On a chilly April morning, with a backpack filled with political science, psychology and civics books slung on his shoulders, Asif Ashraf, 19, climbed the steps of the makeshift Saddar Court Complex in Bemina, Srinagar. Ashraf is charged with arson, and rioting with a deadly weapon along with Amir Asghar, 25, whom Ashraf met at the court complex. According to the challan filed by the police, the deadly weapon is a stone. The duo are accused of pelting stones at a convoy of police jeeps in Nowhatta in downtown Srinagar in December 2015.
Asghar and Ashraf did not seek directions to their lawyer’s chambers or the courtroom. This is their 16th visit to the complex. They know the drill. Having arrived an hour before their case was scheduled to be heard, they approached their lawyer. “It is like giving attendance in school,” said Asghar, smiling sadly.
Their lawyer, Mir Urfi, had a long list of cases for the day. She ran her finger through the list and made a check mark near their names. They waited for their turn.
The original lower court complex was destroyed in the devastating floods that hit Srinagar in 2014. Since then, the courts function from a government building built for a different purpose. In that building, the lobby has been converted into lawyers’ chambers, and long dingy corridors with 12x12 rooms on either side serve as the lower courtrooms.
Ashraf and Asghar strode through the corridors, greeting several other boys along the way. “We meet almost every month,” said Asghar. “So, we now know their names and stories. Many of their stories are like ours.”
The corridor is filled with young boys, the majority of whom are accused of stone pelting. According to a PTI report, there were 2,690 incidents of stone pelting in the Valley in 2016, of which 339 incidents occurred in Srinagar alone. Urfi has handled more than 450 cases of stone pelting since December. “Dozens of boys are arrested for each incident of stone pelting,” said GN Shaheen, an advocate at the Srinagar High Court.
After the decline of militancy in the mid-2000s, stones became a popular choice of weapon for Kashmiri youth. This trend was seen since 2008, when more than five lakh protestors gathered at a single rally in Kashmir to oppose the state government’s decision to transfer land to the Amarnath Shrine Board to set up temporary shelters and other facilities for Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath cave near Pahalgam. However, many Kashmiri men say that stones were a popular weapon among Kashmiris in the past, and were used in attempts to drive the Mughals away from Kashmir in the 16th Century, and against the Dogra rulers thereafter.
While some of the boys packed in the corridor were actual stone pelters, others said they were not.
Take Ashraf’s and Asghar’s case. Ashraf was picked up near Barbar Shah about four km from Nowhatta, where, according to the charge sheet against him, he was pelting stones. However, Ashraf said that he was walking to his tuition class on December 25, 2015, when a police jeep approached him and the police personnel in it asked him to accompany them. He added that his phone and other belongings were taken from him and he was kept at the Nowhatta police station for 10 days. “No FIR was filed and I wasn’t allowed to meet my parents,” he said.
Asghar has a similar story. He said that he was picked up a few kilometres from the location where Kashmiri youth were pelting stones at security forces, and taken to the police station.
Even though Ashraf was 17 at the time of his arrest, he was not taken to a juvenile home. But he was spared the torture that Asghar went through.
“They injected petrol into my thighs,” said Asghar. His otherwise calm persona changed drastically when he narrated his ordeal in jail. Trying hard to fight back tears, he described how he was given electric shocks to his ear lobe. He said that he was asked to identify militants he had never seen before. “We used to sit up all night in the jail and idolise the mujahideen who have the guts to kill these evil policemen,” said Asghar.
Manoj Pandita, spokesperson for the Jammu and Kashmir Police, said that the police would never use torture techniques on young men unless absolutely necessary.
Bonds formed in jails last long. “This is a brotherhood of suffering,” said Shazana Andrabi, who heads the Centre for International Relations at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Srinagar. “The younger boys look up to the older ones. And those who are new to the jails look up to others who frequent it.”
The term “multiple FIR” is common in Kashmir’s courts. It refers to the practice of ensuring that boys picked up on charges of stone pelting are not set free that easily. “When a boy gets bail for one offence in a court, before he is released, the police call neighbouring police stations,” said the lawyer Shaheen, explaining how it worked. “They ensure another FIR is lodged against him. So, just as he is about to walk free, there is another FIR lodged against him and he is taken in again.”
Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Pandita explained this practice away, saying that there are multiple examples of boys committing crimes as soon as they are let off. “The police is therefore forced to arrest them again,” he said.
Then there are cases like that of Dawood Shaafkat Mir who has not been released by the police even though a court quashed the charges against him. The 22-year-old was arrested on September 6 in Pulwama and taken to Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail. Since he was booked under the Public Safety Act, his case was taken up at the Srinagar High Court, which quashed the charges against him on March 29.
