At the centre of the Handwara crisis is a 16-year-old girl — a minor — in the “protective custody” of the Kashmir Police.
There is no doubt that had the police not taken her into custody, she would have been assaulted by people, following the death of three people in the first two days. But why the police is hell-bent on not releasing her — even 10 days after the incident — is a 'secret' known only to the top brass of the state police. It will take months, if not days, for the truth to emerge.
And as truth become the first causality in any conflict, maybe the real story will never become known at all.
Kashmir is a graveyard of reputations and this minor has already been orchestrated for life. Name-calling began after the police allegedly released the ‘confessional video’. She became an “informer” in the next hour, according to some social media users, and a “prostitute with two cell phones” according to others, and then, a victim a day later. Kashmiri society has developed a disturbing trait over the past two decades of conflict: If you speak to a police officer, you are an informer. Worse yet, if you are seen in a casual conversation with an army officer, you are tagged as “Mukhbir” for life. If you demand your rights you will be tagged an "Azadi walla" inside and a Pakistani by the rest of the country.
But let's revisit a very important fact that has become lost in all the rancor.
This is a 16-year-old girl.
Give yourself a moment to let that sink in.
In the girl's hometown, in the school in which she studies, in the society she inhabits and in every nook and cranny of the Valley, people are only discussing what is happening to her, her character, and that battered truth has so many versions. The hypocritical among the majority of us would never like to believe that this girl — even if she was a minor — could have had a relationship with an army soldier, who could well be a Kashmiri or a Tamilian.
And then, why only blame the police? Why not Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, and her journalist-turned-politician friend Nayeema Ahmad Mahjoor, the chairperson of the State Women's Commission (SWC)? Mahjoor has thus far failed to facilitate free access to this minor girl — who continues to be under the strict surveillance of the police — to her legal team.
Mahjoor said on Wednesday that the minor was “not in police custody” but at her relative’s home with “one or two cops” staying put at the place.
But on Thursday, she told Firstpost that the police told her that if the “family of the girl doesn’t need security, we can withdraw it”.
“I’m working in close consultation with the police. I have to make sure that she feels safe and is not pressurised by anybody… When I spoke to the girl, she was mentally disturbed. I also spoke to the chief minister and told her that we cannot put the girl in a cage and she should be given the choice to do what she wants,” she said.
“After her identity was revealed, it is unlikely that the girl will ever be able to return her home which remains padlocked and guarded by the police,” said a women in the press colony during a protest organised to demand the release of the girl.
There is no doubt the Jammu and Kashmir Police is not feeling the heat “with some top officials feeling embarrassed" for allegedly releasing the confession video of the minor Handwara girl publicly and putting her life in danger, a senior minister in PDP-BJP government said.
“There is a lot of pressure on the police for exposing the identity of the minor girl by releasing her video publicly. They have put her life in danger. She can never resume her normal life,” the minister told Firstpost on condition of anonymity.
The minister said some top police officials are being questioned about the handling of the entire situation that ended with the killing of five people by security forces, imposing of curfews and strikes and the snapping of internet services in Kashmir last week.
“The situation could have been handled easily but the mishandling of the situation by the police in the first place turned the situation ugly. To save its skin, the police wants to pass the buck by arresting people,” the minister said.
The girl, in the video allegedly leaked by police and later officially released by Army, had exonerated the army of molestation and accused locals of instigating protests.
According to the school record, the minor was born in October 2000. “She is not even sixteen, principal of her school, Mir Manzoor Ahmed, said.
“It is illegal to expose the identity of a minor according to Juvenile Justice Act. The government is yet to file a case against army or police for exposing the identity of this girl,” Parveez Imroz, her council, said.
After initial four days of ‘protective custody’, Imroz was allowed to meet the girl in a house in Handwara.
“For four days, she had remained inside a police station after that was taken to a local policemen’s house, when we meet her there were four policemen inside. When we insisted that we need some privacy they left for two minutes only to come back and drive us out of the town so that we don’t come back,” Imroz said.
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCSS), a Srinagar-based right advocacy group, had last week accused the police and state government of denying the minor’s access to her counsel and pressuring her to give statement in a “certain way”.
“They stated that they have been kept in illegal detention and wrongful confinement. They have been intimated, abused and kept under constant surveillance,” a statement issued by the group said.
In a video statement issued by JKCSS, the mother of the minor said that her girl was forced to make statement under police pressure.
Following this, the state High Court had ordered the Superintendent of Police to allow the minor girl to meet her legal team.
The state government on Wednesday had to face a protests by students in Srinagar and in Kashmir University over the “illegal detention” of the minor girl. They demanded her immediate release and unhindered access to legal aid.