It was a cold November day last year when Asmad Ali (14) was playing with his pigeons, and a few birds decided to leave the flock. He ran to chase them but failed. Tired of running and hopeless after losing his birds, the boy turned back to go home but it was nowhere in sight. Before he could realize anything, he was stopped by some men in uniform and was asked to bow down. His pockets were checked and a long interrogation started. Samad, was trembling in fear when he was told that the land he was standing on was not his home. It was India.
The young boy, from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s (POK) Tatrinote village, was caught crossing the border by the Indian Army. After some paperwork, Asmad was handed over to J&K police. An FIR was lodged against him under Egress and Internal Movement Ordinance (E&IMCO) and a trial started in juvenile court. It has been 8 months that he is stuck in a juvenile home in Ranbir Singh Pura district, waiting for his repatriation to Pakistan.
“Life has been very cruel with my child. First he lost his mother when he was just three months. Then his father left him at our place and never returned to meet him. And now, when he is just 14, he is in a jail of another country and we have no idea when he will be back,” said Mrs Khateeja Khatoon, 70, Asmad’s maternal grandmother who spoke with The Hindu over phone from Pakistan.
The story is no different for 16-year-old Khayyam Maqsood, who too landed in India without knowing he had crossed the border in August 2021. Since then, he is here in a reformatory home, staring at his bleak future. His trial is also underway in the Juvenile Justice Board. Maqsood didn’t even get to speak to his family once.
Sainullah, 15, also from Pakistan, is another juvenile who is awaiting his repatriation back home. He accidentally came here in September 2021 and was facing the same ordeal of delayed trial and justice. He has not spoken to his family in the last 10 months.
While Asmad, Khayyam and Sainullah still have hopes to reach home, 17-year-old Mohammed Anwar, has lost the same.
“Anwar had crossed border from J&K’s Kana Chak area of Jammu in 2019 (he was 14 at that time). His trial went on for over a year, and he was acquitted too. Yet, he couldn’t go back home. Blame it to the system or relationship between the two countries”, says a Juvenile Justice Board official who is handling the cases of juvenile in J&K.
“Finding ways for solutions without involving courts and wasting the time of the judiciary is always a better option”Mr. Rahul Kapoor Social activist
Mr. Rahul Kapoor, a social activist who is pressing for the release of Asmad Ali said that Pakistani nationals crossing the Indian border was not a new story as it happened frequently every year.
“The diplomats from both sides exchange lists of civilian prisoners and fishermen in their custody and try for their early repatriation which still takes years and even decades, in some cases. But the case of minors is different and should be taken care on priority. I am sad to say that the callous approach of the government from both India and Pakistan is giving unnecessary trauma to these children who have their entire life ahead,” said Mr. Kapoor.
On July 1, 2022, under the provisions of the 2008 Agreement on Consular Access, India handed over lists of 309 Pakistani civilian prisoners and 95 fishermen in India’s custody to Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan has shared lists of 49 civilian prisoners and 633 fishermen in its custody, who are Indians or are believed to be Indians.
Indian army’s view
Sources from the Indian Army said that whenever the army apprehends someone, the rule is to hand over the person to the police. Even the interrogation is done along with the police.
“Usually, the matters are resolved at the village level and police is involved. Both sides talk over the hotlines and if details match, people are returned back. Army facilitated the exchange on the LoC,” said a source from the Indian Army said.
When The Hindu contacted the Ministry of Extarnal Affairs (MEA) for details, they were redirected to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to the queries.
“In case when they found that there was nothing suspicious with these children and they had actually crossed borders accidently, the best approach is to just hand them back to their country. Solving issues with arbitration is always better for both sides. Finding ways for solutions without involving courts and wasting the time of the judiciary is always a better option,” he adds.