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Sunday , July 18 , 2010
 
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Where have all the children gone?

It was the hour before midnight — and the by-lanes of Parimpora, near Srinagar, were cocooned in silence. After a day of protests, Bilal Ahmed (not his real name) and his parents were about to go to bed when the police came knocking. They took away 13-year-old Bilal with them. A month later, the Ahmeds are still waiting for him to come back.

“Bilal was not alone. Around 100 teenagers — mostly under 16 — were picked up by the police from Parimpora in June for stone-pelting and raising slogans against security agencies,” says advocate G.N. Shaheen, the general secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association and counsel for Bilal and others.

They have been booked under several sections of the Indian Penal Code for “rioting and endangering the life or personal safety of others” — offences that can lead to 2-4-year prison terms, says Shaheen. “But worse, they are being charged with attempt to murder which can mean life imprisonment,” he adds.

More than a month after violence erupted in the Valley — leading to the killings of 15 youths, allegedly by armed forces — thousands of teenagers have been protesting and many have been arrested. “More than 420 children have been either detained or arrested from Srinagar in the first three weeks of the recent unrest. The numbers would be in the thousands all over Kashmir,” says Bar Association president Mian Abdul Qayoom.

The role of children in Kashmir’s insurgency has always been a contentious issue. In the 1990s, intelligence agencies reported that children were paid Rs 50-100 by militant groups across the border to pelt stones and shout slogans. “Some throw stones because it pays well,” chief minister Omar Abdullah recently told The Times London.

Experts, however, hold that stone-pelting or kaeni jang as it is known in Kashmir, is not a sponsored act. Ever since parts of Kashmir erupted over the 2008 Amarnath land row affair — when the government transferred forest land for setting up shelters for pilgrims going to Amarnath, a Hindu shrine in Kashmir — there have been several incidents of children joining demonstrations. “For us, it is an expression of resistance,” says a 17-year-old boy who took part in the latest protests. “Previously, young boys in Kashmir took to guns; now they have resorted to a comparatively less destructive form of protest. Often, we do it on an impulse. But it gives us immense satisfaction to attack the security forces.”

The chief minister said that there are no “pigeon holes” when it comes to throwing stones. “For some of these youths it’s ideological; some have nothing better to do; some are deeply frustrated and cannot see a better future; some are angry because they have not benefited from the economic progress elsewhere in India,” he told The Times.

With the reasons mounting, the resistance seems to be picking up too. “The lock ups at police stations are overcrowded with young boys these days,” says lawyer Parvez Imroz of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies.

The police deny the allegations. “We never book children under the IPC or the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA). Nor do we keep children in lock ups,” maintains Kashmir’s inspector general of police Farooq Ahmad.

Lawyers hold that the arrests are happening illegally. “Children under 16 should be booked only under the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act,” says Shaheen.

But the state doesn’t have a JJ Act even 13 years after it was ratified. Last month, the high court directed the state government to set up juvenile courts and homes within three months but the government is yet to take measures. “We need to make some amendments to the existing JJ Act before implementing it. And this will take some time,” says social welfare minister Sakina Itoo.

Meanwhile, lawyers claim, children are being booked under the non-bailable PSA. Under this, the detainees do not need to be told why they are being arrested and can be re-arrested for the same charge later. “We have come across many such cases,” says Syed Faisal Qadri, state co-ordinator of Human Rights Law Network.

But the police shrug off the allegations. “Since there is no JJ Act, we detain children for a few hours or for a night before handing them over to their parents. We counsel both children and their parents to stop stone-pelting,” Ahmed says.

Bilal’s counsel refuses to buy that. “If they don’t arrest these boys, how are they produced in court and granted bail,” asks Shaheen, who last week got bail orders for Bilal and 27 others arrested in Parimpora.

Not that bail means freedom. A top counter-intelligence committee releases the accused only after a separate investigation. “Here, judicial orders are null and void,” rues Shaheen.

The police refuse to comment on individual cases, but local lawyers maintain that children are routinely picked up because it is one way of blunting an agitation. “The detention of a child often instigates fear in the minds of the family,” says Qadri.

On the other hand, a senior cop, seeking anonymity, says the police have no choice. “For the first 10-15 minutes, we can handle it. Then it becomes too much as the stones start raining on us,” he says.

So the arrests take place — often leaving scars on the young. “Sometimes the child completely withdraws from the world. He refuses to go to school or play. Or he can turn violent,” says Srinagar psychiatrist Dr Arshad Hussain.

“Later, as adults, they find it difficult to get a job or even get a passport with such police records,” stresses Kashmir expert Angana Chatterji, professor, California Institute of Integral Studies.

Dr Husain says arrested children are affected by depression and anxiety attacks. “The child can also take to substance abuse,” he warns.

For many Kashmiri children, childhood ends just when it’s begun.

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