In 1997, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed the Juvenile Justice Act and a decade later laid down the rules to enforce it. In 2013, the legislature cleared the updated Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, approving its rules the following year.

Yet, the state failed to roll out the Centre’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which provides for creating infrastructure to effectively and sensitively deal with children in conflict with the law. “Insofar as the implementation of the provisions of the Act in the state is concerned, the truth being bitter as always, the picture is not rosy,” Justice Ali Mohammad Magray of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court said at a workshop on juvenile justice in Jammu in December 2016.

The problem seems graver in the Kashmir Valley, where minors widely participate in street violence but which has a single juvenile home, in Srinagar. In the absence of juvenile homes, the police have designated district police lines as “places of safety”. But many minors end up being locked up in police stations, sometimes with adult suspects.

During the 2016 unrest, several juveniles were detained by the police. While those booked were sent to juvenile homes, many others were locked up in police stations, off the books, for varying periods, before being let off on the basis of undertakings by family members – a common police practice. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 102 crimes committed by juveniles were recorded in the state in 2014, 181 in 2015 and 198 in 2016. Of the 198 juveniles arrested in 2016, at least 109 were held for rioting.

Detention dilemma

There are no Juvenile Justice Boards either. So, juvenile offenders are tried in the courts of chief judicial magistrate. If necessary, they are sent to the juvenile home. But before being produced before the magistrate, they are kept in police lock-ups, sometimes with adult suspects, for varying periods.

The lack of segregation, activists say, is “criminalising and hardening” such minors. Babar Qadri, a lawyer and activist in Srinagar, said minors indulging in stone pelting largely do so “for the fun of it”, until they are detained, that is. “In detention, together with the adults, they get integrated into networks,” Qadri said. “The next time, he acts as part of an organised network.” This benefits neither the police nor the society, the lawyer added.

Qadri argued juveniles should not be arrested at all. “An innocent boy arrives at a detention center and becomes part of the resistance network,” he said. “Children should be taken to magistrates immediately, in order to save them.”

Police officials said the lack of infrastructure was a hurdle in implementing juvenile laws. The current practice, a police official said, is locking up only those minors who are found involved in serious crimes. “Before juvenile homes, there is no separation,” he said. “But mostly it is the munshi’s room, the nimaz room, or some room [at the police station] specified as lock-up at night, if there is risk of escaping or there are too many.”

The official acknowledged that juveniles could be influenced by adult suspects in detention, but argued that there was little the police could do. “There is the risk of hardening and tendency to repeatedly offend increases in unsegregated detention,” he said. “The problem is today they [juveniles] are more hardened and inspired than even older criminals. Many youngsters go in already influenced and may in fact influence others. But yes, many ideologues do get to have contact with them.”

‘New normal’

This grim state of affairs may change for the better now, or so the officials and activists hope. The child protection scheme was finally rolled out last month and members of district Juvenile Justice Boards have been finalised. At least two new special homes for convicted juveniles have been approved, one each in Kashmir and Jammu divisions, along with shelter and observation homes.

Hilal Bhat, the state director for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, said these measures will ensure that the prevailing concepts about child welfare and treatment of juvenile offenders become “the new normal” in Jammu and Kashmir.

Once the infrastructure – juvenile homes, justice boards and special police units – is put in place over the next three months or so, Bhat said, uniformed policemen would no longer be allowed to arrest a minor and no juvenile could be lodged in a police station or tried in a regular court. The juvenile accused would have to be presented before a justice board within 24 hours and an inquiry into his case completed within four months.

“As of now we are not going for awareness,” Bhat said. “We are not ready to supply to the demand. Once we have the facility to supply, we will go into the awareness aspect.”

For now, the child protection scheme in Jammu and Kashmir will not incorporate the 2015 amendment passed by Parliament to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act that allows for children aged 16 to 18 to be tried as adults for “heinous crimes”. This “fundamental difference”, Bhat said, will be removed soon so that the state law is on a par with the central law and the state is able to receive grants from New Delhi.

Complicated matter

VK Singh, special director general of police and nodal officer for juvenile justice in the state said, “much water has flowed” since the unrest of 2016 when a large number of juveniles were detained. The police is more sensitised today, he claimed. “There are people who are aware, the SPs are aware,” he said, referring to superintendents of police. “It’s an ongoing process.”

As to whether juveniles could be arrested by uniformed policemen, Singh said there was “no problem in that”. “Subsequent proceedings will be in plain clothes,” he added.

Other senior officers welcomed the expected implementation of the juvenile laws. The attention to the laws, one officer said, would make the “staff to behave”. Some officers, however, pointed out that certain provisions, such as arresting juveniles in civvies, were merely cosmetic.

A major hurdle in implementing the scheme in Kashmir is the sheer number of minors in conflict with the law, a senior police officer pointed out. Then there is the number of committees – justice boards – required to deal with them, he added, as also the “quality and impartiality of committees”. That a large number of minors take part in mass agitations and stone pelting only complicates matters, the officer said, adding that the police was still going to arrest juveniles involved in stone pelting using police vehicles.

Qadri cautioned that if not dealt with sensitively, children in conflict with the law could become inclined to abandon their education, eventually entering a cycle of street violence and summons and detentions by the police. “The government and police push [these children] to the wall and prepare them for the armed struggle,” he said.