Young victims of militancy

Print edition : August 12, 2005

A child wounded in an explosion outside a school in Srinagar on May 12 being taken to hospital. - NISSAR AHMAD

The children of Jammu and Kashmir have perhaps been the worst sufferers of the armed conflict that has ravaged the State since the late 1980s. A look at what can be done to help them.

A SURVEY conducted among children in Jammu and Kashmir reveals the multiple effects of the armed conflict on young lives. The survey covered children from the Kashmir region and the disturbed parts of Jammu; and children of Kashmiri Pandits, border migrants, inter-district migrants and police personnel. The 2,326 children also represented the socio-economic and other groups within each section.

Field investigators found that a good majority of the persons killed belonged to the lower economic and social strata. Though children of every community and region have been affected, there is a serious lack of awareness among children and elders about how children of the "other community" have been affected, particularly among children who are no longer in contact with those of the other community.

AFTER the almost en masse migration of Pandits from the Kashmir Valley to Jammu and elsewhere, when they felt threatened by the rise of militancy in 1990, children of the two communities lost contact with each other. Thus, 88.85 per cent of the Muslim children have no Hindu friends, while 82 per cent of Pandit children have no Muslim friends. The preponderant reason is that no children of the other community are there in the neighbourhood or in the school. Children of each category have been subjected also to many other effects; on their personalities.

The most pronounced impact is psychological. In a society where children continue to witness, experience and hear of killings and atrocities, and are exposed to physical and emotional violence, they suffer from various psychosomatic and psychiatric ailments. In the Kashmir region, 57.38 per cent of the children have become fearful, 55.36 per cent suffer from depression, and 54.25 per cent cannot sleep. In the mixed parts of the Jammu region, the corresponding figures are 51.17 per cent, 25.98 per cent and 41.17 per cent. (As the children suffer from more than one ailment, the figures cannot be added up.) Similarly, when children are forced to move from their familiar socio-cultural-geographical surroundings to an unfamiliar world where familial relations are altered, emotional ties are broken and thoughts of an uncertain future haunt them, the psychological and social impact on them can be shattering. This phenomenon, more pronounced in the case of various types of migrants, is equally applicable where the child has to move to another family or place after the death of either of his/her parents.

There are only two psychiatric diseases hospitals in the State, one in Jammu and the other in Srinagar; which have five and six psychiatrists respectively. The resources available to them are inadequate to cope with the problem. Most children seek and get relief by visits to peers/saints, and from prayers or religious sermons that they attend. Sympathy from relatives, friends and neighbours also helps children.

Significantly, the girls are extremely reluctant to disclose, let alone discuss, their psychiatric problems, because of social stigma attached to them. Visits from relatives, friends and neighbours sometimes become infrequent, because people get wary of the needs of the bereaved families. Sometimes friends and neighbours stay away if the slain man had been targeted by militants for his suspected role as an informer of the security forces, or for his political associations.

If the bread-winner is killed, injured or disabled, the family often lacks the resources to give education to its children, particularly because the victims usually belong to the lower socio-economic strata. Many children have been forced to give up their studies in order to earn a living for their families. The education of children has been disturbed, disrupted or discontinued for many reasons connected with the conflict.

The father of this little girl, here seen in a May 2002 photograph, went missing in 1997 after his arrest by the Army.-NISSAR AHMAD

According to official figures, 928 school buildings have been destroyed by militants, and a large number of school buildings (of which no official count is available) occupied by them. This affected education.

In many militancy-prone areas, teachers play truant. They engage less qualified people to do their work and appear once in a while to draw their salaries. Most of the children study in government schools (50.16 per cent) or private schools (40.54 per cent) in the Kashmir region. Only 3.14 per cent study in madrassas. In the part of the Jammu region affected by the armed conflict, the respective percentages are 71.52, 26.16 and 1.16.

The confusion in the minds of children was reflected in their varied responses to the question: When will the present turmoil end? As many as 38.75 per cent of the children in Kashmir did not reply, while 20.83 per cent did not know the answer; 15.82 per cent were so pessimistic that they said it would never end; 19.07 per cent were optimistic enough to believe that it would end soon; 2.72 per cent pinned their hope on America to end the turmoil; 0.18 per cent held that it would end when Kashmir got "freedom". Children elsewhere were equally confused and were similarly divided among the pessimists and the optimists, except that no non-Muslim child sought an end of the turmoil in "freedom" for the State.

