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Children Who Murder: Why We Are Guilty

When an eight-year-old murders an eighteen-month-old baby in a bustling modern city, it’s time we talk about violence, neglect and indifference, and what it does to children

Firstpost print Edition

Eight-year-old Ajay Menariya got up in the middle of the night, silently picked up his neighbour’s 18-month-old baby sleeping next to the mother on a common terrace, and tilted the child into a cemented tank filled with water. The baby didn’t cry. Ajay then walked out of their big metal gate and stuffed the toddler’s now-still body into a small drain opening in front of an abandoned building two houses away. Then he picked up a boulder lying adjacent and dropped it on the baby.

This was April 30. A few days ago, the toddler’s young sister had hit Ajay’s four-year-old brother, giving him a bump on the head. Ajay was convinced that the children in his small village inside Delhi’s Chhatarpur area will no longer mess with his brother.

He went back to the terrace to sleep. At the break of dawn, before the elders woke up, he ran to play in the fields. When he saw the police approaching, he rushed to wear his slippers, but was caught before he could escape.

“Someone had to do something,” says Ajay, giving details to an officer at an observation home in Old Delhi run by a non-profit, Prayas. “Babu was crying constantly because of the injury.”

While the name Ajay Menariya is a fictitious one, his gruesome crime is very real, and it is not the first instance of a child living on the fringes of society killing another. Each year close to 42,000 cases are registered of children below the age of 18 killing, raping and stealing. About 613 such crimes are perpetrated by kids below the age of 12.

Ajay’s crime is just one among these, yet it is rare. However, in the media, his story found no mention after a day of the murder. It happened in the backyard of the city’s expanding middle class. But, it failed to stir any outrage.

Neither the observational home officers nor the police remember the last time a child this young walked in through the heavy metal gates for murder. “If cases this young ever come, the death usually is an accident,” says Aarif Iqbal, project manager, Prayas Observation Home for Boys.

But in Ajay’s case, it wasn’t an accident. He could have pushed or slapped the baby’s sister or the baby himself, but he chose to harm the toddler fatally. And that is precisely why Ajay’s actions should matter to us.

Wearing the same red check shirt and trousers which he was sporting the day he committed the crime, Ajay bends down to grip his right ankle with his small hands to show where his father used to tie a chain before leaving for work each morning.

“I run away otherwise,” he says, with a sturdy, almost cold stare, justifying the act.

He grew up in violence – experiencing it and witnessing it.

As a toddler, he would watch his father beat up his mother, a gutka addict, who passed away of cancer a few years ago. Since then, he is under the care of his father who staggers home every night under the influence of alcohol and now beats Ajay’s 13-year-old sister. The marks of a belan or a chimta are now permanent on the teenager’s tiny frame.

She runs away from home, often for three to four days. Villagers have seen her sleeping in autorickshaws. His elder brother, 16, stole a motorcycle and fans from the village crematorium and was sent away to Okhla by their father.

In the absence of a stable adult in the family, Ajay started seeking care outside of home. He was never enrolled in a school and began spending time with the ragpicker boys in the area. To prevent him from straying, his father would use the chain.

Research has ample evidence to show how normalising violence at home, with which the child cannot associate any logic or reasoning, often leads to them becoming perpetrators of violence later in life.

In 2007, Professor Ferdinand Sutterluty from the social sciences department of Goethe University conducted a study on violent juvenile criminals in Berlin and showed exactly that. All of his subjects were victims of violence for long periods of time.

He concludes in his paper ‘The Genesis of Violent Careers’ that facing violence and disrespect within the family brings a phase of victimhood which is marked by painful experiences of suffering.

“This is followed some time later by a phase in which they themselves use violence and which focuses on the recovery of the capacity to act and the acquirement of recognition,” Sutterluty writes.

Ajay was unable to protect an important figure – his sister – from violence. Tired of the ruthless beatings, one day he hit his father back. “My younger brother and I hit him, pushed him out of the house and locked the door from inside,” he said. That night, his younger brother picked up a stick to hit the father.

Sutterluty explains that the powerlessness which comes with the beatings involves a moral injury, where the victims feel that they “cannot help the person they love and undo the injustice”. And then, one day the role reversal happens – an epiphany, the liberating act – when they hit back and change their suffering into a pattern of violent action, he explains.

At an age where he needed love, attachment and protection, Ajay took up the role of a protector. And that is why he felt responsible to ensure justice to his brother.

Clayton Hartjen, professor at the department of sociology and anthropology at Rutgers University writes in his 1982 paper ‘Delinquency, Development and Social Integration in India’ how a country’s development leads to higher crime and delinquency. The rates are higher in urban areas among the more impoverished or socially and economically disenfranchised segments of the population, he adds.

Ajay’s family fits perfectly in this description. In a city of abundance, the family was economically and socially isolated. In their village, barely 50 metres from the commercial hub Gurugram, the beatings continued inside the house and out in the cemented lanes of the prosperous neighbourhood. Everyone saw it but no one stopped the father from flogging his children. No one called the child helpline number. No one contacted the police to report continuous domestic violence.

Ajay was ‘a kid without a mother’ and, hence, his frequent violent spats with children were ignored. The family had been living in the village for the last 12 years and had moved houses often as no one wanted to rent their residence to them.

This disrespect and humiliation felt inside and outside home not only has a bearing on the physical, but also on the emotional and social integrity of children, Sutterluty explains.

Flipping through the juvenile crime data of the 2016 national crime records bureau, Amod Kanth, general secretary of Prayas, says, “The problem is in the surroundings in which he is growing up, not with the child.” If there is a culture of violence, the child will become violent. But the path to recovery cannot be punitive, he stresses.

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, the maximum sentence a child can receive is of three years. Ajay will be produced before the Child Welfare Committee and the members will decide his fate. The father may not be given boy’s custody, as he will be back in the same environment where chances of a relapse or more violent actions are high.

“He may be declared a ‘child in need of care and protection’ and may stay in an after-care home till he turns 18,” explains Urvashi Tilak, director of Counsel to Secure Justice, a non-profit working with juveniles. But she stresses that addressing violence in the community is key to preventing many more children ending up in violent crimes.

On his first day at the shelter, Ajay sat in a corner sucking his thumb. The other older boys know that he is the child whose story came in the newspapers.

“He must be playing or he must be dead. I don’t know,” he says, pulling the skin around his nails, when asked if he knows where the baby is now.

Back in the village, the dead toddler’s father cannot grasp the justice system. “So now, if my eight-year-old daughter kills Ajay’s brother, she will also never go to jail?” he asks aloud.

It’s a Friday – the day when jittery parents are frisked and allowed to pass through the thick iron grill door of the ‘baccha jail’. A few metres away from the guard’s table, a few boys move back and forth in the metal chairs lining the narrow corridor, tilting their head every few seconds towards the gate. Ajay is not one of them.

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