The early 1990s saw a lot of ethnic clashes in Manipur. Tribal militia was on the rise. Since 1980, when the state was declared a ‘disturbed’ area and the government of India had imposed AFSPA, tribals in the region had started forming their own small guerrilla groups, largely to protect their interests from Naga violations. Compared to the insurgency in the other north-eastern states, in Manipur, the levels of defection were lower. The networks aimed to gain popular support, and hence, mostly avoided attacks on the police. Extortion was the most effective way for the insurgents to keep themselves funded. Some of the rebel groups also resorted to abducting children, who were then trained as child soldiers.
It was normal for these militants to seek shelter in the houses of the villagers, especially in the areas with jungles and hillocks around them. Thoubal fitted the bill perfectly. ‘There were many nights we heard knocks on our doors,’ Sarita said. ‘There were militants, in small groups, who wanted food and shelter.’ Saying ‘no’ would have meant further trouble, so it was best to obey them. Their uniforms and guns fascinated Sarita. ‘We saw guns, militants, faujis wherever we went. Their uniform attracted me very much. I wanted to try it out just once,’ she said.
Ichontombi, they called her, meaning sister, Sarita said. ‘They used to watch me attempt high jumps with a bamboo during the day time, and got friendly with me. I didn’t mind, because there was nobody to love me or talk to me at home,’ she said. ‘They asked me to join them one day. I didn’t know what to do, or who to ask. But I wanted to hold a gun; I thought it would make me somebody.’
‘It would make you one of them. It would make you a militant. Is that what you wanted?’ I asked.
‘It would give me some sort of identity, I thought. I thought I could do something for my state, just like they were doing,’ she said.
And just like that, one day, Sarita agreed to ‘help out’ one such group that had stayed in her house for some time. ‘Nobody forced me. I was not abducted,’ she clarified. They asked her to transfer guns to a neighbouring village. ‘I wasn’t afraid, I was excited. It was like going out on an adventure,’ she said.
Sarita wasn’t alone. Even her best friend Ningola and another village girl took guns to a neighbouring village. ‘I sat on a Kinetic with one of the militants and wore a bag with guns. We went to a village, to someone’s house. They spoke about something, and we came back to Thoubal after that. Being a child, that too a girl, nobody suspected me.’
‘I didn’t understand much,’ she said. ‘But they used to keep track of trucks at the border and the villages near the hills. There were checkpoints on the highways. Their network was quite well co-ordinated, and they used to keep talking about who will wait where, at what time.’
Then one day, Lokkhon, her brother, found out from a neighbour who had seen Sarita hanging out with unfamiliar men during the daytime. ‘I was beaten up so badly by my brother that I didn’t dare step out of the house for a week,’ she said.
Sarita’s direct contact with militants in the area ended up being a short affair, but it became clear in the years that followed that they were observing her progress in the world of boxing very closely. (When Sarita came back from the World Championships in Russia in 2005, she and Mary Kom were felicitated with monetary rewards by one militant group at a discreet location. ‘Work harder and bring glory,’ they were told.)
‘They [the militants] think that it is their responsibility to work for their motherland, [they feel] it’s a sort of service to the society,’ Sarita said. ‘They even banned alcohol and other harmful stuff in Manipur and encouraged sports and sportspersons in their own capacity.’
But the state had become rather unsafe for children, many of whom from Sarita’s village were abducted and later handed over to one of the militant groups. ‘They used to get second- hand clothes and toys from the border markets here and in Myanmar and lure the children with such things,’ she said. The parents of these children often weren’t left with a choice. Hunger and poverty drove them to offer their children for service. With the issue of child soldiers remaining unresolved over the years, children continue to be a part of armed conflicts even today. In 2013, a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), titled ‘India’s Child Soldiers’, claimed that at least 3,000 children were compulsorily abducted by armed groups in the north-east and Jammu and Kashmir. The report said that the Indian government was unwilling to recognize conflicts within its own borders. It even claimed that the recruitment of these children by the terror groups was apparently hidden by the Indian government from the United Nations committee on the Rights of the Child.
Sarita, meanwhile, had started thinking of returning to taekwondo, or some form of sport, but wasn’t motivated enough, because she was ‘all over the place’. Hesitantly, on the request of Ibotombi, a local kung fu coach, she took part in a competition, and did surprisingly well. Regular participation in school events helped. And before she knew it, Sarita was standing in front of Leishangthem Ibomcha Singh, in Manipur’s Khuman Lampak Indoor Stadium, which boasted of an empty, dark and dilapidated hall in terms of available facilities for sportspersons. In Manipur, Ibomcha was popularly known as Sai Ibomcha, after his employers, the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV.
Excerpted with permission from Harper Sport.