There were other victims of Operation Bluestar little children, some only two years old, who got rounded up when the army swept through the Punjab countryside throwing over 18,000 suspected terrorists into jail. Since then, 39 children have been languishing in two Ludhiana jails.

There is four-year old Rinku whose father died during the army operation and whose mother has been missing since then. Like the rest of the ‘infant terrorists’, Rinku had to go through a gruelling interrogation. When asked where his mother was. he replied, “I do know”.Asked where his father was, he said, “Killed with a gun”. Why his stomach was so big; “Because I eat clay”. Then there is the earnest 12 year old Bablu who calls Bhindranwale his chacha. He insists that he be included among the terrorists and tried. There is Zaida Khatoon, a Bangladeshi woman who stopped to get food for her five children at the Golden Temple and ended in jail.

Their ordeal began in early June when they were picked up around the Temple and packed into camps in Amritsar and Jalandhar. Initially the army did not know what to do with the children. Some of the lucky ones were locked up with their parents, but they all faced the same charge: breach of peace under section 107 and arrest to prevent commission of cognisable offence under Section 107 and 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). They were finally sent to Ludhiana.

And then the nightmare began. Two central agencies, the Central Bureau of lnvestigation (CBI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) began their questioning. There were long, intimidating sessions. The children cried and begged to be sent home. But it went on for days. Their little finger prints were taken and IB sleuths set about verifying their bonafides. One interrogating officer admitted that not many officials were moved by the children’s cries.

The children continued to be locked up in a dingy old jail in the sprawling industrial city. Some were moved to a newer maximum security prison outside the city. Of the 39 children, 10 were with their parents, mostly their mothers. Another 15 were students of the Damdami Taksal, an institution founded by Guru Gobind Singh to train children in music and Gurbani, which was last headed by the Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. These students, all of them ardent Sikhs, had been camping in the Golden T cmple complex and some had learnt to use arms. Three of them have now been classified as ‘dangerous terrorists’.

Sadly enough, in their interrogations, the CBI and IB have shown little regard to any civil liberties or laws protecting young children. All the children have been booked for violating prohibitory orders under Section 144 or Section 107/151. It is a fact that they were picked up from the Golden Temple or at best are said to have surrendered. But these offences are bailable and in fact these sections are merely prohibitory, used by law enforcing agencies to stop processions and strikes. The authorities have paid no heed to the Children Act 1960 or the East Punjab Children Act, 1976.

The long, agonising inquisition apart, the children have been clubbed with known terrorists, criminals and anti-social elements. Under the law, children younger than 16 years old in the case of males and 18 in the case of females cannot be detained either at a police station or in a regular jail, and the lofty laws that protect and respect the child have all been violated. Children are supposed to be kept in special institutions or reform schools but the Punjab Government has hardly been bothered, as the central agencies continued with their gruelling, and often callous investigations. Confessed a CBI officer: “These are all fine ideas for newspapers and preachers. We had on our hands suspected terrorists and would be terrorists”.

Last fortnight, some relief seemed to be on the way at last. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, the well-known social worker, petitioned the Supreme Court to help the children. A division bench consisting of Chinappa Reddy, A. P. Sen and E.S. Venkataramiah directed the Ludhiana district judge to remove the children from the jails and lodge them in a better place, at the cost of the state. The Punjab Government was also directed to trace their relatives and file particulars to the court. Ironically enough, the same day these orders were issued, a Ludhiana magistrate remanded four children arrested from the Temple on June 6 to judicial custody, till further orders. The youngest of these children, Jasbir Kaur, is only two years old, her sister Charanjit Kaur is four, and her brothers, Harinder and Balwinder, are six and twelve. These children are charged with disobeying the prohibitory order under Section 144 of the CrPC.

On August 1, eleven senior opposition leaders had demanded that the detained kids be either released or at least segregated. But it was only after the Supreme Court directive that the authorities began acting. Within five days the parents of six children were located from districts as far away as Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh, Hissar in Haryana and Nainital in Uttar Pradesh. They had gone to the Golden Temple to pray when they were caught in the army crossfire. District Magistrate K.R. Lakhanpal had had earlier sought the governor’s approval to release the children but had not met with any success. Said he: “We were alive to the human problem but somehow in this charged atmosphere quick release could not take place. The children had to be cleared first by the intelligence agencies”.

Most critically placed are those children whose parents face various charges. While District Judge Jai Singh Sekhon is for total segregation, the administration has not yet agreed. “They have to be with their parents only and since the parents cannot be kept out of jail, they remain where they are”,said Lakhanpal. Their fate, as well as the fate of those in Category C, the most dangerous, depends upon the Supreme Court, which takes up the case this fortnight. Mean while 39 little beings continue to pray for freedom every day.

Published in ‘India Today’ dated 30th Sept. ’84 by Mr. Gobind Thukral