The death of a four-month-old baby on January 30 after his parents took him to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area triggered outrage, and even attracted the attention of the Supreme Court. However, the plight of 41 children who were detained by the Uttar Pradesh Police early in December has largely been ignored, even as some allege they were tortured in custody.

As protests erupted in 24 districts in Uttar Pradesh shortly after India’s citizenship law was amended on December 12, the police responded with brutality. The police did not even show any restraint when acting against children, according to a study by three civil society organisations. This was particularly acute in the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Bijnor, both districts with a population that is more than 40% Muslim and with a high concentration of minority institutions where children from across the country were studying.

The organisations – Citizens Against Hate, Quill Foundation and Haq: Centre for Child Rights – conducted fact-finding investigations in the districts of Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar and Firozabad between January 10 and January 24. Their report included material from media accounts that were then verified by the researchers. The authors of this article are associated with Quill.

Students taken into custody

On December 20, our researchers found, the Muzaffarnagar police entered the compound of the Saadat madrasa and hostel and dragged out close to 50 students, the principal, a cook and two staff members. The police accused the students of participating in a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Of these 50 students, 14 were minors. Of the 14, FIRs were filed against four students. The institution’s principal, Syed Asad Raza Hussaini, said that the four were released only after 12 days of detention.

On the same day, in Bijnor, 22 minors were detained from the Nagina area where a protest against the act was underway. Razdan*, 17, was among the detained children. “Razdan and the others were detained for two days,” his mother, Bemina told us. “They were given severe beatings during their period of detention. They were first taken to Bijnor Police Lines and then shifted to a farmhouse owned by a BJP MLA.”

In Firozabad, the teams found that two minors who were detained were not given access to legal aid. In Lucknow, two children suffered bullet injuries. While the police refuted claims that they had fired live ammunition, NDTV disproved this contention. In Varanasi, an eight-year-old was killed during a stampede that erupted when police used excessive force against protesters. The boy’s family was forced to conduct a high-security burial within an hour of the body being returned to them.

The police beat protesters during a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Lucknow on December 19. Credit: AFP

The Citizenship Amendment Act, approved by Parliament on December 11, offers a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim undocumened immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided they have lived in India for six years and entered the country by December 31, 2014. The Act has been widely criticised for excluding Muslims.

Used in tandem with the planned National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship Amendment Act could be deployed to harass Indian Muslims or even disenfranchise them, critics say. Protests against the initiatives have left at least 26 people dead across India.

Torture allegations

Several instances of children being tortured in custody were recorded by the fact-finding teams.

In Bijnor’s Nagina area, Bemina, mother of Razdan, said that her son returned after two days of detention, on December 22, he had bruises all over his body and his toes were crushed. “He was barely walking,” she said. His lower body was almost entirely blue from being beaten.

Bemina said that her son told her that he and others had been beaten up by police officials when they were in detention and they had not even been given blankets in the cold winter night. “All they were given was a floor mat to cover themselves with and a strict word of caution that they were not allowed to sleep,” she said. “Razdan and other boys were forced to stay awake the whole night and if somebody fell asleep, they had to face merciless beatings.”

She added that though they were allowed to drink water, they were not allowed to use the toilet. “Whenever anybody asked to go to the toilet, they were beaten up by the police,” Bemina said.

Razdan, she said, “was also beaten up black and blue and his toes were crushed with the boots worn by the policemen and baton. There were bruises on his lower body.”

Media reports

A report in Huffpost carries similar details about five minors detained in Nagina. They were beaten with lathis every few hours, the publication said. The report added that the police tortured the children by refusing to allow them to sleep. “I pressed my fingers against my eyelids to keep my eyes open,” 17-year-old E told the publication. “If you nodded off, the guards would hit you with a stick.”

Even though temperatures had dropped to six degree Celsius, the children were given only a thin mat, either to wrap themselves in or lie on, the website reported.

In Muzaffarnagar, Syed Asad Raza Hussaini, the founder and principal of a madrasa from which 14 students were detained, said that the children had been denied water when wanted to break their Friday fasts. “The police abused them and made derogatory remarks about Islamic religious figures – [such as] the Prophet,” he alleged. “They were forced to say Jai Shri Ram.”

Uttar Pradesh Police detain a protestor in the city of Meerut during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December. Credit: AFP

Emotional torture

In addition to the physical violence, the Uttar Pradesh police tortured the children psychologically and emotionally.

When the fact-finding team met 14-year-old Nishad from Bijnor, who was also among the boys picked up with Razdan. He said that the police had intimidated children with stories of how adult detainees had been beaten.

