Sunday, July 11, 2010

Minor offence

By Dilnaz Boga

In the escalating cycle of violence in Jammu & Kashmir since January, most of those gunned down have been minors.

If anyone has recently used the traditional description of the Valley of Kashmir as ‘heaven on earth’, they lied. Despite the fact that this area has been commonly referred to as India’s ‘crown’, what has transpired since January 2010 has shocked even the locals. Since the beginning of the year, the Valley has witnessed a systematic targeting of teenagers by security personnel, which has led to the deaths of at least 16 people. Even schoolchildren have been shot in the streets during protests – 11 during June alone, with more deaths in July, indicative of the extent to which the militarisation of the Valley has impacted normal life. Despite the lack of a visible insurgency, the military apparatus continues to remain all-powerful. With the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) not equipped to deal with civilians – as stated by no less an authority than E N Rammoham, former inspector-general of Kashmir – the repercussions of the heavy presence of military and paramilitary forces are being felt across the Valley.

On 8 January, 16-year-old Inayat Khan became the first victim of this renewed military crackdown. Khan had just passed his SSC exams (with excellent marks), and was on his way to class in Srinagar when he was shot by CRPF personnel. At his funeral, chants of ‘Inayat, tere khoon se, inquilab ayega!’ (Inayat, your blood will bring revolution) reverberated in the air. Little did the mourners know that this was to be the first of many such funerals in the coming months. Yet in one way, the funeral incantations were prescient: the killings have increased the sense of both helplessness and rage felt by much of the local population towards the security forces – seen by many as forces of occupation. In turn, this anger has led more and more onto the streets to demand justice for the dead – demands backed by the commoner’s weapon of choice, stones. Protests thus snowballed, with bitter, stone-pelting mobs thronging the roads.

CRPF troopers take aim with a catapault at stone-pelters in Maisuma, Srinagar.
The killing continued, however. On 31 January, 13-year-old Wamiq Farooq was shot at the Gani Memorial Stadium in downtown Srinagar, where he was playing cricket. While chasing protesters, the police entered the stadium and fired a teargas shell that hit Farooq at close range, killing him instantly. Though the assistant sub-inspector of police concerned (whose identity has been withheld by the government) was subsequently suspended – ‘for not having taken adequate precautions while firing a tear smoke shell towards protesters’, according to the official explanation – the police force later took a complete u-turn, dubbing Wamiq ‘a miscreant who attempted to murder a policeman’ in a report filed in court on 20 February. Five days later, 16-year-old Zahid Farooq was killed by a Border Security Force (BSF) patrol not far from his residence on the outskirts of Srinagar. Though the BSF initially denied any role in the murder, it later suspended two individuals, BSF Commandant R K Birdi and Constable Lakhwinder Singh, for the teenager’s killing. Both of the accused are currently on trial.

As the pace of the killings picked up, so too did the need to downplay the incidents. On 13 April, 17-year-old Zubair Ahmed Bhat – a student from Sopore who worked in Srinagar as a part-time labourer – was sitting on the banks of the Jhelum River with his friends. Suddenly, a group of paramilitary personnel, in a yet-unexplained act, rushed upon them and forced the entire group to jump into the river. While most could swim, Zubair struggled. Some boatmen passing by attempted to rescue him, but the troops fired teargas shells at them and Zubair drowned. Later, the police simply closed the file, labelling it ‘an accident’ – seemingly wilfully ignoring the eyewitness accounts. Troops have even fired on the funerals of victims, where friends and relatives have been demanding justice for the death; that has resulted in the deaths of close relatives of the deceased. As the violence spirals, locals have begun to feel that, over the past six months, just as they have begun to mourn a death, news of yet another death has reached them.

Further complicating the simmering tensions has been news of fake encounters by the Indian Army. On 29 April, three youths from the village of Nadihal were lured by security personnel up to the Line of Control in Machil sector, on the pretext of employment. The following day, troops with 4 Rajput Rifles, a unit of the Indian Army, were said to have killed them in a staged encounter. The police later arrested two counter-insurgents and a member of the Territorial Army, all three of whom are currently in custody. For its part, the army quickly constituted a Court of Inquiry headed by a senior army officer, and the leadership suspended a major and a commanding officer of the 4 Rajput Rifles unit. But while the police has sought custody of the army personnel involved, there has been no movement on this.

