Growing up in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the most highly militarized region in the world, hits children hard. Kashmiri youth view Indian soldiers as an occupational force. Some assert their dissent by throwing stones, chasing soldiers down streets, or driving them out of their territory as they chant slogans of freedom. They sometimes end up being arrested, shot or maimed by armed Indian security personnel.
Nowadays, Badshah Mir doesn’t let his 17-year-old son Rashid out of his sight. Last June, Rashid was arrested for throwing stones at the police. He was charged under the draconian Public Safety Act 1978 (PSA) and sentenced to two years in prison.
On paper, the law states that the detention of minors should be corrective, not punitive. But in practice, it is exactly the opposite.
There are no juvenile courts or detention centres in the state, so Rashid was made to share a cell with hardened criminals in a district jail, far from home. ‘I used to cry at night, thinking I’d have to spend the next two years behind bars,’ recalls the softly spoken teenager. But Rashid was lucky: his detention order was quashed by the High Court after three and a half months.
On 27 October, 14-year-old Saheem was also arrested, along with 10 others, for pelting a police party with stones. He later told local magazine Kashmir Life that police beat them up, stripped them naked and forced three minors (including him) to sodomize each other as the inebriated policemen filmed them on their cell phones. ‘The treatment meted out to us was worse than Abu Ghraib,’ he says. ‘We were not in a position to walk.’
Being shut up in prison often radicalizes boys. Dr Mudasir Firdosi of the psychiatric hospital in Rainawari explains: ‘These children turn to activism… sometimes violent… after release. In jail, they are indoctrinated by anti-social elements and some even develop a drug problem. Finally, this takes an emotional and financial toll on their families.’ One teenager told his lawyer: ‘I won’t pelt stones; now I want to wear an explosive-laden jacket and blow myself up.’ Social worker Yasir Zahgir says the feeling of being a social outcast and being constantly reminded of the incarceration by family and friends adds to the stress. ‘The child feels he has fallen from grace in the eyes of his family and has nothing to lose. This is dangerous.’ Kashmir University student Yasin Khan clearly remembers the incident that forced him to take to the streets to protest. ‘My friend and I were on a bike when an army convoy asked us to stop. A trooper took our keys and asked where we were heading. I told them we were going to a friend’s place. He then took us to an isolated place and interrogated us for over 20 minutes. He abused us and slapped us. We showed him our college identity cards, but that wasn’t enough; he said he wanted to see an ID that proved we were Indians. He then put a gun to my chest. This is an ugly part of where we are living.’
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, chair of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, believes that the wider issues must be resolved: ‘The human rights situation has to be addressed. Laws like the PSA need to be repealed. Demilitarization has to take place and the Government needs to revive trade between India and Pakistan. Only then can we take the peace process forward.’