Violence has decreased sharply since the governments of India and Pakistan signed a peace process in 2004. The controversial laws (introduced under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act) gave government troops sweeping powers to search properties and arrest suspects without charge, as well as providing troops with immunity from prosecution. The laws have been in place for more than twenty years and the move is seen as a first step to reduce tension in Kashmir and lessen anti-Indian sentiment, which runs deep in the Muslim-majority region. Since 1989, almost 50,000 people have been killed during violent unrest against Indian rule.
The announcement about the scaling back of the security laws comes at a time of growing concern over the treatment of young Kashmiri protestors. In a recent report, the BBC highlighted that hundreds of youths arrested during protests are being placed in adult prisons. In the rest of India, young offenders under 18 years are treated as juveniles and placed in special detention facilities. However in Kashmir, boys of 16 years and upwards are treated as adults. Incarcerated in adult prisons, many youngsters claim they have been abused and mistreated in prison. And even though many are imprisoned for minor offences such as throwing stones, once in prison, they are placed alongside hardened criminals.
Human rights organisations say this can lead to significant psychological trauma among youngsters. They can become prone to violent outbursts and are more likely to create trouble in the future, feeling embittered by their treatment or wishing to seek revenge. Talking to the BBC, one sixteen year-old called Umar, who was in prison after being arrested in protests last year, says his life changed after his jail term. Whereas previously he used to play with his friends without any cares, now he has to report to court each month and is “scared” in case he misses an appointment and the police come to his home. Umar’s parents say their son has lost interest in his school work.
Indian officials have set up one juvenile home to house young offenders, but it is isolated and currently offers few activities for the teenagers. However, its administrator says they are working to provide sports and other activities in the near future. Meanwhile, human rights group continue to demand that the age at which a teenager can be placed in an adult jail is raised to 18 years, in line with the rest of the country. They say that holding an underage person in an adult facility is a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is a signatory. While the Indian government has made no commitment towards this change in Kashmir, it has spoken of reducing sentences for juveniles.