This article was originally published on The Wire and has been reproduced with permission.
"Shouts of 'chal ya rakhskah ha aayi' (‘run, the police vehicle is close’), cries, slaps, men in uniform dragging boys down deserted roads and gunshots."
These are the sights and sounds that make up 14-year-old Afaan Mustafa’s dreams.
It has been more a month since Mustafa, a student of Class IX, was released from police custody after around 13 days, but the fear of uniformed men continues to follow him like a shadow.
On August 21, Mustafa, a resident of the uptown area of Natipora, Srinagar, was going to offer Asar prayers, when a police vehicle, (popularly known as Rakshak) picked him up outside the gate of the mosque in Azadbasti Natipora — five kilometres away from Lal Chowk.
With no channel for communication open, a lady residing a few metres away from Mustafa’s home came to inform his family about the incident. He was first taken to the Chanapora police station and later shifted to the Saddar police station in Baghat-e-Barzullah, some three kilometres away from his home.
Mustafa was one of an estimated 4,000 people, including minors, who had been arrested in Kashmir after the Indian government stripped the partially autonomous region of its special status in early August, provoking violent protests in the Muslim-majority area.
During initial press briefings in Srinagar held by government spokesperson Rohit Kansal accompanied by other officials, the question over the number of detentions was raised continuously by journalists, but it was either ignored or replied to rudely. "It is easy to say hundreds have been detained, thousands have been detained. Give me a specific case," countered Kansal over the question one day.
"Sir, when you can cite the number of people who offered prayers in different parts of Kashmir on Eid, why can’t the government say how many people have been detained?" questioned a journalist in the briefing as others around him cheered.
The government in New Delhi has defended its decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir as a step to boost the economy and for the well being of the common people. However, most Kashmiris say this has increased alienation and anger on the ground. Of the thousands of Kashmiris arrested, most have been listed as "stone pelters and miscreants" according to a Reuters report.
Children like Mustafa have been raised amidst conflict and continuous disturbance — setting the stage for their eventual support to the separatist movement through attendance in funerals and protests, helping militants escape from encounter sites and stone-throwing. On the other hand, the measures used by the military forces to tame these youth, like pellets guns that have blinded hundreds, nocturnal raids, illegal detentions and frisking have served to only add fuel to the fire.
The Wire spoke to over a dozen minors, who had been detained for weeks, and their parents, to understand the result of the action on their future. Most of them opined contrary to the claims of the central government that younger Kashmiri will be better off now.
Mustafa, while recalling the day he was picked by the J-K police, said, "They had cordoned me and were forcefully trying to bundle me inside the vehicle. While resisting, a cop hit me on the back of my neck and I fell unconscious".
Sitting in a small semi-dark room, he recalled his first reaction when he gained consciousness inside a dark lockup. "A ray of light was coming from a small window. There were three more boys inside the room but I couldn’t see them and in fear, a shiver ran down my spine. They later told me they had been picked up a day before my arrest," Mustafa told The Wire later.
Inside the lockup
Next morning Mustafa, along with other boys, was shifted to Saddar police station in Baghat where he encountered others of his age who had similar allegations to make. "They hit me on my legs and feet with the sticks repeatedly. I was crying and was asked for mercy….but they didn’t listen, Aab maro pather…maro…maro (‘throw stones now…throw…throw’)," said Mustafa.
"Shabir Khan, the deputy superintendent of police stationed at Cargo Srinagar, himself beat me up and asked me to identify the boys in the video," he added.
Mustafa’s family used to send him food from home as he had complained about unhygienic food inside custody. His family members made requests and sometimes pleaded for his release, but there was no response.
"We were asking them [police] to tell us what his crime was. Earlier they told us that they would show us a video recording of the area where young boys were throwing stones at forces. They claimed he [Mustafa] was also among them but they even didn’t show it to us," said 44-year-old Gulam Mustafa, a government employee and Mustafa’s father.
