Far from the neatly trimmed lawns of India Gate that so often reverberate with cries for justice, far also from the corridors of power where ministries recently squabbled over the right age for consensual sex, lie 197 districts — yes 197, read the figure again — where children are regularly abused.
In these districts -- all ridden by conflict -- words like illegal detention, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, torture and execution have become part of everyday life.
In vast swathes of the country -- far from metropolitan capitals where it is possible to hold candle vigils — the young are being regularly abused.
In Kashmir, there is no juvenile home for girls, in Naxal-hit Chhattisgarh, children are physically tortured and sometimes killed. Further east, in Assam and Manipur, juvenile justice boards exist mostly on paper.
In the far flung districts — 91 of which have been declared ‘disturbed’ under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and another 106 as being affected by left wing extremism — courts seldom take suo moto notice of the young being arrested, and in many cases, of the young being killed by the State.
Hindustan Times’ reporters travelled long distances to track down families who lost their children in extrajudicial killings by men in uniform.
A recent eye-opening report by Asian Centre for Human Rights titled ‘Nobody’s Children: Juveniles of Conflict Affected Districts of India’, holds a mirror to the horrific crimes against the young.
Says it’s Director, Suhas Chakma, “One third of the country is disturbed but despite several pleas to the government, there is still no reporting mechanism concerning children. Why should the detention or death of children not be reported to the nearest police station within 24 hours?”
Hindustan Times reports from four conflict-ridden states — Assam, Manipur, Chhattisgarh and Jammu and Kashmir and finds that for these families, sheer survival has overtaken the process of justice.
As for the State, the young are added to statistics. In police parlance they’re simply called child collateral.
Killed by mistake, said CRPF
Ragha Gaur had been getting up before daybreak to practice for an upcoming football match. On 8 December 2011, he awoke early enough to die -- shot by Cobra commandoes of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
Ragha, 13, was the youngest of Komola Nagbongshi’s three sons. Ever since her husband Suren Gaur died in 1997, Komola shifted to Malasi Nanke Gaur village in central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.
The village is close to a tea estate where she works as a casual labourer and it had many Adivasis like them.
But the village, 235km east of Guwahati, was frequented by Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) rebels.
Partisan to the indigenous Karbi tribal people, this outfit targeted non-locals for money.
The rebels took advantage of the village’s remoteness. Though 15km from NH37, kissing the southern fringes of Kaziranga, it was under a police station 120km away until the killing of ‘outsiders’ made the government set up the temporary Dolamara police station (2km from the village) in 2007.
Ragha’s death was attributed to a ‘communication gap’ between the police and the CRPF that saw the latter killing the boy, mistaking him to be a KPLT militant.
“They were tracking a mobile phone call, and the boy happened to be at the spot from where the call was supposedly made,” a police officer said.
Hours after Ragha died, villagers laid siege to the police station within the CRPF camp. The CRPF admitted its ‘mistake’ and pledged Rs.200,000 as compensation to his mother.
That was before NHRC took up Ragha’s case and made the Assam government pay his mother Rs.300,000.
“The CRPF gave me only Rs.100,000 weeks after Ragha was killed,” said Komola, 45. This money was supposed to ease her pain.
But neighbours, local officials and village leaders she thought empathised with her now deemed her a ‘rich’ woman and sought money for favours.
Komola exhausted the money to pay for services for the compensation from the government; transport arranged for visits to the deputy commissioner’s office in district headquarters Diphu 190km southwest, and food and accommodation for whoever accompanied her.
Five of those trips were for a typo error— she had to prove she was Komola and not Kamal, as the name of the beneficiary declared, read. The local authorities charged her a ‘fee’ to provide an identity certificate.
“People keep pestering me for donations and loans. They know I have put Rs.200,000 in a fixed deposit but I have not disclosed the tenure. I wish the government had not put a value on Ragha and had instead given one of my other two unemployed sons a job. That would have saved me from sitting on a bank account with my youngest son’s blood all over it,” Komola said.
(By Rahul Karmakar)
'Murdered in army custody'
Mohanpur, Jammu & Kashmir
Blooming apple orchards greet you as you approach the village of Mohanpur. In this small hamlet in central Kashmir, a few kilometers from Charar-e-Sharief shrine which was gutted in an encounter in the early days of militancy, everybody knows Mohammad Ramzan Dar.
Dar is remembered for the struggle he has been through after the death of his only son, 17-year-old, Mohammad Maqbool almost seven years back.
Dar and his wife Haniefa try to fight solitude. Pointing to their 16-year-old daughter, Shahina, they say, “She is the reason of our survival.”
It was during Ramadhan, Maqbool, according to Dar, was returning home on October 20, 2006. “I was waiting for Maqbool when somebody told me the army had picked him up,” Dar recalls, adding, “We ran to the local police station which had a few days back declared him innocent.”
Eighteen days before the incident, the army had raided his home. “Maqbool wasn’t home but next day presented himself before the local police.
They interrogated him for four days and let him go after they found him innocent. That was done with a green signal from army,” he added.
“When the army refused, we rushed to the police station and were assured; that he would be set free. Early next day, Dar went to the army camp with policemen in tow.
“When the policemen went in to get the boy back, they refused to take him back saying he was almost dead,” he said adding, “the army took him to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead.”
