International Youth Day: Manipur's students get an education in war to protect their lands
Young Manipuri students, including minors, have taken up arms and are undergoing military training as ethnic violence between Kukis and Meiteis continues unabated for over three months
While the rest of the world celebrates International Youth Day, observed annually on August 12, the youth of Manipur are picking up arms and undergoing physical and weapons training in order to "defend and protect their land".
Yes, Kuki-Zo youth—many of them minors—have taken up arms to protect their villages from external threats, including the Meiteis from the Valley.
A News The Truth video report dated 7 August shows a group of young children at what appears to be a weapons training camp in Churachandpur.
"Of course, everybody is scared of dying but we need to be courageous and we need to be strong [for our state]," says a young boy, visibly a minor.
"I'm absolutely not happy about this [training]. But we are doing this to save our land—there is no future without our land," says another.
"Right now my land needs me," echoes another young boy as they continue marching, running, and preparing for combat.
"I have not personally seen young kids below the age of 18 being trained for combat, but it is not unusual in a civil war-like situation, like what's happening in Manipur right now. There is nothing more for police and officials to do. For more than three months, it has been up to the common people, all of us, including students, to defend themselves," an assistant sub-inspector of police from the Meitei community posted in Thoubal district told National Herald.
"This is an ethnic clash of the most violent order, where we are all left to protect ourselves. Several people from other districts in Manipur have set up relief camps in Thoubal, many of them are kids, they are all protecting themselves," he added, also claiming that though he has not seen minors from the Meitei community picking up arms, he has certainly seen children of the opposing camp "being given" weapons.
Young self-proclaimed Kuki 'volunteers' stationed in relief camps in Khousabung village of Churachandpur district seem to share a similar outlook.
"I was given arms training for three days. I picked up a few hacks from the mobile game PUBG, such as bullet range, for example, 9 mm bullets have a low range of around 70 metres; 5.56 mm, between 200-500 metres; and 7.26 mm, between 500 metres and one km," a young student armed with a single-barrel gun, a knife and a 12-mm bandolier told Newslaundry. On being asked why he was "recruited" to the front line, he said it was to protect his land. "To save our land from Meiteis," he said.
Various media reports suggested that all schools in Manipur were set to reopen on Wednesday, August 10, including classes 9 to 12, after being shut for 2 months. However, sources told National Herald that schools are not yet functional in several districts. "Thousands of students are still holed up in relief camps, the total number of school children in the camps is well above 5,000," they said.
As the state of education in the violence-hit state remains uncertain, students are being rushed to camps and bunkers to protect themselves and their land, as some of them put it. "I had dreamed of higher education, but the sudden change in the situation forced me to abandon my studies and take up a gun to protect my land," an 18-year-old from Mongtuk village in Kangpoki district told India Today.
Photojournalist Biplov Bhuyan, who visited Manipur in June, bears out that this is the story today for too many of youth in this north-eastern state: "These young volunteers, who are taking responsibility for self-defence [of their villages], range from 13 [years of age] to their mid-30s and have chosen to sacrifice their education, farming activities, and peaceful nights to protect their village borders with guns and weapons," he captioned one of his images from Churachandpur.
Describing another, he said: "With a strong sense of unity and determination to protect their land, the village youth have formed a defence force and armed themselves with single barrel rifles approved by the Manipur government."
Manipur has been the epicentre of extremely violent ethnic clashes between the Kuki and Meitei communities since May 3—over 100 days now. The seemingly uncontrollable violence has already killed over 180 people, and left thousands homeless and displaced.