Interrupted childhood disrupted future

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Youngsters are becoming a major causality in street protests in Kashmir. Apart from the bullets and batons, a number of children are now facing arrests, or arbitrary detentions. Khursheed Wani reports.

Station House Officer of a south Kashmir police station summons a group of youngsters suspected to be potential protesters. One of them, a 15-year-old, supposed to be the leader enters late in the officer’s chambers. Infuriated officer reprimands him, “Take him to the lock-up and undress him,” he tells a policeman. “Do you know I sodomize boys like you. Leader…my foot. I will rot you in the lock-up,” he thunders with choicest invectives on the boys. The SHO did not arrest them but let them go after the reprimand. However, the boy left the police station with a bruised psyche. Ever since, he is restless nursing a deep hatred for the khaki.

*Last October, 10 boys were held by a Srinagar police station allegedly for stone-pelting. Some of them later alleged in a court that they were forced to strip and sodomise each other in the lockup while a policeman filmed it.

*Six boys were playing cricket in a downtown public park when a contingent of CRPF, chased away by stone-throwers from a distant location, spotted them. They encircled the boys, caught hold of them and ruthlessly beat them up with rifle butts and batons. The boys failed to understand their crime.

*Mudassir, a 16-year-old in Islamabad has gone into hiding. Police raids his house every night for his alleged involvement in stone-pelting. Even his father spent a day in the police station. Mudassir is evading arrest but his parents find him under a double-edged sword. “If he is arrested, he would become a registered criminal. If he is not, he has to remain underground. That means his education is gone”, Mudassir’s father said on phone.

The showdown between youngsters and the law enforcing agencies is taking a heavy toll on the psyche of a major section of population in the Valley. Reports suggest that around one thousand persons, predominantly youngsters, have been arrested by police during the past one and a half month. The police are on lookout for hundreds of others who are evading arrest. Some youngsters have been summoned to police stations along-with parents and released against a written undertaking that they would not indulge in trouble fomenting.

Psychologists say that continuation of such a situation would have far-reaching impact on the overall behaviour of the society, especially the younger generation which is at the center-stage of the renewed phase of conflict. “More the youngsters are thrown into cauldron of conflict, harsher the reaction would be. The state has to put brakes on the victimization policy,” says Nighat Shafi, a prominent social worker.

The state versus younger generation showdown emerged first in 2008 during Amarnath land row when tens of thousands of people came out on streets against the controversial land transfer order. Kashmir watchers say it was an unarmed movement, solely manoeuvred by youngsters in the age group of 15 to 35 years. They say the state’s response to the uprising was harsh. During the land row agitation, around 50 youngsters were killed in the Valley, majority of them in Srinagar city, hundreds of them were beaten up and injured while scores others were detained. The subsequent elections drew curtains on this “horrible phase” and the year 2009 was somewhat peaceful for the youngsters.

But, 2010 began on an unpleasant note. Following a Fidayeen attack on security forces in Lal Chowk in January, CRPF personnel allegedly beat up a youngster Imran at Kokerbazar. He could not sustain torture and died. The death raised passions amongst the youngsters. To vent their anger, they resorted to the phenomenon of stone-pelting. In the subsequent months, Wamiq Farooq and Zahid Farooq—two youngsters from Rainawari and Brein Nishat were killed by police and paramilitaries.

Omar Abdullah led coalition government was upset over the re-emergence of stone-throwers. He declared what is now described by some as a war against the trouble-mongers allegedly backed by separatists and his mainstream political rivals. Police prepared lists of potential stone-throwers, and  arrested many of them. Officials said that 17 youngsters were detained under Public Safety Act. However, most of the youngsters were released after “proper counseling” in the police stations.

The second phase of the showdown began after the June 11 killing of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo at Gani Memorial Stadium in downtown Srinagar. In the past 40 days, 17 people, mostly  youngsters have been killed (directly in 15 cases, alleged in two cases) by police and paramilitary CRPF. The killings and subsequent methods employed by the authorities to quell protests including curfew and other restrictions brewed anger in the Valley. A police officer wishing not to be named informed that they have identified around hundreds of youngsters in the Valley who are eager to pelt stones and indulge in violent activities.

An official in the police communications said that they are maintaining a log book for violent incidents, a recently introduced practice. “On an average, a dozen clashes take place between youngsters and police with casualties on both sides. The statistics are being kept under wraps,” he said.

And the secret statistics include the raids on youngsters’ residences and their arrests. Informed sources said that the police clamp down began after Cabinet Committee on Security meeting in New Delhi chaired by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan in which the state government was directed to book stone-pelters under charges of rioting in the Penal Code and other provisions of the Acts relating to public safety. The union government also asked the state government to fix the actual culprits engaged in stone-pelting in the FIRs, rather than filing the charge-sheets in vague language like “unknown persons or mob of more than hundreds”. This was directed to plug legal loopholes in detention so that the alleged stone-throwers were detained for longer period.