Among the children of the Kashmir region, ignorance of their rich cultural heritage is alarming. Only 31.11 per cent could name the "five greatest Kashmiris ever born", while 8.10 per cent mentioned one name. The range of names was too wide to indicate any consensus. Of course, Nund Rishi (the popular name of Sufi saint Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani) was a common response. About 0.44 per cent, that is, five out of all the children questioned, considered militant and secessionist leaders as great Kashmiris. Three Hindu names that got mention in the responses of Muslim respondents were the saint Lal Ded, Kashmiri poet Dina Nath Nadim, and Jawaharlal Nehru. There was greater awareness among the minority children (Hindu and Sikh) living in Kashmir about the great Kashmiris: 43.90 per cent could come up with five names, though the list of favourite names was not much different from those mentioned by children of the majority community, except that none named a militant or a secessionist.

Similarly, only 21.44 per cent of Kashmiri children could name "the five most important religious places in Kashmir" and 21.26 per cent expressed a liking for folk festivals. Among Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Jammu, only 11 per cent and 34 per cent respectively knew of the two great Kashmiri kings, Lalitaditya and Bud Shah; 12 per cent were aware of the shrine of Charar-e-Sharief. However, as many as 87 per cent knew of the Hindu pilgrim centre of Khir Bhawani and the Hazratbal shrine. Fifteen per cent of Kashmiri Pandit children were unable to speak Kashmiri and were not very optimistic about their return to the Valley. Seventy per cent of the children did not consider it safe, 23 per cent saw no career opportunities there. Only 7 per cent felt adjusted in Jammu. As many as 83 per cent said going back was an option only if militancy ended. In the disturbed and mixed part of the Jammu region, however, cultural alienation of children has not taken place yet. Most of the children named historical personalities (93.38 per cent) and important religious places (71.82 per cent) of the district they belonged to. Almost all children knew the religious places and festivals of the other community.

Though none of the children admitted that he/she was addicted to drugs and no official record was available to indicate the extent of drug addiction among children in the State, there was sufficient evidence to show that it existed. Press reports of police raids on drug peddlers; informal statements of drug-suppliers who refused to be quoted; and a preliminary study by a Kashmir University scholar have confirmed that adolescent boys and girls are increasingly taking to drugs in the hope of immediate relief from depression and psychological stress.

None of the girls said that she was raped or molested, though some indicated a sense of insecurity. There is social stigma attached to a victim of rape or molestation. The number of protest demonstrations against alleged incidents of rape and statements of local people, however, led to the field investigators to conclude that women are exposed to sexual assault in areas directly affected by armed conflict. That the sex trade is also growing is evidenced by occasional police raids on regular brothels and arrests of call girls and their agents, mainly in the big towns and cities. This is believed to be caused by the rise of militancy in the State.

The three detection centres in the State - one in Jammu and two in Srinagar - have detected 25,000 HIV-positive cases. As observed by the International Conference on War-Affected Children in Winnipeg in 2002, "HIV/AIDS has changed the landscape of war more than any other single factor". Jammu and Kashmir is no exception.

According to Army sources, 50 per cent of the militants are between 14 and 18 years of age. They also assert that nobody under 18 years is recruited or used by the armed forces in the ongoing conflict in any manner.

THE first thing that needs to be done is to the collect fullest possible data about all dimensions of the problem - in particular, the number of widows and orphans left to fend for themselves by the armed conflict. A single or nodal agency should be created to deal with the problems of internally displaced persons (55,000 families from Kashmir and 30,000 families from the border), which are becoming gigantic. The problem of education and health needs immediate attention. Special efforts have to be made for preserving the cultural and linguistic identities of the children of Kashmiri migrants. While negotiating their safe return, living conditions in the camps must be improved. A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report has described how "the refugee camps, intended as temporary refuge, often become shelters where an entire generation of children grows up". A statutory Child Commission might monitor child abuse and protect the rights of children, sponsor studies of their problems, coordinate the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working for the welfare of the child, and organise workshops for workers in the field of activity relating to children.

