Hundreds of children from a village in India’s insurgency-wracked northeast have burned their toy guns in a symbolic protest against the violence that surrounds them, activists said today.
The children, all younger than 13, held their protest on Wednesday, carrying placards reading “We hate toy guns, We love football” as they marched to the local high school playground to light the bonfire.
“The children happily threw their toy guns, mostly lookalikes of AK-47 and M-16 rifles and 9mm pistols, and clapped as they went up in flames,” said Amarjit Yumnam, one of the local peace activists who organised the event in Keinou, a village in Manipur state.
Keinou is some 25 miles south of the state capital of Imphal.
Villagers said the protest was a reaction to the violence in Manipur, where at least 17 rebel groups have been fighting for independent homelands or autonomy. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the fighting in the past 10 years.
The violence has taken a toll on villagers, with rebels often demanding money and threatening or killing civilians seen as loyal to the state.
The bonfire was also seen as a way to stop children from playing violent war games and imitating the violence in their society.
“This was an important first step to protect children from the impact of violence in the state,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, an English daily.
Nearly all of India’s seven north-eastern states are battling rebels, but Manipur is the only one that has not begun peace talks with any of the insurgent groups.
The militants say the national government exploits the region’s rich natural resources while doing little for its indigenous people, most of whom are ethnically closer to people in nearby Myanmar and China than to the rest of India.
Earlier this month Manipur state authorities said they planned to arm 500 villagers with semiautomatic rifles to allow them to protect themselves from rebel groups that have targeted civilians and attacked isolated villages.
The new strategy has drawn criticism from local rights groups who argue that arming villagers could increase violence in the area.