On a chilly October evening, a crowd in Srinagar banged on the gates of a police station, demanding the release of a teenager who had been detained for attacking vehicles. Policemen came to the gate, batons in hand. As the boy’s angry relatives heckled an officer, the policemen dealt them a few blows before pushing them away. Curses were exchanged as the crowd finally dispersed.
An elderly woman, the grandmother of another detainee, sat on a shopfront opposite the police station. She pleaded for her grandson to be released, claiming he was only 11 years old and had been abandoned by his mother after his policeman-father had died in an encounter.
Inside the police station, officials said parents lying about the age of their children was common practice. The detained boy, they said, was at least 16, and not 11, because his father had died in 2001.
The two boys are among the scores of young Kashmiris, many in their teens and pre-teens, who took to the streets during the protests that raged across Kashmir after the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces on July 8.
Minors in lock-up
Close to four months on, with the protests having ebbed, attention has turned to the arrests made during that period of turbulence. On October 7, newspaper reports in Kashmir, quoting Special Director General of Police, Coordination and Law and Order, SP Vaid, said that 4,318 people had been arrested, 925 of whom were still in custody. Since then, according to unofficial estimates, the number of detainees has risen to 6,500, of whom between 1,000 to 1,500 are estimated to still be in custody.
An unknown number of juveniles – who are 18 years or younger – are among the arrested and do not figure in the official records. Several of them have been bailed out or sent to juvenile homes. At least two minors were reported to have been arrested under the Public Safety Act by showing them to be adults. This law, under which a person can be detained for up to two years without judicial intervention, was amended in 2012 to bar the detention of minors.
According to advocate Wajid Haseeb, executive magistrates who sanction warrants under the Public Safety Act rely on police dossiers and do not conduct an independent investigation to ascertain whether the accused is a minor. “If the police think no one will produce on records a birth certificate, they mention the age as 18,” he said. “We then plead in the High Court if we have a document [proof of date of birth] and the warrant will be quashed.”
The manner and conditions of incarceration are now a matter of debate. A police official in Srinagar said the usual practice is to send minors – below 16, according to him – to juvenile homes or keep them separated from adults while still in lock-up.
First-time offenders, the official said, are let off with a scolding, after their families give the police a written undertaking that their wards will not indulge in stone-pelting again. “The parents and imams from neighbourhood mosques are called to the police station and asked to reprimand the boy,” he said. But repeat offenders are booked.
However, lawyer Mir Shafkat Hussain rejected this claim. He alleged that juvenile detainees are kept in police lock-ups with adults before being produced in court “on the whim of the police”. He added, “Every parent says their child was detained for 20-25 days before being taken to a court.”
In Srinagar’s lower court, minors mature into adults while following up on their long-drawn-out cases, which range from stone-pelting to mob violence and arson.
Hussain, who has helped many protestors seek bail, said a majority of those detained for stone-pelting were minors, who were often harassed in lock-up. Many detainees were also first-time offenders, he added.
Reports of families of detainees being charged for food surface each time arrests are made on a large scale. This summer was no different.
The lawyer Wajid Haseeb said the state covers the cost of only those detentions that are in the books. “This is why they charge money from parents for meals,” he said. “Nobody is going to pay if the detainee is not in any record.”
Special Director General of Police SP Vaid acknowledged the reports of families of detainees being charged, but said funds had been released to all senior superintendents to pay police station bills. “Where I get proof [that relatives are being charged money], I will come down very heavily on the police stations and station house officers,” he said.
While scores of minor offenders were detained in the past few months, there is only one juvenile observation home in the entire Valley – a facility with a maximum capacity of 50 at Harwan in Srinagar. Officials of the social welfare department, however, said the number was not static and there had been several occasions when the home had been overcrowded.
Tariq Ahmad, Srinagar district officer for social welfare, said there had been a steady stream of juveniles to the observation home during the early days of the unrest. “But in recent weeks, the numbers have gone down and now, only about five boys accused of stone-pelting remain,” he added.
In 2013, the state passed the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. It also agreed to implement the Centre’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme. But it failed to do so fully, leading to the lack of infrastructure to deal with juvenile crime. Lawyers and activists said this was harming minors as they are now detained with adults.
A lawyer, who did not want to be identified, said most juvenile detainees came from poor households with little education and no political awareness. “Once you slap PSA [Public Safety Act] on a juvenile, he cannot go for education or jobs,” he said. “So he does this [stone-pelting]. What else can he do?”
Lack of training
Rouf Malik, who heads the child rights group Koshish, linked the magnitude of protests this summer with the practice of detaining juveniles with adults, saying it affected behaviour patterns and enhanced tendencies among such minors to commit crimes. “They come out as reactionaries,” he said.
A 2011 study by the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, Juveniles of Jammu and Kashmir: Unequal before the law and denied justice in custody, found that minors in the state are “assumed to be adults and are detained in adult detention facilities, placing them at very high risk of abuse”. It went on to say that “the lack of juvenile facilities, such as juvenile homes, means that detained delinquents are routinely detained in police lock-ups or in prisons with adults”.
Special Director General of Police Vaid said that juveniles must be kept in juvenile homes, and that the police execute the law once it has been implemented by the government. “We are trying our best to make policemen aware but they need special training and sensitisation to juvenile problems,” he said. “I don’t think my policemen are so sensitised.”
According to Abdul Majeed Bhat, mission director of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, the biggest problem in the state is the lack of a Juvenile Justice Board, nominations for which have only just been finalised. Unless the board and Child Welfare Committees are formed, “implementation [of the scheme] is not practical”, he added.
Pointing out that Central schemes were exhaustive and made malpractice difficult, Malik said their non-implementation in the state was disappointing. “Security laws come directly [to Kashmir] but welfare acts such as these are not directly imposed and implemented,” he added.