Recent events with regards to escalating gender violence have dragged us out of the comfort of our safe homes, shaken us, as a people, from our deep apathetic slumber. This particular brand of Machiavellian brutality and apparent amorality cuts across different socio-economic classes, deeply entrenched in our society.
He couldn’t stop staring at the walls, laden with drawings and pictures of national flags, ice creams and tree houses, made by countless others before him. Abdul ( name changed) had never held a crayon in his hand. He sat in front of me, drawing on bookmarks, all the while doubting whether these will ever see the light of day. All of 16 years old, he had gone to school till 4th grade. I asked him, “ Phir school kyun choda ?”. He replied “ Padhai mein man nahi lagta tha. Aur waise bhi ladke buri aadaton mein daal dete mujhe. Teacher ne mujhe thappad mara ek din, bas phir kya, kabhi waapis nahin gaya”. And that was that.
When the much anticipated first verdict in the 16th December Delhi gang rape case was pronounced on National News, there was no celebration, just complete outrage. “ Found guilty of the gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in December, the teenager – one of six accused – was sentenced to three years in a juvenile home, sparking anger and debate over whether India is ‘too soft’ on its young offenders”. At a time where multiple PIL’s are being filed in the courts by opposition parties, the entire populace enraged, with a harsh spotlight on juvenile laws, the unanimous demand is clear – the severity of the punishment must increase, laws must become more punitive, with the understanding that current laws make it easier for ‘culprits’ to evade the system, get away scot-free, without really ‘paying their dues’.
JUVENILES : IN CONFLICT WITH LAW
Under the Juvenile Justice Act (Protection and Care) Act 2000 (Amendment 2006), the terms used to describe the ‘accused’, the ‘victim’ and other legal nuances of the case are different from cases of crime by adult persons. Here, a child involved in crime is not called an ‘accused’ but referred to as a “Juvenile in Conflict with Law (JCL)”.
The National Crime Records Bureau data for 2010 records 30,303 juvenile offenders across the country. 95% of these offenders are boys, with about 63% percent of the boys in the 16–18 age group.
That week, we’d been working on the theme of ‘female role models from one’s family’ in the neighbouring de-addiction and rehab centre for juveniles, “Sahyog”. I decided to extend the same, to the boys at the “Waiting Room”, a place where the juveniles wait for their bai plea to be heard by the magistrate. Crayon in hand, he kept staring at the blank sheet. I asked him ‘ Kya hua ? Arreh tumhari family mein jo bhi aurat, aapki ma, behen, dadi …. jis se bhi aapney kuch seekha hain ..uski drawing banao na !” He confessed later that his mother passed away due to T.B. when he was four. They were unable to get the medicines last minute. His father remarried soon and Abdul ran away from home at the age of 9. Befriended by a ragpicker, Sonu, he started living under the pull, near Jahingirpuri.
MAKE IT 16, NOT 18: EXPERTS ARGUE
Legal experts and child rights activists have said that the demand for reducing the age of juvenility from 18 to 16 will be highly counterproductive. Removing minors involved in heinous crimes from the ambit of the Juvenile Justice Act, purely on the basis of the Delhi gang-rape case, will be a “knee-jerk reaction”. Dire consequences apart, will it ever be a deterrent?
Are we ready to amend an entire law on the basis of one particular case? According to Bharti Ali of ‘HAQ’ centre for child rights, “Such amendments under public pressure based on one incident will have long-term dangerous consequences on the plight of lakhs of other juveniles.”
It is easier to be an armchair intellectual, and to raise slogans about the ‘honest’ taxpayer’s money and how it must not be used to feed hardened criminals like these juveniles. But when will we, as a nation, as a community, take the time to understand the horrific journey that a child must take in order to commit a crime so heinous?
According to Lawyer and juvenile justice expert Anant Asthana, “the best way to ensure that juveniles do not get involved in horrific crimes like the Delhi gang rape and murder case is by effective enforcement of various provisions of the act and creating an effective system to deal with children in need of care and protection. A child does not turn into a monster on his own in a day. It takes years of apathy and abandonment to make a child go astray in life”.
Ved Kumari, an expert on juvenile justice law and ex-chairperson of the Delhi judicial academy, said: “While condemning the ghastly gang rape, I want to focus on the child involved in the offence. This boy was all of 13 years when he left home. Why did he leave? What was his home like? What happened to him in the last five years? What all has been responsible for turning him into this beast? Why did the juvenile justice system in place in our country not reach out to him and prevented him from being what he has become today?”
The question remains, is the existent Juvenile Law being implemented as it looks in theory on paper? Or do we find a gap between a reformative law and the system which lies underneath it ? I can never coherently explain the disgust and anger that I felt, when on 16th December a girl was brutally gang raped by 5 men and a boy. Or the shame that I feel when any woman, child, man is raped and abused, in any part of our country. But retributive justice, and vying for blood can be a tricky business. In this case, the juvenile ceases to have any rights, in fact he forfeits his right to be treated like a juvenile when he took part in this heinous crime. That just doesn’t sound right. What’s to say that similar demands will not be made for several other offences committed by juveniles considered serious in nature?
Earlier this year, these experts had written to the Former CJI JS Verma, who had headed a panel which suggested changes in the anti-rape law, against making any changes in The Juvenile Justice Act , and approach towards juveniles. The Former CJI had clearly said that “even though the boy has been found responsible for participating in a terrible act, there should be every effort at the rehabilitation and the eventual reintegration of the child as a constructive member of society”. That instead of being motivated by views on punishments and retribution; it is rehabilitation that we should look into.
Abdul’s life with Sonu was always on the run. He started smoking ganja, and making small thefts here and there. “Kabhi ghar jaane ke baarey mein nahin socha?” I asked. “ Woh toh bahut peeche chor diya tha.” He started working at a chai stall. The other time he would pick garbage. That soon traversed into small thefts here and there.
Rather than changing the law, we must look at the profile of juvenile offenders – many tend to be from poor households, have little access to education and opportunities and are often abused. We should give them the chance to reform, rather than punishing them blindly. Will changing a law make us take responsibility for lakhs of children that go astray from their families at an extremely young and vulnerable age? Juveniles are not born with innate dispositions towards crime. They’re born like any other child into a household, like you or me. What is the difference ? Luck. Chance. Privilege. It is only incidental that I was born into an English speaking upper middle class family, where I was fed, clothed and given the comforts of the world. My alcoholic father didn’t beat my mother. I was not orphaned at a young age, having to roam the streets, picking up on scraps here and there. I didn’t have to steal, beg and adapt to a world that was hell bent on crushing me, my spirit.
Abdul’s drawing stood before me like an image in the sand. He had drawn the national flag in one corner, with small family standing next it- a man, a woman and a small boy. “ Hum yahaan Nasha Mukti Kendra mein bacchon ko alag alag type ki cheezein sikhatey hain- painting, computers, motor mechanic , natak . Tumney kabhi kuch seekhney ke baare mein socha hain ?”, I asked. “ Aap mujhe sikhaogey ?”, he asked.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
- Nida Ansari