His death shook not just the village but the entire valley as it had come a few days after New Delhi had promised zero tolerance of human rights violations.
The local police registered a case of murder against the army. While the army claimed that Dar was an ‘overground Hizb militant,’ the local police
conducted an investigation and declared him innocent. Even National Human Rights Commission intervened. According to Dar, Maqbool was killed because he had protested against a prostitution ring which was patronised by some army jawans.
The biggest consolation came in the form of a Rs.5 lakh compensation from the state government. More than the money, the cheque represented a clean chit that cleared him of ‘terror’ charges. (By Toufiq Rashid)
Raped, killed and branded as Naxal
Budheshwar Khalkho, an Oraon tribal, in his forties lives with an unwavering wish: the guilty Chhattisgarh policemen who allegedly ‘gangraped’ his daughter Meena Khalko (16) and shot her dead, be punished.
“I am waiting for that day but don’t know how and where to get justice,’’ he says.
The day, July 6, 2011, is etched firmly in his mind. His young daughter left home at 5 pm and cycled to a friend’s house not too far away.
“When she didn’t return late night, we looked for her but many including her friend had no clue. It was only next morning that we got to know she is at Chando community health centre in a serious condition.
"We walked (12 km) to the centre only to be told by a police constable that she succumbed to injuries at Balarampur hospital after being accidentally hit by a police bullet near Chendrinala about 4 km from our home," the mother Gotiari narrated.
Meena’s death exposed the alleged brutality of the police who were patrolling late night on a reported tip-off about the presence of Maoists in the region.
“It’s sad the police raped and killed her and later branded her as naxal woman. We condemn the heinous act”, said Rajesh Sisodiya, human rights activist based in Sarguja and convener of Nange Paon Satyagraha.
The activists accused the police of having deliberately delayed taking a profusely bleeding Meena to hospital fearing that if she survived the ‘truth’ would be exposed.
Following an outrage and the consequent political turbulence, the state government offered Rs.2 lakh in compensation.
Son Ravindra was given a job of a cook in a primary school residential ashram. CM Raman Singh also announced a judicial probe into the incident.
A one-member judicial commission under Anita Jha, a district and session judge, was constituted in 2011 but 18 months later, not a single sitting has been held.
Several quick steps were announced by the state government after it became clear that Meena was the only ‘naxal’ killed that night.
Her postmortem report also talked of a ‘ripped uterus’ and the doctor told the local media that Meena had been shot at close range.
Life is cheap in conflict zones where the truth is often sought to be pushed into grey zones.
The commission was given a three month deadline, but nobody is raising questions even though 18 months have passed. As for Meena’s parents, they are too poor to pursue the law.
A small farmer who owns 2.5 acres of non-irrigated land, Budheshwar has two other children to look after and Meena’s death also means one less bread earner for the family. She contributed through the employment scheme, MGNREGA.
For this family, caught in a conflict zone, life is about worrying about the next meal. (By Ejaz Kaiser)
Shot dead inside her own home
Wangoo Sabal, Manipur
Pusparani was obedient, too obedient to live beyond her 11 years. January 18, 2005 was like any other day for her mother Thokchom Sobita.
She went to the village wetland to catch fish, leaving her youngest daughter Pusparani in the courtyard, instructing her not to move.
That instruction cost Pusparani her life. “I was on my way back when I heard the sound of gunshots,” Sobita recalls. She rushed back, but was stopped by personnel who had cordoned off the area.
“I screamed and told them I wanted to see what was going on in my home. I somehow managed to sneak in and found my daughter in a pool of blood. They had shot her. They also ransacked our house,” she recalled.
Pusparani, studying in class five at Wangoo Sabal Government Primary School, caught a bullet in the stomach and died on the spot.
Her death and that of another villager — local priest Lourembam Maipak, 55 — was collateral damage in an encounter between 132 Battalion Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and militants allegedly taking shelter in the village in Manipur.
The CRPF later said its personnel retaliated after unidentified gunmen fired at them.
Also killed in the shootout was an alleged extremist named Naoroibam Bobby alias Taobi of nearby village Wangoo Pungjao Makhong. Bobby was said to be a member of one of 12 active militant outfits in Manipur.
Pusparani and two other minors are among the 1,528 persons killed in Manipur in extra-judicial executions from 1979 to 2012, according to a report submitted to UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, arbitrary or summary executions.
“Prolonged imposition of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and its impunity has infringed upon child rights as well as the criminal justice system,” said K Pradipkumar of Manipur Alliance for Child Rights.
Manipur had 895 cases of children having been either raped, murdered, trafficked, injured in violence or displaced from September 2011 to October 2012, he added.
Following a complaint by Asian Centre for Human Rights, National Human Rights Commission had asked the ministry of home affairs to provide compensation to the next of kin of Pusparani but failed to follow up.
“The Manipur government at that time also promised to set up an Anganwadi centre in Pusparani’s name besides giving financial assistance of Rs.10,000 each to the injured civilians. It did nothing,” said Ibecha, 42, wife of Loitongbam Shanti, one of the injured.
So far no legal action has been taken in the case since the victims’ family did not lodge any complaint after receiving Rs.1 lakh ex-gratia from the government.
“We don’t know how to take legal help. What if they target us if we approach the courts?” asks Sobita. (By Sobhapati Samom)