The Kashmir Walla investigation reveals that the violation of minor detainees’ rights, including the rampant highhandedness by the government forces, highlights a dangerous pattern in Kashmir.
For two days, the family of a 16-year-old anxiously searched a south Kashmir village, looking for any trace of him. After Danish Shah* disappeared, the village was abuzz with rumors. “Some said he must have joined them [militants],” Fatimah Bano*, his mother recalled. “Some were saying he must have been picked up by the forces.”
They were only half-right.
On the third day, Shah’s family approached the police to file a missing complaint. “When we gave them the details, the policeman said [Shah] was in [police] custody,” Bano said.
The teenager, who was detained nearly a month ago, is still in the custody of Pulwama police and not at the Juvenile home. But he is not the only minor from the administrative district of Pulwama, who continues to remain in detention, in violation of the juvenile act, which guarantees rights to minors.
In the last few weeks, The Kashmir Walla investigated several detention cases of minors, and conducted exclusive interviews with minors who are released, family members of those who are still in detention, lawyers, officials, and accessed the case documents to find that the violation of minor detainees’ rights, including the regular highhandedness by the government forces, have become a norm in Kashmir.
The detentions of these minors are filled with multiple transgressions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. The Kashmir Walla verified that at least nine minors – between 14 to 17-years-old, were illegally kept in police custody. Some were kept for a week and a few for over a month before either releasing or transferring to the Juvenile home.
At least three of them were detained by heavily armed policemen during raids at their houses; several of them have been beaten up and imprisoned at either a police station or other facility for weeks — a violation of the Act. The Kashmir Wallahas verified school records and other official documents of minors to confirm their age at the time of their arrest.
Safiya Rahim, a member of Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) in Pulwama, told The Kashmir Walla that it is illegal for the police to keep a minor in custody at a police station “in any case”. “There are eight police stations in Pulwama district and it is impossible to observe all of them,” Rahim said. “But whenever we hear that a minor has been detained we reach out to the police immediately.”
Referring to one recent case, Rahim revealed that the police, on instances, have lied to the board about detentions of minors. The JJB member recalled receiving a bail application of a minor who was detained at a police station. When the Board called the police to confirm if the child was in their custody, they denied.
“The same child was produced before JJB after fifteen days or nearly a month with an FIR registered post bail application. This is a clear violation of the Juvenile Justice Act,” Rahim said. “It’s difficult to control the police because they work according to their own ways.”
The Kashmir Walla tried to reach out to concerned police officers of the area, several senior officers of the police in Kashmir valley and also sent questions to Shaleen Kabra, the Principal Secretary to Jammu and Kashmir’s Home Department. However, no official responded to requests for a comment.
“Bruised and swollen…they had beaten him”
When Shah was detained, his family was not informed. His mother, Bano, was allowed to meet him after eight days of his disappearance; it didn’t relieve the pain of separation though.
Shah’s face was “bruised and swollen,” she recalled. “He looked pale, and had light bruises near his eyes. They had beaten him,” said Bano. “He didn’t tell me but I could tell.”
Bano said the family is still unaware of why Shah continues to remain in detention.
A lawyer in south Kashmir, who is currently pleading over a dozen cases of minors detained illegally, refused to be identified in this story, fearing criminal charges for pleading the cases. He told The Kashmir Walla that there are violations of the law in all the cases of detentions of minors. “They are treating juveniles at par with the criminals, or adults. But that is not the philosophy of juvenile justice law,” the lawyer said.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, states that “as soon as” a child alleged to be in conflict with law is apprehended by the police “such child shall be placed under the charge of the special juvenile police unit or the designated child welfare police officer”.
The law further states that the child be produced before the Juvenile Justice Board “without any loss of time but within a period of twenty-four hours of apprehending the child”. “In no case, a child alleged to be in conflict with law shall be placed in a police lockup or lodged in a jail,” the law reads.
The lawyer from south Kashmir further said that the government forces cannot arrest minors “like they do in night raids, wearing uniforms”. “They can call their father or send someone to his home to tell the minor to visit the police station,” he said.
