File image of a protester throwing a stone at the police during a strike called by separatist groups against killings in southern Kashmir. Photo: Reuters
File image of a protester throwing a stone at the police during a strike called by separatist groups against killings in southern Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

The 28-year-old conflict in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is taking an unprecedented toll on its young. Children caught in the midst of the civil strife are dropping out of school and case studies accessed by Asia Times reveals an alarming trend.

“I couldn’t appear for my 10th standard exams and I don’t want to study anymore. I know I will be picked up again by police so there is no fun in getting back to school,” says 17-year-old Sheikh Akram*, who left his studies because police would often nab him on charges of stone pelting. Rainawari government school in Srinagar gave him a discharge certificate in early 2017 after he was absent for months at a stretch.

The armed struggle against Indian control of the Muslim-majority state began in 1989, but the nearly three decades of strife has taken a toll on generations young and old. Every arrest of a youngster still attending school stirs up anger and a natural instinct to rebel. When teenagers return from detention, their stories of abuse, allegedly at the hands of police, spurs their peers to participate in the vicious cycle of violence.

“At the police station, I was beaten and abused for raising my voice. I was kept in the lockup for many days before being shifted to a juvenile home. Eventually, I was bailed out, but they picked me up again in early March 2017 without any charges against me,” claims Akram, who was first arrested in Rajouri Kadal in Srinagar on September 6, 2016. He had participated in protests that broke out after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8 that year.

Teenagers losing hope, radicalized by detention

For 15 days, Akram was kept at the police station during the day and released in the evenings, he said. “This way, I lost a few months of schooling,” he said. His family tried hard to rekindle their son’s interest in studying, but their efforts were in vain. Sheikh Aijaz Ahmed, the teenager’s father, said, “I try to persuade him to get admission in a new school, but he shut me up saying that if police pick him up again he will lose another year, and another school. He doesn’t see a reason to study anymore.”

The story of Mir Fayeq Hussain*, a 9th standard student at Sane Kids School in Srinagar, is similar. In August 2016, he was arrested during a protest near Jama Masjid. He spent eight days at Nowhatta police station before being moved to a juvenile home. After, he refused to return to school.

“They [the security forces] have killed my friends. What will I do in school now! They have ruined my life,” rues Fayeq, before adding, “Once you are in their clutches, all they do is beat and abuse you.”

‘Children need to be counseled’

Data available from Srinagar district court shows 307 First Information Reports were filed against minors during periods of unrest over the past two years. Most – 232 – related to stone pelting.

Aamina Qari, the principal of a government boys school in Srinagar, said nearly 20 students had been absent since the unrest in 2016. “The children need to be sensitized and counseled. Unfortunately, this is not happening and has given rise to a situation where kids develop psychological problems and leave the school. The government needs to provide proper guidance and implement a rehabilitation policy for juveniles.”

Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and social activist, said teenagers were becoming radicalized. “The isolation and rejection that teens feel because of the system has led many of them to drop out from school. Because they have grown up in the conflict, they have become hopeless. Particularly since 2008, juveniles have been radicalized through exposure to police stations and courts.”

Police getting little help with minors

But state police says they are getting little help to deal with troubled youths sucked into the state’s long-running conflict.

“We don’t have enough observatory homes to keep the children,” says Waseem Ahmed, a police officer from Nowhatta. “Whenever a juvenile is arrested, we make sure that he is presented before a judicial magistrate within 24 hours.” The solitary observatory home for teens in Harwan, Srinagar, cannot accommodate so many minors, he concedes.

“Without any counseling, it becomes hard to convince them,” Ahmed says. “The police have to arrest these kids to maintain peace and to prevent them from indulging in violence. But that might have fatal repercussions. A proper rehabilitation policy must be framed to get these kids back to school,” he said.

The state’s director-general of police Shesh Paul Vaid admits that various stakeholders have been slow to implement the J&K Juvenile Justice Act 2013. “(Juvenile) homes are lacking at this point in time. When there is no home, what will a policeman do! Where will he keep him! You also need someone who can counsel these children.”

The Act recommends setting up juvenile homes in each district. It says children must receive rehabilitation support while officials make inquiries about them.

An official from the social welfare department, Tariq Ahmed, says the groundwork for setting up juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees is in process but a lack of funds is slowing things down.

A public interest lawsuit filed by Haryana-based social activist Tanvi Ahuja, who has since passed away, had sought a court order that any minors kept in the state’s jails must be rehabilitated.

But Shah Faesal, an advocate for the petitioner, said: “The government is not taking court orders seriously. In an order dated August 13, 2017, the J&K government agreed before the court to establish juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees in all districts by December 31, 2017. But nothing has been done on the ground. These are fake commitments,” he said.

Student quit football and burnt his books

Gulshan Mushtaq of Sekidafar burnt his books after being caught up in a protest. During the summer of 2015, Mushtaq was a 7th standard student, occasionally playing football with friends at the Eidgah Ground, when he was caught in a crossfire.

“We ran after teargas shells were fired from the far end of the road. But a police jeep appeared and a policeman targeted me from close range. I was hit by pellets and collapsed. I don’t know who took me to the hospital. After gaining consciousness, I was in pain because my back had almost 100 pellets [in it]. It was hard for me to understand why he targeted me.”

He is now reluctant to return to school. In a bid to keep him away from the turmoil, his mother Naseema Jan sent him to her maternal home at Nishat, where Mushtaq studied for a year, before being arrested again on September 7, 2016.

“This time again I hadn’t done anything,” he said. “They beat me up as if I weren’t even a human. I was lodged at the police station for nine days and then shifted to a juvenile home in Harwan for 27 days. But the physical and mental torture I went through at the police station in Safa Kadal is hard to explain. I kept wondering why the forces continued targeting me. This question made me burn the books I had loved to read. Now, I am not interested in school, in books or even in football. I have realized that there is no hope.”

The only positive development in recent times was the Jammu & Kashmir government’s decision to withdraw cases of stone-pelting  against 4,327 youths as a confidence-building measure. But much more needs to be done.

*All names of juveniles were changed to protect their identity.

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