EARLY THAT morning, as everyone else in the home was busy preparing for a wedding in the evening, Mohammad Shahzad plopped his young nephews, Babar Ali and Ali Raza, on his 100cc motorcycle and headed out of the hamlet of Dahia Khas, just across the border in Punjab, to the banks of the Ravi.
“The kids had seen the lights glowing on the border with India. It was a huge adventure for them. They were excited as we’d never seen them,” recalls Shahzad’s mother, Naseem Akhtar, speaking to The Indian Express over phone.
This week, the children — Babar Ali is 10, and Ali Raza 11 — were to be freed from juvenile offender facilities in Punjab, and deported to reunite with the families they have not seen since the evening of July 12 last year.
But the meltdown in India-Pakistan diplomatic relations following the death sentence awarded to Kulbhushan Jadhav on charges of spying by a military court last week led New Delhi to halt the repatriation of all prisoners who have served their sentences — the two children and their uncle are among them.
Now held in a remand home in Hoshiarpur, there is no official word on when the children might be released. The issue, official sources said, was scheduled to be discussed between Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit last week, but was bumped off the agenda because of the Jadhav case.
“There are procedural matters to be addressed in this case, which are being addressed,” a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said. “Let me assure you that there is no political battle here. There are many reasons that come in the way of humanitarian cases, sadly, which have nothing to do with overall political relations,” said the spokesperson.
Says Naseem Akhtar, “I have heard India’s Foreign Minister is a mother, so I know she will understand me. Even the Indian courts know our children are not terrorists. They should be at home, not in a jail. I appeal to her, please send them home.”
The Ravi river winds its way along the international border near the village of Narowal, untidily cutting across the line on the map at half a dozen places, tearing down the tall fencing India has erected and covering it over with elephant grass that can grow metres high, making it impossible to spot landmarks and terrain. Great tank battles have been fought here: for Dera Baba Nanak, Amritsar, and Lahore.
BSF guards found the two boys and their uncle in the grass on the evening of July 12, some 300 metres inside Indian territory and 50 metres from the fence, their motorcycle parked next to them.
“The kids told us they wanted to see the fence from up close. They thought it was the border, which is a misconception many people have,” a BSF official told The Indian Express.
In the court of Gagandeep Singh Garg, Principal Magistrate for the Amritsar Juvenile Justice Board, prosecution witnesses admitted under cross-examination that the BSF had written a formal letter to police, requesting them to cancel legal proceedings, as the children had strayed across the border accidentally.
Prosecution witnesses, Judge Garg’s August 31, 2016 order states, also admitted “that due to natural growth in the area under consideration, it is difficult for ordinary person to locate the difference between territory of India and Pakistan. It is possible that a person can accidentally cross the international territory”.
Incriminating material — weapons, drugs, or cash, for example — wasn’t found from the three young people, either.
However, the BSF’s request came only after the police had already initiated its paperwork, which meant the case ended up in juvenile court.
The court took a dim view of the defence’s view for lenience. The Passports Act of 1920, Judge Garg noted, prohibits any person from entering India without valid travel documents. The children had done so — and received 45-day sentences. This was, in essence, the time they had already spent incarcerated, allowing them to be freed to return home immediately.
Their uncle Shahzad received a six-month sentence, served in jail in Amritsar — the standard punishment for illegal border crossers. He has also completed his sentence.
No homecoming was to happen, though: trapped in a cycle of bureaucratic delays and apathy, Supreme Court orders directing foreign prisoners to be returned home at the end of their sentences were ignored — even in this case, where they were just 10 and 11 years old.
In Pakistan, the childrens’ desperately poor families understood little of the legal proceedings playing out across the border.
Allah Rakha, Ali Raza’s father, makes a living doing odd jobs, welding cycle frames, metal doors and shop shutters. Allah Rakha used to earn PNR700 on a good day, he says, but the income has almost halved since Ali Raza’s arrest. “His mother spends the whole day crying, and the other children are also very upset. I have to spend much more time at home than I used to. I can understand India wants to punish terrorists and smugglers, but I do not know why it wants to punish my little boy,” he told The Indian Express over phone.
Ali Raza, court documents show, had just completed his Class 8 when he strayed across the border; his hopes of moving on into the next school year have now ended because of his protracted incarceration.
Even the much older Shahzad, his mother fears, could suffer a serious setback because of his time in prison. “He started part-time work as a carpenter when he was very young, but was electrocuted at a construction site, and spent years in and out of treatment. He never went back to school, because he couldn’t study any more. Finally, we got him back to work, but I don’t know how he’s managed without me,” says Naseem Akhtar.
Even among BSF officers who handled the case, there’s concern about the children’s case. “I’ve lost no sleep over terrorists I’ve shot in Kashmir. These children’s faces haunt me,” says one officer.