Children living in areas affected by armed conflict are highly prone to psychiatric troubles. The present strength of 11 psychiatrists in the Health Department of the State is woefully inadequate. A psychiatry department in each district hospital would be helpful. With psychiatric troubles spreading fast in every part of the State, a short-term course for general medical practitioners in the hospitals and dispensaries of the State might make immediate relief available. Many complications can be avoided if children traumatised by the death of parents or close relations receive counselling early enough. Teachers might be trained to handle such situations. Psychology could perhaps be introduced as a subject in universities and colleges and in the District Institute of Education for teachers. Persons trained there could help in providing psychological and socio-psychological services to traumatised children.

The problems of girl children need special attention, particularly those of victims of rape and molestation. The services of female counsellors and child psychologists are needed in hospitals and schools. Philanthropists and the corporate sector should be invited to supplement government efforts to open hospitals to treat psychiatric diseases, at least in Srinagar and Jammu.

Children should not be allowed to suffer for the sins of their parents. All families that have lost members to the bullets of militants or security forces should be helped out with funds collected by an authorised relief and rehabilitation council, from the State and Central governments and from the corporate sector. The government should also fund the treatment of all children injured and disabled in the conflict.

Until January 2002, as many as 11,810 persons were granted ex-gratia relief after their relatives were killed. The total number of persons killed until then was 28,394. Of them 12,771 were civilians and 3,327 belonged to the security forces. Measures need to be taken to avoid delays to deal with complaints in this regard.

Special scholarships could be provided for children who are affected by the armed conflict. For admissions to institutions of technical and higher education, other State governments may be approached to reserve quotas for such children. To prevent growing alienation from and ignorance about their cultural heritage among children, suitable courses could be added in the school curriculum.

Jobs are provided to a member of each family that suffered a death in a militancy-related incident. The queue for such jobs is becoming too long. An unemployment allowance, therefore, has become necessary. The power of discretion in giving out-of-turn employment often gives rise to complaints of arbitrariness and nepotism. Some objective norms could perhaps be evolved to accommodate exceptional cases.

The increasing tendency towards drug addiction demands more centres to treat the problem, in addition to the two centres in the Government Medical Colleges of Srinagar and Jammu.

A fresh study is needed by social scientists to deal with the growing problem of commercial sex. HIV infections and AIDS can assume epidemic dimensions in the State if timely steps are not taken. The three detection centres now functioning in the State are too inadequate for the size of the problem. A special detection campaign may be started to cover vulnerable sections of society, apart from organising general awareness campaigns about the causes of the disease and the means to prevent it. Educational institutions and civil society can play a vital role in this.

There is no substitute for the emotional and other forms of support that the community at large can provide to children affected by the armed conflict. However, it has declined over a period. Moreover, it is not properly organised and institutionalised. A number of NGOs have been formed for this task. Many outside NGOs are extending their activities to the State. It would help their activities if a network is formed so that they can pool and exchange their resources.

Many dedicated persons have set up orphanages. However, children's homes should be so organised that they do not lower the dignity and self-respect of the child. The word "orphan" should be avoided in describing the children and they should not be made conscious that they are living on charity. It would help in the development of the personality of the child if foster parents are found for each.

A widow who cannot afford to bring up her child may be forced to get him/her admitted to the children's homes. But it would be far more satisfying for the child and the mother if the latter could be helped financially to keep the child at home and meet his/her needs. If a mother who has lost her child and a child who has lost his/her mother could be united, through appropriate agencies and help, it may partially compensate for the emotional loss of both of them.

Children who are affected by the armed conflict have the potential to become a means to end or reduce the evil effects of the conflict. A campaign can be built up to declare children as a zone of peace so that the combatant parties agree that no child shall be hit whatever be the crimes of his/her father and that no child shall ever be used for combat operations. Public opinion could possibly be built up to isolate children from other aspects of the conflict.

The children of diverse communities, instead of developing hatred, could be brought together as co-sufferers, so that they develop empathy for each other and act as ambassadors of mutual goodwill and communal harmony.

Balraj Puri is Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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