Most of the raids have been conducted in downtown areas including Rainawari, Nowhatta, Khanyar and Gojwara. A similar crackdown is on in Islamabad, Baramulla, Sopore and Pulwama. According to reports 15 youngsters have been booked under Public Safety Act for two years. The charges include attempt to murder, rioting, damage to public property and waging war against the state. Interestingly, the police carry out raids during the night. A downtown resident Parvez Ahmad told Kashmir Life that people do not know who has been arrested and when. “The information does not travel. The curfew has restricted the movement of people and they do not discuss these things on phone for fear of being tapped and trapped,” he said.

Senior Superintendent of Police Srinagar Ashiq Hussain Bukhari told Kashmir Life that the figures on arrests circulating in the newspapers were exaggerated. “This is fiction rather than fact. We are not arresting people. Some youngsters are called to the police stations during routine investigations. They are allowed to go back immediately”, he said. He said that around 20 to 30 youngsters were detained in the city”.

Another senior police officer who wished anonymity said that media is projecting routine calls to police stations as arrests. “If 10 persons are called or brought to police stations, nine of them are released,” he said.

Police’s explanations apart, observers feel that whether the massive crackdown on youngsters would yield results for the government to quell the uprising would be evident in the subsequent months. However, they say that this action is fraught with serious implications. Psychologists and reformists fear that pushing a vibrant section of society to wall would complicate the things rather than solving them. A clinical Psychologist Dr Ghulamuddin said that the method of rounding up young boys and detaining them in police lock-ups and jails is counter-productive. “If these youngsters are deviated, the authorities are actually collecting them at a place and offer them an environment of social learning. They meet other individuals of the same hue and build up networking,” he said.

“The detention actually reinforces their negative attitude,” he says.

A case study conducted by Srinagar’s Psychiatry Hospital mentions a 9-year-old patient who fractured his leg in last year’s protest. This year he had a serious eye injury. Despite that he continues with the violence. His mother cannot handle him. His family is fed up – he lies, steals, burns pets, and bothers the neighbours. He spent three days in a police station. Doctors say the child feels no pain, no remorse. He has been diagnosed of Conduct Disorder, with features of Hyperactive Disorder.

“If a person takes 20 years to develop negative tendencies in free environment, he can attain the same attitude in a matter of days when confined in a company of criminals or indoctrinated people,” says another clinical psychologist Dr Muzaffar.

The remedy was to have juvenile courts, which are actually remedial or rehabilitation homes. Ironically, the Jammu and Kashmir has no such courts or justice system for juveniles. In fact, a campaign on child rights is also absent. A writer who has dealt with child abuse cases observes that the detention of children is punitive rather than corrective while as the case should have been otherwise. “That was possible only when the juvenile courts existed,” maintains Nighat Shafi. “I have pleaded with the authorities to at least hire a house where juveniles are kept and counseled. But nobody is listening. Even I wrote to the National Commission for Children but to no avail,” she rued.

International rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently expressed concern over the absence of juvenile courts and homes in Kashmir.

In a statement issued on July 22, the watchdog asked government to carry out a high court order to ensure “due process rights and protections for children detained for allegedly participating in violent street protests.”

In June the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the government to set up juvenile courts and observation homes after hearing public interest litigation that the authorities illegally detained children in police lockups or jailed them with adults under the Public Safety Act, which allows up to two years of preventive detention. The government has not implemented the court orders so far.

Psychologists caution that targeting youngsters is creating another cycle of disenchantment that affects not only the lives of the victims but also their families, emotionally as well as economically. “The detained boys are prone to become school dropouts, which has a cascading effect on their personality” says Ghulamuddin.  Their family members plunge into trauma. They have to invest on seeking their release, he says. Interestingly, reports are pouring that police are demanding money for releasing the youngsters when their relatives approach the concerned authorities.

“The government has converted a tragic situation into a lucrative business. Innocent boys have been arrested only to extract ransom from their families,” said a People’s Democratic Party statement. “Such repression is not only a grave injustice to the people but also presents a dark portent for the future as the youth are being deliberately pushed to wall,” the statement added.

HRW statement added that India’s Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act provides an important framework for protecting and rehabilitating children in conflict. The act requires authorities to produce anyone who is under age 18 before special juvenile courts, where the bail provisions are more flexible than those for adults. In cases where the court agrees that an accused child must remain in custody, that child has to be kept in a special “observation home,” not in prison, and separated from detained adults. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is a party, permits the prosecution of children for criminal offenses but requires authorities to arrest or detain a child only as a matter of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time. Every detained child has the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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