On June 3, communal clashes broke out in Kanpur as Muslim groups protested against comments made by former Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma on the Prophet Muhammad.

Three days later, the Uttar Pradesh police put up pictures of the accused across town. Two of these pictures appear to show the same masked person. The police claim he is a teenager who lives in a Muslim enclave of Kanpur. They allege he was seen throwing stones after Friday prayers at the Yakeem Khana mosque.

The police claim the teenager surrendered on June 7 and was taken into custody. He was booked on 10 charges, including rioting, criminal initimidation and attempt to murder, which is counted as a “heinous offence”. According to the police, he is 16 years old. Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, individuals between 16 and 18 may be tried as adults if they are accused of “heinous offences’’.

The boy’s family and lawyer say he is under 15, and the claimed surrender occurred after the police intimidated him and his family. They also say that the conditions of custody violate several provisions of the juvenile justice law – that he spent a night in the police station instead of being taken to an observational home immediately, that the police slapped and hit him with a belt.

As the teenager awaits his fate in Kanpur, his family blame the BJP for not taking timely action against Sharma. For days, Sharma’s comments, made on a prime time news show on May 26, seemed to elicit no reaction from the party.

Then, as a raft of Gulf countries condemned the remarks and summoned Indian envoys to register their objections, the government was jolted into action. Sharma was suspended from the party on June 5. Another BJP spokesperson, Naveen Jindal, was expelled for similar comments.

“If you had suspended her 10 days ago, when the statements were made, then [the teenager] would be here with us today,” said 35-year-old Shahenshah, the boy’s cousin.

On June 8, a day after the boy was taken into custody, Sharma, Jindal and others were booked for alleged hate speech by the Delhi Police’s cyber cell.

“What the Muslims of India could not do, these countries did,” said Shahenshah, a daily wage worker, with a bitter smile.

A strike gone wrong

As news of Sharma’s comments spread across the country, several Muslim organisations called for action against her. A first information report was also registered against her in Mumbai, listing offences such as “outraging religious feelings” and “promoting enmity” between different groups.

Restive over the lack of action against Sharma, a non-governmental organisation called the MMA Jauhar Fans’ Association called for a strike in Kanpur on June 3. According to both police and local accounts, matters turned violent after 3pm. That was when a procession of young Muslim men passed through the Hindu-dominated locality of Chandeshwar Hatta.

The rally turned into a clash. According to Muslim residents in nearby areas, Hindu “goons” living in the locality started the violence. Local Hindu residents claimed the procession chanted slogans, asked shopkeepers to keep their shutters down and threw stones at them.

An FIR filed by the police on June 4 echoes the claim that the procession was trying to force local shopkeepers to keep shut shop. Police personnel present at the spot had warned the men in the rally not to move forward, but they were “armed with stones” and fired on the police, the FIR said. The police claimed that for three hours, the men in the rally kept up a barrage of stones and petrol bombs.

Ninety kilometres away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and President Ramnath Kovind were attending a function in rural Kanpur that day.

No serious injuries were reported, but the city of Kanpur has been on edge ever since. Almost a week later, policemen on horseback patrolled areas of the city where the clashes had taken place.

All 55 persons named in two FIRs registered by the Kanpur police, with charges of rioting and attempt to murder, are Muslims. Over 50 of the accused have been arrested till date. The teenager held on June 7 is the only minor so far. As news spread that he had been taken into custody, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights wrote to the Uttar Pradesh police, asking them to start a probe against those who had allegedly used children in the violence on June 3.

Kanpur is on edge. Picture credit: Aishwarya Iyer

An arrest

The youngest of four siblings, the teenager has never been to school, his family said. “He started working when he was five years old,” said his mother. “He would go with his elder brother and sell vegetables, walking from lane to another.”

Since his father was often unwell and unable to work, he did several other odd jobs to help the family. “He also sold underwear and second-hand clothes and worked at a kebab shop for Rs 50 a day,” said his mother.