A stone-pelter signals his mates during an attack on the Indian paramilitary in Srinagar.
The youngest victim of violence thus far was also one of the most recent. On 28 June, in the south Kashmir town of Baramulla, nine-year-old Tauqeer Ahmed and 20-year-old Tajamul Bashir were both shot dead by troops. Following this, the army moved into the area, and Baramulla has been under curfew ever since. No official statements have been issued by the authorities regarding these killings.

Baneful, coarsening, alienation
Curfews have been imposed in various parts of the Valley in an attempt to limit the ongoing protests. The Home Ministry and the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently went on national television to warn parents to keep their children at home, stating that a curfew is in place and that troops have no choice but to shoot in self-defence at groups of demonstrators. Yet a minister of state, Ali Mohammad Sagar, admitted on 30 June that the CRPF, responsible for most deaths, has been ‘out of control’. The end result, then, has been still more people demonstrating in the streets, and still more bloodshed. Yet in a press conference on 29 June 2010, Chief Minister Abdullah, along with the New Delhi authorities, gave a clean chit to the CRPF.

A policeman takes aim at a stone-pelter in Srinagar.
In the Kashmir context, state mechanisms that are ideally meant for the protection of the masses are at times utilised expressly to oppress them. Heavy-fisted laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) are used to subjugate the population, thereby further alienating them from a feeling of being part of India. Among such contradictions, the issue of the arrest of minors is an important one. Despite decades of conflict in Kashmir, the authorities have consistently swept aside laws that are supposed to protect minors, particularly the Juvenile Justice Act of 1997. Section 18 of the Act, for instance, states that whether the juvenile commits a bailable or non-bailable offence, the child ‘shall be released on bail with or without surety’. Moreover, the detention of minors can only be in an observation home, not in a prison or police station. In Kashmir, however, juveniles booked under the PSA are lodged in jails alongside all other criminals.

Lawyer Fasiha Qadri states that with regards to the Juvenile Justice Act, ‘Supreme Court judgements are being flouted with total disregard. The Court does not have the powers to implement its own decision [in Kashmir]. The police has assumed powers and thinks it is above the law.’ One example of such cases is that of Younis Parra, a 16-year-old student in the eighth grade, who left home on 23 June to appear in an exam at the school in Rainawari. There, he was picked up by police while in an examination hall. Parra’s lawyer, Rafiq Bazaz says, ‘Younis was picked up from his school without a warrant … We don’t know why he’s been picked up, and under which sections he’s been charged under. The court has directed the police to produce their report on him but no deadline has been given.’

In mid-June, Abdul Rashid Hanjura, a social activist, filed a public-interest litigation in Srinagar High Court for the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act. The Act envisages the establishment of juvenile homes and juvenile courts, and has provisions for the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of delinquent minors. It also protects minors against laws such as the PSA, which is has been used to book hundreds of individuals under 18 years old. In court, Hanjura listed the repercussions of the government’s failure to implement the act, including the ‘dwarfing of the development of the child, while exposing him to baneful influences, coarsening his conscience and alienating him from society.’ Surprisingly, his appeal was accepted, even though the courts have in the past brazenly ignored the provisions of the Act relating to protection of minors. Following on the Hanjura petition, the High Court has directed the government to go forward with the establishment of juvenile homes and juvenile courts, and to prioritise the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of delinquent minors.

There has been little improvement on the ground, however. In recent weeks, police sources state that as many as 300 boys have been picked up from different parts of Srinagar for stone-pelting. In such cases, parents typically do not know where the child has been taken, or even by which government security agency. Little wonder, then, that on any given day the streets of Srinagar continue to be filled with shouts of ‘Hum kya chahtey hain? Azadi! Chheen ke laingey. Azadi! Shaheedowali azadi!’ – What do we want? Freedom. We will snatch it. Freedom. Martyrs’ freedom!

'This article was first published on the website of Himal Southasian'.

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