Juvenile (In)Justice in Kashmir
My heart sinks as I look at the collage, carried by almost all the local newspapers, of children standing before judges in the local court. Looking forlorn and lost, the children are handcuffed and accompanied by police officials.
The newspapers report that the children were booked on charges of stone pelting. They had been kept in the local police station for a week before coming before a magistrate who directed them to a juvenile home, recently opened due to an outcry by human rights groups and civil society.
Accused of taking part in stone hurling protests, juveniles have been arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault, and rioting. The past three summers of unrest in Kashmir have exposed teenage boys to the discrepancies in juvenile justice laws. Hundreds of children have been incarcerated on alleged charges of stone pelting despite protections under Indian law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which qualify children under the age of 18 as a juvenile.
Authorities book teenage protestors under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978 that allows for detention without a trial for up to two years. Recently, in cases where the accused are arrested for disturbing the public, the detention period has been reduced from the existing one year to three months. In cases where the accused are charged with threatening the security of the state, the detention period has been reduced from the existing two years to six months.
Pressure from human rights groups has pushed the government to make amendments in the much-misused Public Safety Act (PSA). On October 29, Indian-administered Kashmir approved an ordinance to update the PSA to address the detention of juveniles and to reduce the detention period for public disorder cases. Yet, rights activists in the region say the bigger problem is that the protections already provided for in the existing laws are not given.
For example, 14-year-old Faizan Hakim was accused by police for taking part in stone pelting protests and arrested in February. After the family secured bail from a local court, the police produced another case against him. Another bail was followed by another case, and the family secured bail a third time. Just when the family was expecting his release, Faizan was booked under the Public Safety Act and he was moved to a jail in Jammu province, 200 miles away from his home. He was released after over a month in detention, and only under sustained pressure from Amnesty International.
Although back home now, his trials are not over, as he has criminal cases pending against him.
“Please ask the government to withdraw cases against him. I want him to focus on his studies,” pleads Faizan’s mother Naseema. The family is happy because he passed his high school examinations, which he had appeared for just weeks before his arrest. To help his family during Faizan’s incarceration, the younger brother had to drop out of school.
“We ran into debt, and sold our housewares - copper utensils - to raise money for the jail trips. My younger son had to drop out of school to help at his father’s fruit stall, as he was busy running around for Faizan’s release,” says Naseema.
In the last three years, hundreds of boys have been detained mostly on alleged charges of stone pelting. The Abdullah administration is not only blind to the effects of detention on young boys, but also to the complexities of the families that these detentions affect. In the case of Faizan, not only his life, but also the life of every member of his family has changed because of his detention.
The Juvenile Justice Act of Indian-administered Kashmir, passed in 1997, specifies that minor detainees like Faizan should be tried by special juvenile boards, under juvenile laws, and housed - if necessary - in special juvenile houses. But none of this is happening. In fact, in Fazian’s case, authorities describe him as a 27-year-old despite his childish appearances and a school certificate stating his age as 14.
In 2009, A. R. Hanjura, a Kashmiri social activist and lawyer, went to the high court seeking the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act. He says that he was forced to seek court help, as despite the laws in place, the state was not providing required protection to children.
“The infrastructure under the Juvenile Justice Act was not available in the state, and still they are not available,” says Hanjura. “They (juveniles) are kept in the same jails where hardcore criminals are kept, they are tried in the same courts … this is defeating the spirit of Juvenile Justice Act.”
The Act, Hanjura explains, provides for rehabilitative measures rather than punitive. “The juveniles have to be brought before a juvenile board, where a magistrate is assisted by two people, one among them should be a woman, and the other should be a social activist acquainted with child psychology. It should be a home type of atmosphere, not a court type. Also, there has to be a special police unit dealing with juveniles, who should not look like police, they should not be wearing police uniform.”
Local human rights activist Parvez Imroz says authorities are trying to prevent the public protests seen in the last few years by arresting a number of people, many of whom are children.
“According to a government statement, 5255 were arrested last year, and out of that we believe that half of them would be juveniles, meaning they are less than 18 years of age,” Imroz tells me.
On the issue of juvenile justice he agrees with Hanjura. “There should be a remand home for these boys where they can be rehabilitated. You cannot lodge them with criminals, which is what is done at present, and when you do so it is going to affect the mental state of these boys.”
In June 2010, the High Court directed the state to come up with the required facilities within three months. Recently the government set up the first juvenile home in the state at Harwan on the outskirts of Srinagar. According to Chief Secretary of the State Madhav Lal, “The juvenile home will act as an important centre of reforms where neglected juveniles and minor detainees could be nurtured mentally and physically to become normal and responsible citizens.”
Unfortunately, a year after, things have not changed much. The situation for boys in Kashmir is rightly summarized by a June 2011 Amnesty International photograph caption, “It’s not much fun being a teenage boy in Kashmir.”