The likelihood of the most brutal among the six accused in the Delhi gangrape case escaping the penal provisions weighed heavy on the minds of director generals of police and chief secretaries today. The accused was a juvenile when he committed the crime. He turns 18 only four months later.
The top government functionaries had gathered at a meeting convened by the Union Home Ministry to discuss ways to handle the menace of rape.
There was an overwhelming opinion that the legal age for someone to be categorised as juvenile should be brought down from 18 years to 16 years and relevant amendment should be made in the Juvenile Justice Act. However, there was no consensus among the top cops and officials on awarding death for rape.
While the chorus to amend the relevant law to make provision for the death penalty for rape convicts is growing louder in the public fora, a number of DGs and chief secretaries reasoned that if the law was amended to that effect, the culprits would prefer to kill the victim after raping her rather than let her go alive. They argued that in case of murder, the death sentence is awarded in the rarest of rare cases only. The rapists would kill their victims to conceal evidence.
The view is similar to that of various women and other social groups who believe that a mandatory provision of death for rape would leave the victim vulnerable to murder.
Sources said around 80 percent of officials who spoke argued for lowering the age of a juvenile to 16. The others did not oppose it. After the day-long meeting, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said the government would consider their opinion. He admitted that there was no consensus on death for rape.
At the heart of the age debate is one of the accused, who is believed to have launched the most brutal assault on the gangrape victim. He is not yet 18. Under the present law, he could be free in a few months, even if he gets the maximum sentence - three-year imprisonment. If he is held guilty after turning 18, he can't be kept in a correction home. But a juvenile who has turned 18 cannot be transferred to jail since the law does not allow those tried under the Juvenile Justice Act to be kept in a jail meant for adults.
The rationale for the leniency to juvenile is described in the opening paragraph of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000: "An Act to consolidate and amend the law relating to juveniles in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection, by providing for proper care, protection and treatment by catering to their development needs, and by adopting a child-friendly approach in the adjudication and disposition of matters in the best interest of children and for their ultimate rehabilitation through various institutions established under this enactment."
Meanwhile, the popular outrage over Delhi rape incident has made Speaker Meira Kumar call off her proposed visit to South Africa and Namibia scheduled from six to 14 January.