The rescue of a 15-year-old boy from the Darjeeling Hills, who had escaped from a monastery in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, has brought to light a threat that has been plaguing the Hills.
Many children, especially from the economically backward strata of society, are forcefully sent to religious institutions to train to become men of religion and get free food and shelter while at it.
In most cases, the children are forced against their will and the majority of these institutions where they are herded off don’t adhere to norms laid down under different Acts pertaining to child welfare.
The Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Darjeeling, in a meeting with different NGOs and religious institutions on Thursday, categorically said that the children would have to be produced before the CWC and the District Child Protection Unit before such religious institutions could take them into their fold.
“We have to examine whether the child is interested in pursuing religious studies or is being forced into it. We have to also see whether such institutions taking in Juveniles are registered under the Juvenile Justice Act,” Subeshna Thapa, chairperson of CWC, Darjeeling, said.
On July 23, Bal Suraksha Abhiyan Trust (BSAT), an NGO in Darjeeling Hills, received an email from CWC, Shimla, saying that a 15-year-old from Darjeeling has been rescued. The boy communicated in Nepali and the authorities had trouble conversing with him.
Acting on the lead, the BSAT managed to trace the family of the rescued boy. It was learnt that one-and-a-half-years ago, the boy from the remote Darjeeling village was sent to a monastery in the vicinity to undergo religious training.
His family comprises an elder brother, younger brother, a homemaker mother and an alcoholic father, who tends to the fields. It was common for most of the households in that economically backward locality to send their children to monasteries for training.
“We got in touch with the monastery in Darjeeling Hills as well. However, they were not willing to cooperate. They told us that the boy had been sent to a monastery in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, for higher studies,” Tej Kumar Thapa, child protection officer, BSAT, said.
The parents of this boy were not aware that he was sent to a different monastery in Himachal Pradesh. Thapa, with the consent of the parents and permission from CWC, Shimla, left to bring the child back home.
“The child claimed that he was beaten up regularly in the monastery. Even his named was changed. He was not interested in pursuing religious studies and was keen on attending a regular school. He escaped for the monastery and wanted to return to Darjeeling. He was spotted standing near a bus stand, with no money on him and crying. A person took pity on him and handed him over to the police,” Thapa said.
The police then handed him over to CWC, Kangra. Later, he was sent to a child protection home under CWC, Shimla.