In the case of the juvenile convict in the Delhi gang rape and murder case, we are witnessing a beastly rage, from seemingly sensible and reasonable people. They are pressing for the death penalty for the guilty juvenile(he was a juvenile when the crime occurred, now he is more than 18 years old) and want the juvenile age lowered to 16. Abject poverty forced the juvenile implicated in the Delhi case to leave home at the age of 11. Since the day he left home, we(government and society) washed our hands off him. For 6-7 years the boy lived on his own, working at eateries and doing other odd jobs. He lived and grew up on the streets, nobody, not the state or 'civil society', came to his rescue or to ensure he got his rights. The Indian state took note of him only when he resurfaced as the ''most brutal of all accused" implicated in the Delhi gang rape and murder case. Till that time, we all were happy to deny the sorry existence of this juvenile. We too are guilty of apathy towards homeless and less fortunate children.
Have you ever been forced to think of leaving home because there wasn't enough food to eat in your house? It would be fair to assume that most of those reading this piece were worried about normal things like homework, vacations and picnics.
This wide section of people who want justice for the Delhi brave heart; men and women, old and young, intellectuals and celebrities, literate and illiterate, want the juvenile to be tried as an adult and face the death penalty even though under the existing Juvenile Justice Act, he has been given the harshest punishment of 3 years in a 'reform' home. Universally, the bedrock of Juvenile justice is reformation and restoration and not just punishment because young offenders still have a chance to become law abiding and productive citizens. They deserve a second chance.
"The answer to juvenile delinquency is not in reducing the age of childhood but in correct interpretation of the law and the effective implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act", wrote a number of child rights experts and advocates in a letter to the Justice Verma Committee.
There is no reason to believe that with proper counselling and a rehabilitation package this juvenile cannot transform into a law abiding adult. Under the JJA, during the course of his sentence, the juvenile should receive regular counselling, a mental health care plan and vocational training so that he can reintegrate into society as a reformed adult. However, without proper care a juvenile can go back to the same life of crime, abuse and deprivation.
Thus, it is the government's duty to allocate enough resources and expertise for the meaningful restoration and reformation of juvenile delinquents. Presently, the homes and detention centres under JJA are in shambles. Recently, a joint inspection team of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights found the three homes located at the Adharshila Home complex at Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi in a 'deplorable state'. They also noted that the institution does not offer regular counselling, a mental health care plan or vocational training to the inmates. One can only hope that the government will get its act together after this damning report.
The Juvenile Justice Act addresses two groups of children; 1. Children in need of care and protection, 2. Children in conflict with law. Often, children who are the caught on the wrong side of the law are children who need care and government support. These are children who come from a life of deprivation, neglect, abuse and exploitation. The JJ Act recognises this correlation and yet it's shoddy implementation is perpetuating a vicious cycle wherein children are picked up by the police on petty charges and thrown into 'homes' where they don't receive the care and counselling that would help them turn into responsible young children.
A recent Asian Centre for Human Rights report, "India's Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault in Juvenile Justice Homes", states that "the sexual assault on children the juvenile justice homes continues unabated as the Government of India i.e. the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the State Governments have failed to implement the JJ(C&PC)Act in letter and spirit. It failed to address four critical areas indispensable for addressing child sexual abuse in juvenile justice institutions i.e. functional Inspection Committees, registration of all juvenile justice homes, effective and functional Child Welfare Committees and separation of inmates on the basis of the nature of the offences, sex and age." Thus, instead of demanding this juvenile's head, we need to aim higher and elsewhere. The proper implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act and other children protection schemes like the Integrated Child Protection Scheme are a prerequisite to tackling both crimes against children and by children. Clamouring for lowering of the age from 18 to 16, and harsher punishment betrays our need for instant gratification.
Why are child rights activists opposing lowering of age?
India has many shameful traditions, child marriage being one of the more well-known. The advocates of child marriage argue that the girl is mature enough to marry, but child marriage is still a crime isn't it?
For instance, there was barely any outrage when a 17-year old son of a politician ran over a 2 year-old child fatally in his father's imported SUV. Such hypocrisy is expected in TV debates, but laws are made keeping in mind far-reaching implications and cannot be overturned because of one or two incidents. "A uniform age for childhood was set as below 18 years and it continues to be so since past 13 years now. One incident cannot be a reason to disturb the well thought-out changes in the law and the historical continuity and to make a deviation from universally accepted International as well as domestic laws on this point. India is among the most progressive countries in its constitution and legal systems and it is not appropriate to turn regressive now. ", the panel of child rights activists emphasised in their letter to Justice Verma Committee.
We should oppose the lowering of age because it's a regressive move after decades of struggle for bringing India's laws in line with the universally accepted principles of child rights. At least 40 million Indian children work as labourers, living a life of hard work and abuse, many of these children work as helps in affluent homes in urban centres, so many of them are tortured and sexually exploited, I don't see much rage against that. What explains this dichotomy? Is it so that our compassion is aroused only when fear for our own security is also evoked?
Harsher Punishment for Heinous Crimes?
I am sure when the Supreme Court takes up the petition seeking fresh interpretation of the term 'juvenile' on the basis of mental and intellectual maturity of minor offender, it will be mindful of the concern that heinous crimes need to have harsher punishments. However, adolescent offenders need to be treated as an intermediate category, neither as children, whose crimes society excuses, nor as adults, whom society holds fully responsible for their acts. As Professor Steinberg writes, "adolescents should be viewed as inherently less responsible than adults, and should be punished less harshly than adults, even when the crimes they are convicted of are identical".
There are at least 176 million children who are in need of urgent care and protection, this juvenile was also one of the children, and despite the huge need to increase spending on child-related schemes, India spends just 0.06 of its overall budget on child protection. This juvenile received neither care nor protection, in fact for the Indian state, he was as good as dead already. To counter juvenile delinquency, India needs to take substantial measures, jingoism and cries of revenge neither serve well the memory of the Delhi Braveheart, nor the process of Juvenile justice in India.
More about Valay Singhrai
Valay has worked with NDTV 24x7 as an editor on the newsdesk. Valay has made films on caste and tribal issues in Maharashtra. He has also worked on 'Sons and Daughters', a film on child trafficking for domestic servitude. He wrote his thesis on 'Good journalism can be good business'. Valay works in the social sector now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.