“While we were going in the bus, one of the police officials made a video call to somebody and showed us the video of other people being stripped naked and subjected to ruthless beatings and brutalities,” Nishad said. “He said that even we are going to be welcomed in the same manner. ‘Come here, we have done all the preparations to welcome you.’”

When he got to the police station, Nishad said, he was “pushed inside a big hall where about 150 people were detained and beaten up”. The Huffpost report records that when some of the children were released, the police threatened that this “would be their plight” if they attended another protest.

In an attempt to spread fear, the team found, the Uttar Pradesh police displayed posters with pictures of persons who were suspected to have participated in protests with a notice seeking information about their whereabouts. In Bijnor’s Jalalabad area, a 15-year-old boy, Rehan who was among the many children on the poster, said that this tactic was being used by the police to intimidate Muslims. Fearing police action, many families had sent their sons sent away from Bijnor, our researchers found.

“My photo is quite clear in the poster and I also have a similar jacket and a cap,” said Rehan. “The poster has pictures of some other children also from the locality, who are under the age of 18 years like me. No police have contacted us so far since the release of the poster, but I am planning to leave here as soon as possible.’’

In Muzaffarnagar, senior police officials contacted the administration of the Saadat Madrasa and asked them to sign affidavits asserting that none of their students had been beaten or tortured. In return, they said they would release all the students still in custody. Otherwise, the cases would drag on. Syed Asad Raza Hussaini, principal of the madrasa, testified that with no other option, they submitted the affidavit giving the authorities a clean chit.

Violation of Juvenile Justice Act, 2015

The Uttar Pradesh police treatment of children during protests is in complete violation of national legal provisions concerning the treatment of children in conflict with law. They are protected by the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, and the juvenile justice rules made under the Central government and the Uttar Pradesh state government.

The Juvenile Justice Act Act, 2015, explicitly states that no child can be apprehended for petty or serious offences. FIRs and detention is allowed only for heinous offences, but only if it is determined that this is in the best interest of the child. However, as per the observations of the fact-finding teams and media reports, the FIRs against the minors in these instances involve only petty offences.

The police with a poster of wanted people they claim participated in protests in Lucknow. Credit: PTI

Other provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act were also violated. The legislation places responsibility on a Child Welfare Police Officer or a member of the Special Juvenile Police Unit for producing the child before the Juvenile Justice Board within a period of 24 hours of being taken into custody.

But the testimonies in our report show that minors were held longer than 24 hours and none of them were produced before the board. In violation of all rules, the 26 minors detained in Uttar Pradesh were not only kept in police lock ups but also tortured and made to witness police torture on other adults. Their parents or a probation officer were not informed that the children had been detained – a procedure that is essential in cases involving juveniles.

In addition, the process of age determination to establish whether the children were older than 18 – a critical aspect of the Juvinille Justice Act – was not undertaken. Moreover, by putting up posters of the children, the Uttar Pradesh police violated the right to privacy and confidentiality due to children under the act.

Violation of UN Convention

The actions of the police also violate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, which India ratified in 1992.

The treaty states that every child has a basic right to be “protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment” and under no circumstance is it legal to subject a child to “torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” or deprive a child or his or her liberty in any unlawful or arbitrary manner.

A state organisation is expected to ensure that any institution that holds a child in custody is responsible to ensure care, protection and abide by the directed standard operating procedures of the same while prioritising the child’s well-being, survival and development and ensuring that a child’s right to life is never threatened.

Every child is also guaranteed with the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

Response to violence

On December 14, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights issued a notice to the Directors General of Police of all states claiming that children had been used for unlawful activities like stone-pelting during the Citizenship Amendment Act protests. It said that children being deployed as “shields” is a violation under the Juvenile Justice Act. The commission’s own guidelines warn the police and military to avoid the blanket characterisation of adolescent boys as “security threats”. Early in January, the Uttar Pradesh State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights also issued a similar directive to the Director General of Police in ttar Pradesh. But there was no mention of any police excesses in either notice.

The Uttar Pradesh police have denied inflicting torture or violence on any minors, going so far as to deny in specific cases even the taking in of minors into custody.

In January, 58 child rights activists and organisations from across the country sent a letter to Priyank Kanoongo, the chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The letter, surprisingly, welcomed the commission’s recommendation to Directors General of Police to look into the matter of minors participating in protests. In a very brief section, the letter cautiously states the concern of violence against minors in police custody.

* All names, except that of the madrasa principal, have been changed to ensure safety.