During a gunfight with security forces in Mujgund area on the outskirts of Srinagar that took place on December 9 last year, three militants associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) were killed. While one of the deceased was identified as a Pakistani national, the other two were local Kashmiris. News of our youth who have joined militancy and are killed is always very distressing and extremely painful. However, two things made this particular incident even more heartrending; one, that these two deceased Kashmiris from Hajin had joined militant ranks barely three months ago, and two, both were minors-while Saqib Bilal Sheikh was merely 17 years old, Mudasir Ahmad was just 14!
This isnt the first time that an incident of militant groups in Kashmir accepting minors as members has come to light. Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) commander Burhan Wani was 15 years old when he picked up the gun in 2010. Some other militants who were still minors when they were killed in encounters recently are:
· Faizan Ahmad Bhat of Tral who was 15 years old when he joined the Hizb and was killed two months later (May 27, 2017).
· Fardeen Khandey of Hyuna village of Jaish-e-Mohammad who was just 16 years old when he was killed during a fidayeen attack on a CRPF camp (December 31, 2017).
Recruitment of minors as combatants (whether they are conscripts or volunteers) is strictly prohibited under international law and thus all those who want the world to recognise the ongoing armed struggle in Kashmir as a legitimate freedom struggle need to introspect. Readers would recollect that the annual report of the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, covering the period January-December 2017, mentions that “one case (of child combatant) was attributed to Jaish-e-Mohammed and two to Hizbul Mujahideen.” And though it also mentions security forces using children as informants and spies, but thats no consolation as the UN report has classified this observation as “unverified.”
Though the joint resistance leadership (JRL) of the Hurriyat paid rich tributes to the militants killed in the Mujgund encounter and the LeT chief Mahmood Shah boasted that Hundreds of youth are ready to pick up the fallen gun of Mudasir, both maintained a stoic silence on the legality and moral propriety of militant groups accepting minors for combat roles. This is particularly disturbing because Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) Convener Khurram Pervez did make an honest attempt to draw public attention to this important issue by saying, Under international law, no side can use minors during any military or militant operations, be it as informers or as militants. He went on to emphasise that Some introspection needs to take place at each and every level of society, but unfortunately none of the stakeholders have bothered to do so and resolve this issue that will certainly give the armed struggle in Kashmir a bad name.
Unfortunately, while we seem to have all the time in the world to keep reminding the UN and international community about its moral responsibility towards Kashmir, we appear to have no time for soul searching to see whether we ourselves are fulfilling our responsibilities towards our young boys. When 15 year old Faizan was killed in 2017, Pervez sahib had made a very bold and significant remark putting the responsibility squarely on HM by saying, Faizan joined militant ranks and they (HM) owned him. Furthermore, by posing the crucial question How can a 15-year-old have his consent and adding that he is a minor and cannot take decisions on his own, the JKCCS convener put across the legal and ethical implications of militant groups using children in armed conflict in a very lucid manner. Unfortunately, his positive advice in 2017 went unheeded and the same has happened again in 2018!
Besides Khurram Pervez, some others too aired their concerns on minors being recruited by militant groups. Journalist Shams Irfan expressed his anguish on the apathy exhibited by us as a community by saying A 14-year-old boy with an AK47 in hand depicts our collective failure to give these kids hope of life and future. Mudasir was too young to sacrifice his precious life for a cause he hardly understood. Dr Asima Hassan who is a member of Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) of Kashmir district has also expressed a similar view by stating stated that children are but innocent because they are young, immature and unable to decide the difference between right and wrong. And perhaps thats why Dr Hassan has gently reminded us that a society is known by how much it cares for its children, our future generation. If we do not care about them, we do not provide them right environment, we are going to be ruined.
The time has come for a frank and free debate on the issue. However, there are bound to be some who despite the logical explanations given by people like Khurram Pervez, Dr Asima Hassan, Shams Irfan and others still may not be convinced about negative legal and ethical consequences of using children in armed conflict. For such people perhaps the emotional words of 14 year old Mudasirs distraught father that I do not question his choice (of picking up the gun), but I feel he was too young for the responsibility, may make the difference as they convey an extremely profound message that ought to stir the conscience of even the most coldhearted!
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