On October 30, the Jammu and Kashmir Police released 14-year-old Mohammad Aftab* more than two weeks after his detention under the Public Safety Act was revoked. “He was released from the Shopian police station at 10 am on Wednesday morning,” said his cousin. ”He had been brought to the police station in a Tata Sumo on Tuesday evening.”

Aftab, a resident of South Kashmir’s Shopian district, was picked up by security forces on August 8 and later sent to a prison in Uttar Pradesh. His family had filed a habeas corpus petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, challenging the detention on the grounds that he was a minor. On October 15, the state counsel informed the court that the detention order had been revoked.

But the family only found out about the revocation from newspapers on October 16, Aftab’s brother-in-law said. “We didn’t approach police for his release after the detention order was revoked, thinking that they will release him on their own,” said his brother-in-law. “But they didn’t.”

Aftab, who lives with his mother and two sisters, works at a neighbourhood bakery. After his father died of a brain tumour in 2009, he has been the only earning member of his family. “His mother is illiterate and his two sisters are not educated either,” said Aftab’s brother-in-law. “Without any male relatives in the immediate family, they could not go to the police station to ask for his release.”

The police had only contacted the family a few days ago, he added. “They told us that a team of police officers is going to Uttar Pradesh to bring him back,” his brother-in-law said. “They asked if someone from the family could accompany them. But there’s no one who could have accompanied the police.”

‘Prejudicial to the security of the state’

According to Aftab’s family, he had been detained on August 8 and kept at the Shopian police station before being transferred to Srinagar central jail and then out of the Valley. On August 10, Shopian district magistrate Yasin Choudhary issued a detention order to prevent Aftab “from acting in any manner which is prejudicial to the security of the state and country.”

The Public Safety Act, under which the order was issued, is a preventive detention law which allows the authorities to hold individuals without trial for up to a year if they consider it necessary for the “maintenance of public order”, and for up to two years for “national security”. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir assembly passed an amendment making it illegal to hold minors under the Public Safety Act.

In Aftab’s case, the district magistrate based his order on a detailed dossier that says he is 20 years old. It called him “a hard-core OGW” of the Hizbul Mujahideen. OGWs or overground workers are non-combatant members of armed groups, usually tasked with logistics. The dossier had said Aftab was a “motivator and harbours deep hatred for the Indian union and the law enforcement agencies, believe in cessation of J&K from Union of India”.

It claimed he was “involved in activities which help in furthering the terrorist activities in the district” and a “constant threat to the security and sovereignty of the state/country and are also a perpetual threat to the society in general”.

In its submissions to the district magistrate, the Shopian police said Aftab had been involved in four cases, three of them registered in 2019. The police also said Aftab “has close liaison and friendship with active militants”. The police dossier goes on to make this charge: “You not only indulge in stone-pelting but instigate others to follow suit. As such, you continuously, without rhyme or reason, turn youths to stone pelting.”

Habeas corpus petition

On August 28, Aftab’s family filed a habeas corpus petition, appending his school certificate, which said he was born on March 16, 2005. They also moved an application asking that he be shifted to a juvenile home.

On the same day, the court, taking note of the family’s claim that Aftab was a minor, asked state counsel Bashir Ahmad Dar to file a response by September 4.

At the next hearing on September 25, the state counsel had called into question the authenticity of the school certificate. Justice Ali Mohammad Magrey, who was hearing the case, had then asked the high court registrar to conduct an inquiry to determine Aftab’s age within 10 days and “submit the report in sealed cover”.

The registrar submitted the report on October 4. The report says: “To sum up all the statements, especially of principal, Maktaba Islamia High School, paternal uncle and brother of the petitioner detenu, as well as the documents brought by the principal, Maktaba Islamia High School, Shopian, the age of petitioner detenu, as on 10.08.2019, comes to about 14 years, 04 months and 25 days.”

At the next hearing, on October 14, Justice Sanjeev Kumar upheld the findings of the registrar’s report. Kumar gave state counsel Bashir Ahmad Dar a day’s time to “seek instructions in the matter”.

On October 15, Dar informed the high court that the government had revoked the detention order under Public Safety Act.

Response awaited

When asked about the case and the delay in releasing Aftab, Atul Goel, deputy inspector general of police, South Kashmir, said he did not have the details of the case. “I cannot confirm what you are saying,” Goel said, adding that the senior superintendent of police at Shopian district would be better placed to comment.

When contacted, Sandeep Chaudhary, senior superintendent of police, Shopian, asked this reporter to send him written queries about the minor’s case. Written queries have been sent and subsequent calls have not been answered. This report will be updated if there is a response.

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the minor.