Twelve-year-old Billal (name changed) was caught in the chaos. He was carrying fresh pieces of wood along with his two friends to stoke the fire in which a tyre was burning, when policemen and CRPF personnel loaded tear gas ammunition and attempted to disperse protesters.
Billal, a standard 6 student in a government school, was participating in a protest in Srinagar against the implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in the state next year. Brandishing a lathi, he prevented media personnel from crossing a barricaded road.
“It’s for rice,” he yelled when asked why he was in the thick of things.
Unlike their young adult counterparts who form the primary chunk of protesters and indulge in heavy clashes with security forces, children like Billal – aged between 10 and 15 – are now increasingly found at the forefront of protests in Kashmir, occasionally pelting a stone or two at security personnel.
Children of conflict
Commentators say that most children join protests propelled by their own bitter experiences.
“They are children of conflict. Most of such children are from poor families, and on many occasion they have witnessed brutalities. Their reaction is genuine, even though they might not know whose hands they are playing into,” said Sheikh Mushtaq, a senior Srinagar-based journalist.
Security personnel, however, beg to differ.
“There are many cases when we have found out that children are not even aware as to why they are on the streets protesting,” said SJM Gillani, inspector general of police, Kashmir.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which is often at the receiving end of the public’s ire, agrees. “These children also pelt stones. May be someone tells them to or they see others, but they do pelt stones and sticks sometimes,” said Ashish Kumar Jha, PRO of the CRPF, Kashmir.
But human rights activists allege that these children end up being treated as adults by security forces.
They allege juveniles are not treated according to the provision of the state’s Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2013 – which prohibits the detention of minors in a police lock-up or jail, and directs that special juvenile police units be designated to deal with such cases. It also mandates that Juvenile Justice Boards be set up.
“Illegality is the main issue here, because many a time the police doesn’t even show on record that they have arrested the children,” said Mannan Bukhari, head of the human rights cell of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, adding that no Juvenile Justice Boards have been set up yet.
Gillani though rubbished such allegations.
“In most cases we don’t even book cases against child offenders. We have our own counsellors who try to reform the children. But in cases of chronic stone-pelters, we have to think otherwise,” Gillani said.
Jha says the CRPF deal with these cases with tact and minimum force.
Whatever is the reality, it doesn’t change the fact these young guns are becoming the new face of conflict in Kashmir.
“One of the first instances when little children were seen in protests was during the 2008 and 2010 mass uprisings. But then everyone was out on the streets. Now, you have larger number of cases where specifically minors are active in protests,” said advocate Shafqat Hussain.
“It is a cycle – the senior generation has passed on the baton to the younger. A new generation is rising.”