Jehadi groups step up recruitment of children
19 September 2003
Srinagar: Early in July, a Lashkar-e-Taiba recruiter walked into the playground of the National High School at the small Bandipora village of Vijhar. The six children he spoke to claim, at least in front of their parents, that they were told he was looking to put together a cricket team to play a match. The story is open to dispute, since matches rarely begin at 7 p.m., the time the group finally gathered on the edge of the forest at nearby Arin. Villagers in Arin heard the hubbub outside, and recognised one of the children, Ishfaq Ahmad Bhat. They correctly assumed he was going into the hills for arms training, and raised a furore. Late that night, the children were back home. If a power blackout had not stopped his relatives from watching television, Ishfaq Bhat would today have been hiding out on the Tangdhar mountains with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder, not struggling with problems set by his eighth-grade teachers. An estimated 500 teenagers recruited through Jammu and Kashmir this year have not been so lucky. Variously lured or press-ganged into service by the Pakistan-backed jehadi organisations, hundreds of young recruits are receiving arms training in the heavily-forested mountains that surround the Kashmir Valley. Others have been pushed into service in the war raging on the heights of Poonch and Doda. Most receive rudimentary arms training, but mainly work as cooks, cleaners, porters and guides. Several are believed to have died in encounters between terrorists and the Indian security forces. What is making hundreds of teenagers leave their homes and march towards certain death? The Hindu's investigation detected some broad themes. Some of the six teenagers who were recruited in Vijhar had repeatedly failed school examinations; others had dropped out to take unpaid apprenticeships in no-future jobs. Bhat, for example, had just failed his eighth standard examination, and was forced to repeat the year. The family had come down hard on the boy. Another member of the group, 16-year old Mumtaz Ahmad Dar, had failed twice in succession. 'After his failure', says his father Ghulam Mohammad, a carpenter, 'I pulled him out of school and made him work as an apprentice with a tailor in Bandipora'. Some of the Vijhar six had better-off families, but similar problems reacted in a similar manner. Tanveer Ahmad Malik failed his tenth grade exams, much to the dismay of his parents. His father retired from service as a forest ranger, a prestigious branch of government service in Jammu and Kashmir, while his brother is a government-employed college lecturer. The family now sends him for computer training in Bandipora, but are aware the skills he learns there are limited. Unlike the Vijhar six, who seemed to have been seduced by the prospect of adventure, quick money and peer respect, many recruits are simply press-ganged into service. On August 3, 13-year-old Mohammad Yasin Wani, a resident of Neel in Doda, and 17-year-old Rafiq Poddar, a resident of nearby Suranga, were kidnapped at gunpoint by a Lashkar-e-Taiba group. Residents of both villages were told they had to contribute one recruit each to the organisation, or face reprisals. Later that month, the Doda police succeeded in breaking open a major recruitment ring, run by Imtiaz Ahmad, an Arabic teacher working at a seminary in Patimahal, and Shabbir Ahmad, the headman of the village whose brother is a senior Lashkar commander active in the area. Almost a dozen teenagers have since been rescued in operations by the 10 Rashtriya Rifles battalion and Doda Police. Jehadi groups have put children in harm's way for several years. Eighteen children from south Kashmir were killed in an encounter in 2000 near Surankote, after their Pakistani minders opened fire at approaching troops. Several children were recently rescued in the course of summer operations by the army around Hil Kaka in Poonch.