Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Abrar Ahmad Ganai was taken into custody in the wake of a decision by the Indian government to strip Kashmir’s special status. He was sent several thousand kilometres away from his home to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh state.
Ganai was released last week after two months in custody under a controversial law, known as the Public Safety Act (PSA), which authorises the detention of someone for up to two years without trial.
A magistrate in Indian-administered Kashmir‘s southern Anantnag district said on August 8 that Ganai was “found leading big violent mobs raising anti-national slogans”.
Anantnag district’s police chief in his dossier against Ganai, which became the grounds for his arrest, says he has the “natural bent of mind towards secessionism”.
The detention order and the police dossier listed Ganai as 22 years old and recommended a two-year detention period.
The court, however, released Ganai within two months of his arrest after his family challenged the detention on the grounds that Ganai is a minor and only 16 years old.
Ganai’s school certificate shown to the court by his family, and also seen by Al Jazeera, shows that Ganai was born in March 2003.
“That the detainee is juvenile and has not attained the age of majority as such he cannot be detained under Public Safety Act 1978 in terms of the Act itself,” the family said in its challenge to the arrest.
In the quiet Hugam village of Anantnag which is nestled among apple orchards, neighbours lined up to congratulate the family.
“He was in a 6×7 cell,” Manzoor Ahmad Ganai, his father, told Al Jazeera. “He has lost seven kilogrammes and looks pale. He is very depressed and frightened. His whole body aches and there are scars on his back,” he said.
“He was kept in very hard conditions. He even fears to share it. He is sleeping with his mother,” he added.
Ganai’s father said that his son “wore the same clothes for two months”. “We were not even given a chance to meet him or give him clothes.”
In jail, the teenager cried inconsolably and did not sleep, his father said. “He said: ‘I was waiting for my death’.”
The detention of juveniles or minors – people under the age of 18 – has been part of the ongoing crackdown in the Muslim-majority region which has seen the arrest of separatist leaders as well as pro-India politicians – including former chief ministers.
An unknown number of detainees, including teenagers, have been moved to jails in other Indian states, hampering visits from their families who cannot afford frequent costly travel.
NDTV news channel reported that the Supreme Court was informed on Monday that 144 minors have been arrested since August 5, the day the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the constitution that provided a measure of autonomy to India’s only Muslim region.
It has been almost two months since India launched a crippling security lockdown and internet and phone connections were snapped as part of its crackdown. Some phone lines have been restored but nearly seven million Kashmiris mostly remain cut off from the outside world.
Knock at midnight
Last month, India’s top court ordered the Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s Juvenile Justice Committee to investigate allegations of the arrest of minors.
Critics say the detention of juveniles have been routine and often unacknowledged by the administration in Kashmir.
In the dead of a mid-August night, 16-year-old Muhammad* was woken up by kicks and knocks at the doors and windows of his home in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir.
His home – a single-storey house in a congested neighbourhood – was under cordon and as family members lifted the curtains, they saw armed policemen outside.
“They said they want to take my grandson away. It was so scary, it was as if they had come for a militant,” Bano, Muhammad’s grandmother, said.
Officers were beating the grade 10 student as they took him away, Bano added. “We were screaming and crying … they behaved like beasts,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When we asked them where they are taking him, they threatened us that they will take him out of Kashmir. We fell on their shoes and pleaded them that he is just a kid,” she said.
Muhammad was thrown into a police lockup along with 15 other people – some his age, some older and some younger.
“There was an attached washroom for all the people to use. We were crammed in the room and when they served food, the foul smell from the toilet spoiled everything,” Muhammad said.
“I could not eat there. I even feared to talk and occasionally talked in hushed tones,” he said.
Muhammad said he was routinely threatened by police during his 15-day detention period. “They would abuse us and threaten that they will detain us under the Public Safety Act and we would be shifted outside Kashmir, this would make us cry,” he said.
His family claims he is only 15 years old. Al Jazeera saw the school certificate of the boy, which shows his date of birth as December 12, 2004.
In another case of juvenile detention in Srinagar, 15-year-old Umar said he spent 11 days in police custody.
“Whenever there is a knock, I get scared, fearing that they will again take me. This is haunting me,” he said. “Even the barking of the dogs makes my heart race at night.”
Umar says he will never forget his time in custody. “I was slapped inside the lockup,” he said. “I felt mentally tortured. How would I study now? All these things will change my life forever.”
In many cases, the administration lists the age of minors in detention as above 18 years, and leaves it to families to contest it in the court – a process which takes a minimum of a few weeks.
In the northern district of Baramulla, Javiad Ahmad Khan’s family has filed a petition in the court against his detention under the PSA, which has been described as a “lawless law” by human rights group Amnesty International.
According to Khan’s school certificate which was also seen by Al Jazeera, his date of birth is February 2, 2003.
Another teenager, Umar Bashir Naikoo of Shopian’s Memandar village, has also been booked under the Act. His date of birth, according to his school certificate, is March 16, 2005, which makes him a minor.
In its response to the court, the police has raised objection to claims by the family members. It also asked the court to carry out a medical test to determine Naikoo’s age.
As the bureaucratic process drags on, Naikoo remains in detention.
Despite repeated attempts, the officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s call for comment.
*His name was changed.