However, even about a month later, his father Shafakat Mir is doing the rounds of the courts to bring his son home. “They say my boy can come home when there is a vehicle arranged for him to be transported to Srinagar,” said the senior Mir.
Said Shaheen: “It is not uncommon for the police to hold back from following the court’s orders claiming there is a logistical problem.”
However, Pandita maintained that the police never overstepped its boundaries, and certainly did not ignore court rulings. “Can you imagine not abiding by the court’s orders?” he asked.
According to Urfi, such stories – of boys being slapped with multiple FIRs to keep them in jail, and of boys not being released despite charges being quashed against them – have increased manifold since August. The previous month, Indian forces killed Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Protests subsequently broke out in all 10 districts of the Valley in which 90 civilians were killed, and 15,000 injured. Curfew was imposed in the Valley for 53 days.
While lawyers in Srinagar say that they have seen an increase in false stone pelting cases, they also admit that there has been an increase in the number of actual stone pelters arrested since July. “Some boys come to me and say they pelted stones at forces and they want bail now so they can go back to the streets to do so,” said a lawyer who has handled more than 100 stone pelting cases.
‘We are not Indian’
At around noon one Friday in April, the heart of the older part of Srinagar, called downtown Srinagar, almost completely shut down. Any vehicles approaching Nowhatta – the heart of the summer capital where tear gas shells, water cannons and pellets are the order of the day – were stopped by police barricades and asked to take a diversion.
After afternoon prayers, a dedicated group of young boys spilled on to the streets, shouting slogans. This correspondent saw about a dozen boys doing so in April. However, in 2016, eye witnesses said that hundreds of boys filled the streets.
One 28-year-old young man claimed to have been a part of a group called Tehreek-e-Sangbaaz or the Stone Pelters Movement. He has more than 20 cases against him – ranging from rioting to abetment to murder. He said that he has spent about 10 months in jail.
“My father used to tell me we are Indian,” he said. “Since 2008, when I was 19, I saw how the Indian Army dealt with Kashmiris. How can they torture and humiliate their own men? I realised my father was lying to me. We are not Indian. Do you know how difficult it is when children realise that their parents were lying to them? When you do not believe your parents you do not believe anyone,” he said.
The young man has a B Com and an MBA degree from Kashmir University. He now leads a gang of 16 young boys who were sitting near the Jama Masjid in Srinagar, discussing politics, religion and freedom. At his prompting, a few other boys spoke.
“Our religion teaches us to be responsible for our actions,” said a 21-year-old physics graduate who was born in Nowhatta. “We cannot undo what our parents did by supporting India, but we can certainly carve new paths for us.”
He added: “We do not care for India or Pakistan. We want a Caliphate.”
This gang of boys had made a flag of the Islamic State after buying a piece of black cloth, which they inscribed upon using white paint. “We hold it up on some Fridays so the media will take notice of us,” said a 14-year-old who is part of the group.
Rouf Malik, who runs a non-profit, Koshish Kashmir, which works with children and education, said that such activities are a desperate attempt by the children of Kashmir to seek attention. “Unless these young boys do something drastically different, no one cares about Kashmir,” he said.
In Kashmir, according to Malik, the narrative of poor unemployed boys taking to the streets does not hold water. He explained that most stone pelters are from well-off families. If they are poor they will work hard to make ends meet, he said. “Where will they find time to throw stones?”
It is mostly boys who resort to stone pelting. However, as some photographs have shown recently, girls are also taking to it. “In many cases, girls gather stones for us, they open doors when we are being chased by the police,” said a stone pelter.
Mansab Wadoo, 22, was with the group of boys at Nowhatta, but he is not a stone pelter. He is a law student at Kashmir University, and has no cases against him. He said that their movement wanted to look beyond a nation-state. “What good is India and Pakistan?” he asked. “We are followers of Islam and we want a land where there is sharia.”
In saying so, the law student was echoing Burhan Wani’s successor Zakir Musa, who, in a video, said that militants were fighting for the imposition of sharia or Islamic canonical law.
The other boys in Nowhatta had a slightly different argument. “We have to constantly remind India that we are occupied, therefore we throw stones,” said a 14-year-old, who studies in one of the Valley’s top schools. “Just like they remind us all the time.”
The boy was referring to incidents like the one on April 1 when 11-year-old Mir Mehran, who was walking with his friend in Srinagar, was stopped by paramilitary soldiers, asked to hold his ears and do sit-ups 10 times. He later told the Associated Press: “I was thinking they could have killed me or done something else. I was scared.”
There is palpable anger against the Indian state on the streets. Most youngsters say they would pick up arms if they had access to it. They say that they are fighting with stones since there is no easy availability of arms of the kind seen during the armed militancy of the 1990s. “I wish we had access to guns the way our Mujahideen brothers did,” said a stone pelter. “My weapon of choice is not a stone, it is a gun. The day we get guns, we shall never pelt stones again.”
