At the end of a warren of lanes in Noorbagh in downtown Srinagar, a group of children play on the street, their laughter fills the air. Suhail, barely 10 years old, watches them from inside the half-open iron door of his single-storey house. He should be out playing — there has been a respite from the shutdown. Ask him why he isn’t out and he doesn’t speak. His silence has many reasons: one night in police lock-up, five days in a juvenile home and being booked for rioting, for being armed with deadly weapon, assaulting and obstructing government officials and endangering their lives.
For the police, this child was one of the scores of stone-pelters on April 9, the day of the Srinagar bypoll which witnessed a record low 7.1% turnout.
“I didn’t throw stones,” Suhail tells The Indian Express. “I was out on the street and I only watched the tamasha.”
“Just look at how frail he is, he isn’t even 10,” says his maternal uncle Sheikh who adopted him when Suhail was six months old and abandoned by his parents after they divorced. “Can he even pick up a stone that size?”
Sheikh, who has four sons including Ahmed, who was also arrested by the police, works as a supervisor in Srinagar Municipality. Another son Mohammad works with an urban body in Ladakh.
“He has gone through a lot in his brief life but this (arrest) shattered him,’’ says Suhail’s grandmother Begum who lives with him. “He used to laugh a lot. Now he is always silent. Something snapped inside him. Look at his face.”
Suhail’s story is unique but is illustrative — of the children caught in the conflict on streets across the Valley and who are being treated by the police as anything but.
“On April 28, the duty officer of Waniyar police post called me, asking me to bring my children to the post. I went immediately with my sons. I left Suhail at home because he is too young to be involved in police maamlaat (police matters),’’ Sheikh recalls. “They (police) asked me to leave my elder son Hilal with them and get Suhail to the post”.
Sheikh said he asked them why. “They didn’t give a reason then but insisted that I bring him,’’ he says.
“I requested them to let Hilal go. I told them he is seriously ill, he can’t see well, he is also a heart patient. I told them he is married. They didn’t listen”. Sheikh says Hilal was kept in custody for four days before he was released.
When Sheikh brought Suhail to the police post, the officer told him to leave. “I tried to plead with them but they didn’t listen. They said he is wanted in a case,’’ Sheikh recalls. “I was shown a printout of a photograph where Suhail is standing on the street. They (police) saw him on the street and concluded he is a stone-pelter.”
Once Sheikh left, Suhail says, his ordeal began. “They kept me in a tin shed. I saw Hilal baya there,’’ Suhail recalls. “I was scared, I felt cold, my heart was pounding fast.” After keeping him at the police post for a day, Suhail says, he was taken to the Safakadal police station. “Once it got dark, they pushed me inside a Rakshak (a bullet-proof jeep). One policeman hit me with the rifle butt here,’’ Suhail says pointing to his left leg. “I fell down and he dragged me into the Rakshak”.
At the Safakadal police station, Suhail says he was kept inside a lockup. “There were two more people. There was a man who had done some “galat” with a girl (accused of sexual assault)”. Another boy was also accused of stone pelting. There was a blanket on the floor and I sat there and I cried”.
At around 1 am that night, Suhail says, he was taken for dinner.
The next day, Suhail says, he was taken for a checkup (to the police control room). A policeman slapped him, called him a mongoose, he says, made fun of how small and thin he was. “They handcuffed me. At the check-up, there was a nurse who started crying once she saw me. She pleaded with the policeman. She told him not to cut parcha (register a case) against me.He is very young and it (police case) will ruin him. She also gave me Rs 40,’’ Suhail says. “The nurse put a machine on my chest. After the check-up, they (police) took me to the court. There were lots of people there. They (policemen) told me they cut my parcha (registered case) there. After a while they (policemen) took me to junior jail (juvenile home) in Harwan.’’
He was kept at the juvenile home for five days until the family arranged for bail. “Though he (Suhail) was released on bail, the case against him keeps to haunt us all,” says uncle Sheikh.
The police, meanwhile, in their report, accused Suhail of throwing stones at police and CRPF men on election duty. “On April 9, during a patrol, unidentified people started violent stone pelting at polling staff and police and CRPF personnel on polling staff….SP Sahib along with his squad reached the spot (but) the people intensified stone-pelting in which the school building and vehicles of the polling staff were damaged,’’ the police report says. “Later a case was registered and witness testimonies were recorded…and involvement of Suhail (in the case) was proved”.
The police report neither mentions Suhail’s age or the involvement of anybody else in the stone-pelting incident.
Suhail’s lawyer Mir Urfi alleges the police violated norms. “Suhail is a child. The law is that whenever police arrests a minor, they have to produce him before a juvenile board who will determine whether to release him or to send him to a juvenile home. The juvenile boards have not been set up in Kashmir and the powers have been given to the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM). They (police) had to bring him (Suhail) directly before CJM court and not keep him in their lockup. It is a serious violation,’’ she said. “In Kashmir, however, it is a routine practice for the police. They treat a minor in the same manner as they treat an adult at the time of arrest.”
When contacted, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Zone, Muneer Khan told The Indian Express that Suhail was arrested before he took charge. “I received a call from the Honourable Chief Minister regarding this case and we are looking into it,’’ he said. “I have already instructed our people not to keep minors with hardened criminals in police lock-up and jail”.
SHO Safakadal Syed Mubarak said he has no information about Suhail’s case. Duty Officer at Waniyar police chowki Abdul Rashid Khan refused to comment. “He got bail,’’ he said.
The juvenile home at Harwan in the outskirts of Srinagar where Suhail was detained is the only such home in Kashmir. According to official records, 1113 juveniles were lodged in the home since September 2011, which included 644 children who were arrested for alleged stone-pelting. Of these, 1096 have got bail. Because of the arrest of juveniles across the Valley, sources say, the state’s Social Welfare ministry is planning to set up juvenile homes in each district.
There are also no Juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees in the state. Sources in the ministry say they are in the process of forming this structure and notifications have already been issued.
Sheikh says since the day Suhail is back home, he mostly stays indoors. “He is terrified. A few days ago, I brought a carrom board for him, I thought this may ease his nerves. But he seems lost. He keeps on asking: am I free now or not,” he says.
Suhail says he wants to grow up and be an engineer. “But only if the parcha (police case) is removed. Otherwise, they will keep on taking me. My teachers don’t know about the parcha. I don’t know what they will say once they learn about it”.