Umar, 16, responds with a blank look when asked to recall his 35-day stay in prison last year. Jailed at 15 for throwing stones at policemen near his hometown of Pattan, 35km (22 miles) north of Srinagar city, Umar now fears any man in uniform. Umar and dozens of his fellow protesters say they were first detained in an abandoned matchstick factory.
The place, they allege, served as a forced interrogation chamber of the paramilitary Special Task Force (STF) which has consistently denied all allegations that it has mistreated detainees. Those who were held say that they were later shifted by the authorities to a district jail in Baramulla, 30km (19 miles) from their homes.
Umar is now out on bail, but he still faces several charges, including arson and attempt to murder, which he and his family deny. He is among hundreds of boys who were detained during the 2010 protests.
Local rights groups have long criticised the state government’s policy of lodging boys in adult jails. In the rest of India, offenders under 18 years are treated as juveniles and sent to separate detention facilities. But in Kashmir, boys above 16 are treated as adults.
Kashmir-based child rights lawyer Abdul Rashid Hanjura says that the current system of dealing with juvenile offenders is “little short of a joke”. “They jail boys aged between 16 and 18 and then claim they have no juveniles [underage boys] in detention,” he said. “We want the state law to be on a par with the Indian law.”
Rights activists say holding an underage person in an adult prison amounts to a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which India is a signatory.
Umar and hundreds like him say that they were detained in adult prisons even when they were under 16. Umar says that while he was not tortured, he was initially beaten with a bamboo stick at the local police station. But he shivers when recalling his five-week ordeal in prison alongside convicted thieves and hardened criminals. Umar’s parents and siblings say that they have noticed a change in his behaviour which sometimes is marked by violent outbursts.
Mr Hanjura says detaining teenagers in the absence of a juvenile justice system is only going to create more trouble in future. “When the boys spend time with convicts and adult criminals, they undergo psychological trauma which creates a sense of revenge,” he says.