By BETWA SHARMA
School children running for cover during a protest in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Apr. 28, 2011.Dar Yasin/Associated PressSchool children running for cover during a protest in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Apr. 28, 2011.

NEW DELHI – In October 2011, a Kashmiri boy who was throwing stones in a protest against Indian security forces found out very quickly that what it was like to be treated as an adult by the local police.

He recalled that after he was arrested in downtown Srinagar, officers removed his shirt and pants at the police station. His wrists were then struck with a scale and trampled on by officers wearing boots.

The boy, 14 at the time he was interviewed last fall and who asked to remain anonymous because he feared retaliation by the police, recalled that he sang Pakistan’s national anthem after being beaten all night. “I knew it would hurt them more than anything,” he said.

Growing pressure from human rights groups, which have documented similar cases of police brutality against minors, prompted Jammu and Kashmir lawmakers to pass a comprehensive bill in March that raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction in the state to 18 years, from 16.

The bill, which was signed into the law by the governor in April, also creates a special police force for handling minors, sets up special homes for sheltering them and establishes judicial boards to exclusively hear their cases. The law won’t go into effect until the state’s social welfare ministry crafts the final rules.

A policeman holding stones to throw back at protestors in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on March 29.Dar Yasin/Associated PressA policeman holding stones to throw back at protestors in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on March 29.

Child rights activists welcomed the bill since it brings the state law in line with the national law. But they are also concerned about its implementation in the conflict-hit Kashmir Valley, where violence is seen as a legitimate response by security forces to curb unrest and previous attempts to set up legal protections for arrested minors have seen decade-long delays.

The abuses of juvenile detainees in Kashmir came into focus after the militancy of the 1990s gave way to civilian protests. Young boys took to throwing stones in mass demonstrations that rocked Kashmir Valley in 2008 and 2010.

Since then, stone pelting has become a popular way for youths to express their anger against the government, and the government has been constantly looking to stamp out any repeat of 2010. Minors who were accused of throwing stones were detained in police lockups, appeared in regular courts, sometimes in handcuffs, and lodged in jails.

“There has been a phenomenon of detention and torture of youth as young as 10 years old, particularly after the protests of 2008 and 2010 in Kashmir,” the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the United Nations said in its 2012 report.

Human rights activists say that minors are still being arrested under the state’s Public Safety Act even after it was amended in 2012 to apply only to persons over 18.

Govind Acharya, Amnesty International’s Kashmir expert, said that during a visit to Kashmir last year, the organization found three cases in which the age of minors were falsified to book them under the act. But their detentions were later thrown out by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

“If there are any security forces who have deliberately falsified ages, then they need to be held to account,” said Mr. Acharya.

Ashok Prasad, director general of police for Jammu and Kashmir, denied that the police routinely arrested children, only the “habitual offenders.”

“Children are not picked up randomly but on the basis of video footage,” he said. “We also show these videos to their parents.”

Mr. Prasad also dismissed allegations that minors were beaten in police stations. “It could only be an aberration. We have not received any specific complaint from parents or the courts,” he said.

Some provisions in the new law, like setting up of special homes and judicial boards for juveniles, were also in the current juvenile justice law, passed in 1997. But these were never implemented. The first juvenile home in Kashmir was set up only in 2011. No such facility for girls exists yet.

Following a visit to the juvenile home in June last year, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found that not all the children were provided with a toothbrush and that they had to share a towel. “The heavy grilled gates gave a feeling that the children were kept in a jail,” the commission said in its report.

A week before the new bill passed, the Asian Centre for Human Rights released a report that said that Jammu and Kashmir state was among theworst of the 16 conflict-hit states in India in terms of providing juvenile justice.

Suhas Chakma, the center’s director, pointed out that it has taken the Jammu and Kashmir government almost 30 years to enact laws to protect juveniles. The 1997 state law, he noted, was passed 10 years after the national law for juveniles was enacted in 1986. And then it took the state government until 2007 to draft the procedural rules that brought the law into force.

Now, Mr. Chakma said, Jammu and Kashmir lawmakers passed the new bill 13 years after the central government adopted a revised national law in 2000 to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18, bringing Indian law in line with international law.

“The government in Delhi and in Srinagar have security concerns about children in a variety of protests in Kashmir,” he said. “It was a political decision not to have juvenile justice for so long.”

Arun Kumar, an official in the state’s Social Welfare Ministry, said that it would take a couple of months more to frame the rules, which would then need to be vetted by the Law Ministry. “We will try to do it as quickly as possible,” he said.

The prevailing sentiment among human rights groups and lawyers is that an overall change in attitude is necessary for the juvenile justice to be taken seriously by security forces. Many child rights activists are expecting this to be a gradual process since civil liberties have been pushed aside in the government’s fight against militants over the past two decades.

Vrinda Grover, a prominent human rights lawyer, said the first step of securing rights of minors was not legal but political. “New Delhi has to make a choice. Does it want to support the rule of law or continue to boost the morale of the police and troops?” she said.

source- http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/

 

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