Field Notes: The 12-Year-Old Facing A Tribunal


Yaha bhayankar dange hue the (The place saw horrifying riots),” the driver told me as we were entering Khargone after a gruelling three-hour drive from the eastern Madhya Pradesh city of Indore.

At some point in the conversation, everyone The Reporters’ Collective spoke to in this sun-baked town said, “We remember the riots like they happened yesterday.”

About 320 km south of the capital Bhopal, Khargone has a population of over 100,000: 61% Hindu and 37% Muslim. It came to national prominence on 11 April when local authorities, violating the state’s laws, demolished about 50 properties, almost all belonging to Muslims.

In this April 2022 account, Harsh Mander, a peace activist and Khargone’s former district magistrate, recalled the time riots swept the town in 1989.

But the riots that followed a Ram Navami procession earlier this year, leaving one dead and over twenty injured, were different from anything they had witnessed in the past, locals said. The riots were followed by an attempt by some Hindus to boycott Muslim businesses, as Article 14 reported in April.

Lawyers, community leaders and residents pointed out a significant difference between the riots of 1989 and 2022: a partial government response in a state where chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has gone from being called ‘mama (uncle)’ to ‘bulldozer mama’.

That approach towards Muslims became apparent in the State’s decision to try a 12-year-old Muslim boy, A* (name changed), as an adult.

Accused by neighbours of rioting, the boy would be brought before a juvenile justice board in the ordinary course of criminal justice. But the state government was using the cover of civil proceedings to try him as an adult.

I wandered around the narrow lanes of Anand Nagar, where the boy lived with his parents. I had to wait till evening to meet the boy. He was at school, and his father, a 34-year-old driver, at work.

When we finally met in their one-room apartment, I quickly realised I would have to rethink the questions I planned to ask him.

A* had the look of an ill-prepared student at a viva voce. He was too nervous to talk. His father kept nudging him to speak.

A* did not know the details of his case. He said he was at home on the night of the violence.

Their neighbours had filed claims petitions against A* and his father at the state’s first tribunal set up to settle claims of property damage during the riots.

“We felt betrayed,” A’s father told me.

But the petition was only the beginning of a long legal battle.

Lawyers representing A* argued before the claims tribunal and the state high court to drop the case against the minor. Both rejected the objections raised.

The law governing the claims tribunal gives ad-hoc powers to its authorities, allowing them to make up rules as they go along. A state government official, meanwhile, is authorised to decide which petitions will be heard and which will not. There are no rules that govern how the official will determine that.

The numbers are telling: 22 of the 34 active cases are against Muslims. They also make up over 65% of the defendants.

The state’s response to the communal conflict in the past has been suspect: the police have lodged complaints against some Muslims who were already in prison on the day of violence and against others who were hospitalised out of the district.

But trying a 12-year-old was a new low.

As I spoke to A* and his father and a stream of their neighbours who gathered around to share their stories, I began thinking about the response the story would attract. Right-wing trolls would probably say trying a 12-year-old Muslim was the right thing to do.

I worried that we would end up exposing the family to future hounding by a biased local press, who, inevitably, might also give a pro-government spin to this tale.

But I did what I had to do: write about the absurd case, question the legality of trying a 12-year-old as an adultand hope there would be enough publicity around it so it would not happen again.

You can read Shreegireesh Jalihal’s full story here.

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