myanmarese army is not a border fence but a security fence. This sounds like an oxymoron but in an area that is at best an ungoverned terrain it is difficult to establish the geo-political contours.

There are over 250 villages with over 3 lakh people living within 10 Kms of the border in India and movement across these borders is easy for the local inhabitants who know every hill and dale, every gorge and crevice like the back of their hand. They only need to have some kind of an identity. Documents like visas etc are non-sequitur. Visas are needed while crossing 'civilised' international borders but these are socio-political borders and they are amorphous as far as the people of both sides are concerned. In correct political parlance this is called a 'free movement regime.' The entire border is un-policed. Unlike our western borders which receive keen attention because of our constructed arch enemy, Pakistan, the borders in the north eastern corner of the country are not considered important enough since they don't pose the same degree of 'threats'.

The local people living in these un-policed, ungoverned territories area live at the mercy of armed militants and criminal syndicates including gun runners and drug traffickers. The Assam Rifles is mandated to police this border. But, they are far behind the border except at a few crossing points. The Assam Rifles are in fact almost 30 to 50 km behind the actual borders. Naturally the border is a free-for-all zone controlled largely by armed militants, arm traffickers and drug syndicates. All the militant outfits of the North East have their camps on the Myanmar side of the border but close enough to the Indian side to allow them free movement in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram.

In 2002 when the Assam Rifles was entrusted with the onus of policing this 1641 km long border they asked for an additional force of 15 Battalions. This was sanctioned by the Central Government and some 20,000 men were recruited. But the AR did not move close to the border on grounds of logistic difficulties. The AR did not consider it important to give an account of how and where the newly recruited force of 20,000 able-bodied men were being deployed considering that they would be consuming a huge chunk of the public exchequer. But those who know the ground realities and those brave journalists who have traversed both sides of the border believe that the AR is not interested in strictly managing he borders since they too are part of the drug trafficking syndicate. We recall how a high level officer was actually arrested for drug trafficking last year. Teak from Myanmar is regularly smuggled across to India and finds its way to the homes of retired military brass who have done a stint in Manipur. This is an open secret and is known to the people of Manipur and Nagaland. And one guesses that this is also one reason why the Assam Rifles would not want the conflict in this region to come to a close. There is too much to gain from the ongoing conflict.

After the NDA Government took over the reins of government, Home Minister Rajnath Singh constituted a committee early this year under the Chairmanship of the Chairman Joint Intelligence Committee to look into the matter. It is learnt that the Inter- Ministerial Committee co-opted all the concerned State Governments and did a thorough review of the situation. The Report of the Committee is lying with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for the past six months. Those who know how this country functions would also know that there are groups with a deep vested interests who would not wish the recommendations of the Committee to be implemented since that would also put paid to the free movement of smuggled goods from across Myanmar and vice versa. It is a known fact for instance that the formal trade through the Land Customs Station at Moreh in the Indo-Myanmar border of Manipur is just a fraction of the informal trade which is much higher but which has so far not been reliably quantified.

One of the recommendations of the Inter-Ministerial Committee is to deploy the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) instead of Assam Rifles in the border policing role so that the force goes right to the border as it has been doing in the northern frontiers of Ladakh, instead of policing the borders from far behind the actual line as is being done today by the AR. But border policing and control is too lucrative a deal to be handed over by one group of security personnel to another. And we are aware of the politics of security in this region. It is this deep-seated politics that provides fuel to the recalcitrant anti-Indian forces that operate with impunity across the Indo-Myanmar border including abducting young children for inducting them young into their outfits. Ordinary people suffer while the powerful and armed state forces look on! What an irony is this!