A few nights before Shah was detained, several armoured vehicles had rushed to the village in the dead of the night. Another minor, 16-year-old Asif Ahmad*, was bundled into one of the vehicles as his house was searched for the next few hours. He remained in police’s custody for nineteen days before he was shifted to a Juvenile Home.
In several cases, the police have been found keeping minors in custody without informing the JJ Board. A senior official from a JJ Board, who didn’t want to be identified, in one of the districts told The Kashmir Walla that the board faces challenges when it comes to dealing with police officials.
“Everything we do is based on the police’s response, that is an official communication. If a minor is kept in detention at a police station or somewhere else and we aren’t officially aware about it, then there isn’t much that we can do,” the official said.
The south Kashmir based lawyer claimed that the police are treating minors like some hardcore criminals. “The police know each and every law but they are violating it because nobody is there who will dictate terms to them,” he said. “They know that nobody will ask them. There are no checks and balances.”
“He was beaten… his skin color had changed”
It was Eid and when Mohsin Bhat saw his mother at the police line, he broke down. The meeting lasted for three minutes. Bhat looked “scared, calm, and pale” to Naseema.
“He was beaten. Color [of his skin] had changed,” she said. “He said that he was worried about me and after seeing me, he will be fine.”
On 14 July, at nearly 11:30 am, a group of civilians came looking for Bhat while the government forces waited outside in the narrow lane that leads to Bhat’s residence in one of the villages of Pulwama. Naseema was later told by the neighbours that her 17-year-old son was whisked away in a police vehicle.
Shafqat Nazir, a human rights lawyer based in Srinagar, said that a juvenile is not able to comprehend the consequences of his actions. “He doesn’t have decision making power … also, our police force has been trained to arrest the way they arrest the adults,” he said.
“In a conflict zone, everybody is in the same balance. Everybody is treated the same way — be it a woman, man or a child,” Nazir added.
A majority of the families in two districts of south Kashmir that The Kashmir Walla spoke with had next to no understanding of the rights of their children under the Juvenile Justice Act.
“I don’t even know what a lawyer does, my husband appointed one for our son,” said Naseema.
Bhat’s lawyer, who also requested anonymity fearing reprisal from the police, said that the police have accused that he “was working as an OGW [over ground worker] for the militants.”
Bhat was arrested under section of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other sections with the maximum imprisonment of up to seven years.
Adding that the families of the minor prisoners have a right to meet them, the lawyer from south Kashmir further said that the juvenile should be conveyed the grounds of his arrest mandatorily. “But nowhere in these cases [that I have been presenting], a juvenile has been informed.”
“Night comes like death”
Even after a month, Shah’s family hasn’t been told about the foundation of his detention. Instead, the family was asked to wait. “They told us they will look into the case after 15 August,” Bano had told The Kashmir Walla. On 31 August, his brother said that after over a month of detention at District Police Lines, “now the police told us that he was brought back to police station and he will be released soon.”
She hasn’t been able to see her son since their first meeting — and it doesn’t let Bano sleep. “How will we sleep? I think that and I can’t,” she said. “Only a mother knows what is happening to her, how much it affects her.”
Ever since the lockdowns following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August 2019 and the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in Kashmir, Shah has stayed at home as schools have been shut. He’d join his mother to work at their field in the neighborhood.
Now she spends her daytime there, alone. Nights are harder, she said. “Night comes like death,” said Bano. “When the light arrives, I wait in the courtyard like a dog. I feel like he will be here any moment.”
One of Bano’s sons was a militant, and was killed in a gunfight a few months ago. In a broken voice, Bano added that she bears all the pain for her children. “It tears my heart,” she said, showing her grey hair. “Look at my hair, it’s all grey. When something happens to your child, it hits your youth. Nothing matters anymore!”
Like Bano, Naseema, Bhat’s mother, has been awaiting his return. Since Bhat’s arrest, Naseema has seen him only twice. On their second meeting, she said that Bhat was a changed person, who was imprisoned at the police line for a month before he was shifted to the Juvenile Center in Harwan.
“It feels like everything is empty. My life is incomplete and there is no one but Allah,” she said. “He has been taken from my shadow. It is injustice.”
*Names of the people have been changed as per request to protect their identity. The Kashmir Walla has also not shared any documents here that could reveal the identity of the minors, which is a violation of the law.