Juveniles and the law
The majority of boys who are caught for stone pelting offences are minors. Though the state has a Juvenile Justice Act – which gained teeth only in 2013, thirteen years after the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act was passed at the Centre – it still does not have juvenile justice boards to try accused persons who are underage. The juvenile cases are therefore tried before the chief judicial magistrate.
In the state, anyone below the age of 18 is considered a juvenile – the 2015 amendments to the central Juvenile Justice Act, which permitted juveniles between the age of 16 and 18 to be tried as adults for heinous offences, did not include Jammu and Kashmir.
According to Shazana Andrabi, the problem regarding juvenile offenders became acute after 2008, when young people began to be arrested in large numbers.
In 2013, a juvenile home was constructed in Harvan on the outskirts of Srinagar. The three-storey structure is separated from a police station by a narrow mud road and barbed wire fencing. It has a huge playground on one side of the building and an open field on another. The entrance to the juvenile home is usually locked and the rear entrance is used. The place can hold about 150 juveniles at a time. However, according to the supervisor, there are usually not more than 20-30 inmates present at any given time. “Most of them are stone pelters,” said Farzana, the supervisor. “However, they get bail within a day or two.”
It is common for those in the juvenile home to know each other, according to one of the caretakers, who asked not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “They are all either stone pelters and know each other, or they are from the same neighbourhood and have been wrongly booked,” he said.
Umar Mansoor, 16, was brought into the juvenile home by three policeman in a jeep. He lives with his brother and sister-in-law in Nowhatta. As soon as he entered the large dormitory where the young boys sleep, he spotted Tanvir Ahmed, 15, who lives two houses away. “Everyone in the neighbourhood knows he cannot pelt any stones,” said Ahmed pointing at Mansoor. “He regularly takes medicines from the mental hospital.”
In many stone pelting cases, FIRs are registered against “unnamed persons”. The police then arrest some boys and press them to name other boys who could have committed the crime, said Shafakat Hussain, senior advocate at the High Court who handles cases booked under Public Safety Act. “When one boy is tortured, he gives in and names a few other boys who might or might not have committed the crime,” he said. “Therefore you see that most boys from the same neighbourhood or same school are arrested in hordes.”
Ahmed said that he had nothing to do with stone pelters himself. His father said that he was happy his son did not have a Public Safety Act case against him.
By law, minors cannot be booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows the police to detain a person without trial for up to two years. However, that still happens. “But, the police refuse to believe they are under 18 even if we show them documents to prove otherwise and the onus is on the minors to prove their age,” said Shrimoiyee Ghosh, a Srinagar-based human rights lawyer.
One well-known case of a juvenile being booked under the Public Safety Act is that of Sahil Ahmad Sheikh. The 14-year-old was detained under the Act in December. An MLA, Engineer Rashid, submitted his school certificates to the police in January, and raised the matter in the state Assembly as well. This forced the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly Speaker to order an enquiry into the matter. Sheikh is still in prison.
Back at the chief judicial magistrate’s court, where Ashraf and Asghar were waiting for their turn, 13 cases were heard in 40 minutes. Outside the court, boys dressed in school uniforms, and carrying backpacks chattered away, prompting the court peon to shush them. For many, it was a question of merely showing their faces. “They have to come else there will be [arrest] warrants issued in their names,” said Urfi.
She added that there is usually 100% acquittal in such cases. “The purpose of slapping cases against these young boys is not to arrest and put them in jail but to intimidate them,” she said.
Ashraf and Asghar’s case was finally called by the peon at around 1 pm. They approached the bench with their lawyer. However, their case was deferred as the witnesses had not arrived. The five witnesses in their case are all policemen. “I had to miss school for these two minutes at court,” said Ashraf. “And this happens to us every month.”
Their case will now be taken up on May 16.
Asghar scribbled the date on his palm. “I should remember to not wash my hands before I note the date down,” he said. He wants to move to Delhi or Bengaluru and find work but is unable to do so as he has to present himself before court every month.
More than 70% of Jammu and Kashmir’s population is estimated to be under the age of 35. Almost all of them have only seen violence all their lives. Militancy in Kashmir is traced back to 1989, and barring a few years of relative calm, the Valley has witnessed violence throughout the nearly three decades since then.
Many observers say that the Kashmir movement has now taken a turn from an armed movement to a people’s movement where young boys do not need leaders to guide them.
“When the 2008 protests happened, we wondered what the boys who have seen those protests would grow up to be,” said Faisal Qadri, a lawyer who set up the Human Rights Law Network in Kashmir. “Today, we see what they have become. They do not fear the law, they do not fear guns. They do not care for their lives or others’ lives. I shudder to think what boys growing up now will be 10 years from now. We will have a larger problem on our hands.”