On June 3, she said, he had gone out to sell vegetables, after which he went to pray at the Yakeem Khana mosque. She questions whether the posters put up by the police actually show pictures of her son. “In the photos they have put up the person is wearing a mask. How do they know it is him?” she asks. In one picture, the masked person is standing amid the mob. In another, he is throwing a stone.

On the evening of June 6, soon after the pictures went up, two policemen in civilian clothes visited their home, she said.

“They threw clothes around and were rude,” said the boy’s 18-year-old sister, who was home at the time. “They kept saying we had hidden our brother. In the end they took my [elder] brother and my husband and left.”

The family alleged that the two men were held at Kanpur’s Colonelganj police station past midnight. “We were told that we will be released only if [my brother] came in,” said the boy’s elder brother, who was one of the two detained.

The boy’s brother-in-law alleged the police had kept his mobile phone, his SIM card and his Aadhaar card. “They are not giving them back to me. They say I stole the phone,” he said.

Worried that the police would harm his brother and brother-in-law, the boy went to the police station around 12.30 am that night. His elder brother-in-law, who is 40 years old, followed him there. While the other two relatives were released, he stayed on.

“The inspector told me to wait [at the police station] with my brother as he was a minor,” said the 40-year-old. “I saw that he was kept in a room with an older man. There was no fan in that room. Around 2:30am, some men went into his room, bearing another man with them, probably one of the other accused in the same rioting case. They [verbally] abused my brother and slapped him. I saw this.”

The boy spent the night at the Colonelganj police station. By morning, his brother-in-law said, he was unwell and vomiting.

Shariq Ishtiaq, the boy’s lawyer, said keeping a minor at the police station violated the juvenile justice law. Under the law, if a minor held by the police is not released on bail immediately, he had to be sent to an observational home.

The law also says that the police cannot use force when detaining a juvenile.

Shariq Ishtiaq, the minor's lawyer. Picture credit: Aishwarya Iyer

Presented at the magistrate’s court

Within 24 hours, the minor had to be presented to the juvenile justice board – consisting of a judicial magistrate and two social workers – which would decide on the course of action. That did not happen either, Ishtiaq and the family allege.

When he was taken for a medical examination on June 7, the family was waiting outside the police station to meet him. The police did not let them speak to him, his mother alleged.

Later that day, the boy’s family was told that he was at the Kotwali police station. But they were not allowed to meet him there either. His brother-in-law finally managed to exchange a few words with him on the evening of June 7, when he was presented at the metropolitan magistrate’s court along with the other accused.

According to Ishtiaq, he was also pressured into naming other people allegedly involved in the violence – a detail that has surfaced in local news reports. “Why would they report this? What if tomorrow others are picked up and they later come and stand outside our door in anger?” asked his brother-in-law.

On the night of June 7, he was taken to a child correction home, where his mother and one of his brothers-in-law went to visit the next day. “He said that the police had hit him with belts and slapped him,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. According to her, he had told her this had happened at the Kotwali police station, where he was taken briefly.

‘Not older than 15’

According to the minor’s Aadhaar card, he is 11, but the family acknowledges that the number is a few years off the mark. According to Ishtiaq, the teenager was forced to say he is “about 17” when he is “not older than 15”.

Since the family have no birth certificate and no school documents to prove the minor’s age, Ishtiaq has filed a plea to determine his age through a bone ossification test.

The difference of two years could make all the difference to his fate. Should he be 15, he cannot be tried as an adult for “heinous offences” – which carry a sentence of seven years or more. For children tried under the juvenile justice law, the maximum punishment is imprisonment for three years in a remand home.

Scroll.in contacted several police officials in Kanpur, most of whom refused to comment on the matter. One senior police official, who did not want to be identified, denied there had been custodial violence against the minor. He also claimed that the boy had been treated well and presented to the juvenile justice board according to procedure.