Youth in conflict zones are most commonly depicted as either passive victims of trauma who are emotionally volatile, or active security threats. There is fear breeding amongst the government and societies that write off a generation as prone to militia and violent behaviour. As a result, wide swaths of youth are dismissed , isolated, or more often portrayed as militants and insurgents just by virtue of being from a war-torn region. Such depictions of the youth of Kashmir leads to a hostile outlook towards them, and creates a huge gap between them and youth in other parts of our country.
The most renowned description of how war traumatises children (which includes adolescents or those at the lower end of the youth category) is Graça Machel’s landmark 1996 submission to the UN General Assembly—the Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The report describes the ruinous effects of war on all children. Machel has since conducted a follow-up study, which reasserts that “Children spared the direct experience of violence in armed conflict still suffer deep emotional distress.” All children, she added, “who have lived through conflict need psychosocial support”. However, not to deny war’s negative effect on young people, this dominant trend that emphasizes child and youth “vulnerability rather than resilience” spontaneously puts them in a category of damaged humans.
We are as far from conflict as one can be and our conceptions of childhood tend to regard children as “vulnerable, passive beings who need to be protected and cared for”, instead of active community members. These young people are capable of understanding their community far better than any outsider making an attempt to improve their situations. They collectively make an effort to deal with their current scenarios in a more holistic, productive manner than resorting to guns and pelting stones, as Kashmiri youth (or for that matter youth from any conflict zone in the world) are portrayed by media. What we seldom fail to notice is how this youth is also capable of rising above violence to nurture peace through their art, music, and knowledge, to forge ahead in life.
The growing fear of Kashmiri youth or youth in other conflict areas of our nation in popular media poses a barrier against carrying out programs to assist them or to reach out to them. Such fear does not inspire people to try to understand and work with youth. Instead, it encourages the idea that one must protect themselves against such young people. This is a preposterous idea, and it deeply affects the youth movement at large.
This lack of engagement with most youth aggravates the feelings of many youth that they are insignificant castaways. And as Graça Machel puts it:
“Youth need to connect, work together, developing synergies, identify the commonalities they have, what their mission is, a common agenda, define priorities so that they have collective engagement and they will be able to reason clearly what are the impact they are looking at making. Change requires big movement , a youth movement based in common vision and agenda. We need a youth movement, not a small initiative or movement in isolation. Recognizing the need to work together and how we can work together.”
Popular depictions of youth as security threats also arise, for the most part, from Western sources. For instance, American author Robert D. Kaplan has famously characterized male youth in urban West Africa as “out of school, unemployed, loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatened to ignite”. This notion is widely believed and has many supporters. Such menacing descriptions were supported by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s argument that societies are particularly vulnerable to war when people aged 15-24 (that is, youth) comprise at least 20% of the population. His thesis basically illustrated the demographic dangers created by these ‘youth bulges’, also defined as “extraordinarily large youth cohorts relative to the adult population” by Henrik Urdal, another political scientist. Urdal’s statistical analysis neither supported Huntington’s argument regarding a 20% threshold nor Kaplan’s argument that the world is “moving toward a new age of insecurity” with the increase in young population in underdeveloped countries. Instead, it depicted high numbers of youth as “a blessing and a curse.”
A large youth population can “boost an economy”. But poorly performing economies and weak governance, when mixed with a youth bulge in the population, may lead to violence. What we need to take cognisance of here is how best our government along with the youth in peaceful contexts can create means for our youth in conflict areas, in order to turn them into productive assets instead of fighting them as a vessel of disruption. We need to start focusing on the ‘pull factors’ (religion, group norms, ideology, education and more) rather than the ‘push factors’ (conditions that alienate people, or cause them to reject mainstream society, such as poverty, youth unemployment, endemic corruption, elite impunity, and vastly inadequate public services).
The idea that perpetuates a certain kind of mistaken image of young talented Kashmiris that are granted the status of belligerents have to be dismantled. War’s impact on youth is complex, but a one-dimensional idea is easily co-opted by the media or the government to sideline them or have them controlled by the military in the nastiest of ways one can imagine. Additionally recent research indicates that child and youth experiences of warfare are far more varied than had previously been assumed.
It’s an arbitrary decision to call a youth violent by society at large, and brand them as ruthless rebels, instead of giving them a chance. This has as severe an effect (if not more) on them as war. Our government needs to recognise this youth, provide for them better, and give them the environment that they rightfully deserve, rather than push them towards a dead end by fearing them and acting in an hostile manner. The intention is not to underplay the prodigious damages of warfare on children and youth, it is indeed well worth contemplating the multitude of ways that children and youth are exploited as porters, domestics, sex slaves, spies, human shields, minesweepers, miners, military policemen, and suicide bombers in addition to soldiering mostly because they lack viable education or deprived of employment options. Poverty, loss of families in war, and peer group pressure is additional motivations for enlistment in armed militia.
Heavy youth involvement in conflicts puffs up civilian fears of youth as menacing destabilizers. Nonetheless, if we expect a positive outcome we need to stop brandishing them as potential terrorists, as well as view them less as damaged victim, but more as fairly adept actors in difficult war and post war realities. We need to tap into their resilience and harness it.
Jo Boyden & Joanna Berry in their book, “Children and Youth on the Front line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement”, talk about “shifting the paradigm” away from “accepted wisdom” about war’s punishing effects on young people to argue that “age is not necessarily the critical determinant of vulnerability.” “Even when confronting by appalling adversities,” Boyden and de Berry explain, many youth “are able to influence positively their own fate and that of others who depend on them” . Part of the authors’ critique is that “Too often programmes for war-affected children are dictated by adults’ perceptions of the impact of war on young people.”
Therefore, programs must start with “children’s and young people’s definitions of constraints and opportunities” when policies and programmes are developed for them. It is important to give them agency and see them as core formulators of their own assistance. After all, they are the primary building blocks for peaceful futures.