Notably, in the recent past, after the rise in stone-pelting incidents in the Valley, forces would record protests only to identify the people participating and later would allegedly make nocturnal raids to arrest the youth. "This is a simple method they are using to catch protesters and sometimes, when in doubt, they arrest innocents as well," said the senior Mustafa.
"They even damage property like windowpanes and household items to pass a message to the area against disturbing the law and order," he said.
After two days, he was shifted back to the Chanapora police station where he found more boys from his area in lockup. Among them was 12-year-old Numan Khan of Natipora, a class VII student at Dawn Public School.
“I had a pet cat at home and was going to buy food for her and suddenly CRPF men grabbed me, saying, ‘Bardo isko gadi mai, tum pather marte ho’ (‘bundle him inside the cab, you are throwing stones’),” he told The Wire.
Khan, after finding himself inside a CRPF vehicle that was stationed at the main square of Natipora, started crying and tried to explain to them the reason for his being out. But, according to his mother, he was treated like a wanted criminal. “When they locked me up inside the room for the first time, I thought I will die in suffocation and fear of darkness,” he said.
Next to him was Mustafa. Both were helpless and before uniformed men. "They were even asking us to clean the kitchen and sometimes we were asked to cut the stubble of the courtyard by hand. If anyone resisted, they were kicked and made to follow the order. They said that this is our punishment for throwing stones," said Mustafa.
Mustafa had an eye infection while cutting the stubble, which caused severe swelling. "For two days I pleaded with them to take him for a medical check-up but they didn’t. Later, I narrated the situation to a medical assistant and who gave him an anti-allergic medicine," said Mustafa’s father. "Soon after his release, we took him to an ophthalmologist for a proper check-up. These actions only give trouble to poor people," he said.
Mustafa was in police lock-up for 13 days. According to his family, they continuously made rounds to the police station to know the status of his release. "We used to wait for hours outside the gate and sometimes were threatened by the police for not leaving the area. These 15 days were like 15 years for us," said Mustafa’s father.
"They were asking me to name the boys who were throwing stones at them. How would I know? If I would have named anyone, they would have picked him up and I would be branded a traitor," said Khan who was released after three days from police custody only when his father, Suhail Khan, an engineer, assured them that he would remain home.
Change in behaviour
On September 2, Mustafa was released after his family showed his school certificates to the station house officer (SHO), which proved him to be a minor. "The moment I entered my home, I could not believe the sight. The three windows in my room were like a treasure as the lockup didn’t even have a bulb," he said.
On November 15, Mustafa had a bout of intense nose bleeding and was rushed to Srinagar’s SMHS hospital where, according to his family, doctors said that he had an injury in his skull that caused the bleeding. Mustafa is now undergoing treatment.
According to his family, since his release, his behaviour has changed. “We are very cautious about him now. He has started acting impulsively about small things,” his father told The Wire.
"Actually, he was abused there and now he feels a sense of injustice," his father murmured. “We are highly concerned," he said.
Families like Mustafa’s and Khan’s have started going for weekly counselling sessions to help the boys cope. "The way they have been treated inside police lockups has not helped them in any way. If they [police] think that these moves can help them reduce incidents of stone-throwing, I guess they are quite wrong," said Mustafa’s uncle, who didn’t want to be named.
Mustafa’s appetite has also been affected since his release. He has started showing a disinterest in studies. Most of the families that The Wire spoke to said that the forces had not only harassed minors but their families as well.
They raised some questions over the state’s treatment for dealing with such cases. "If, for example, a 10-year-old boy throws a stone, should they deal with it in this way? As a mature party, they should have proper strategies to deal with them," said Mohammad Maqbool, a parent of a minor.
According to Maqbool, beating minors up ruthlessly results in more anger and violence in boys. "Elders can be violent if they are beaten up mercilessly. Now, imagine the level of rage and bitterness this can create amongst youngsters," he said.
Mustafa’s father told The Wire later that the boy sometimes says that he has studied enough and sees little reason in concentrating on a normal future.