Editor's note: This opinion was published earlier this month, soon after the conviction and sentencing of the juvenile accused in the Delhi gangrape case. Given the calls for the death penalty for the remaining four convicts, we believe this is relevant once again.
Hand the boy over to the public.
If you’ve been following with even a mild interest the growing outrage over the three-year term for the juvenile accused in the Delhi gangrape and murder, chances are you have heard somebody say those words. Maybe it was an otherwise peace-loving neighbour, or perhaps a colleague was venting during a coffee break. Amid the demands to execute him, more graphic outcomes for the boy have been suggested on Twitter; perhaps you retweeted one of the wittier posts.
Needless to say, every right-minded Indian shares the anguish of the parents of the 23-year-old victim. Three years in a special home for a brutal crime that snuffed out a promising life appears a travesty. But when exactly did baying for an 18-year-old’s blood become an acceptable eye-for-an-eye response to such anguish?
As everyone has already reported, the verdict has handed out the maximum punishment permissible under the law.
Should the law be amended? Should underage boys who rape be tried as adults? The Supreme Court has said a petition by Subramaniam Swamy is maintainable – it seeks that "mental and intellectual maturity" of minor offenders be considered instead of the age limit of 18 years while fixing their culpability. Should the age of who is legally a juvenile, and the age of consent alongside, be lowered? In fact the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986, until it was amended in 2000, considered boys under the age of 16 and girls under the age of 18 as juveniles. So there are plenty of questions to ponder, for Indians who believe they like to engage with issues facing the nation.
But somehow, the temptation to hit the streets to protest an affront to our heightened sense of justice is difficult to overcome, sometimes dangerously so. Because there is little to distinguish the execution-seekers for the Delhi gangrape convict from other dispensers of mob justice. So, we begin to believe that if you won’t refer to Asaram as Bapu then it’s okay for us to thrash you, break your cameras. Think the Jan Lokpal is no solution? You must be corrupt. Won’t agree that Ajmal Kasab be publicly hanged? You’re anti-national, a blot on Indians.
Too often, Indians show little regard for the rule of law and legal / judicial processes, preferring to dispense lynchings or demand executions. In fact, what Saturday’s verdict gives us is an opportunity to look at a gamut of issues surrounding juvenile crime and how the state tackles it.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, of 39,822 juveniles arrested in 2012 (some for gruesome crimes), over 21,000 belonged to families with an annual income less than Rs 25,000. That’s nearly 53 percent. Over 50 percent were also either illiterate or completed only primary school. Hanging this 18-year-old will hardly deter the thousands who will be arrested next year.
A more worrying number is that of these 39,822, over 10,000 are still awaiting disposal of their cases. Until then, and after being convicted too, these juvenile offenders live a reality that flies in the face of a fundamental premise of the Juvenile Justice Act – that restorative measures must be taken to aid the child’s reintegration into society.
The 18-year-old whose blood everybody is baying for will go back to a home in Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi, where he has been living since his arrest in December 2012. A report in the Hindustan Times had this to say about the convicted boy’s home for the next two years: “It was just three weeks back that a group of boys lodged in this reformatory set ablaze the blankets, mattresses, office records, and pelted stones at the staff. A week later, the Delhi High Court noted that “the standards were not being adhered to at juvenile homes in the Capital”.
This is not the first time that special homes and observatory homes run by the government came in for sharp criticism. In April this year, the Asian Centre for Human Rights released a report titled “India’s Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault in Juvenile Justice Homes” that said sexual offences occur even inside these “juvenile justice homes”.
The 56-page report highlighted 39 cases of assault, often repeated sexual assault, on children in shelter homes for children. Of these 39 cases, 11 cases were reported from government-run juvenile justice homes including observation homes, children’s homes, shelter homes and orphanages, committed by staff as well as by senior inmates. In two cases, the sexual abuses were committed by the senior inmates in collusion with the staff.
Clearly, assuming that it's going to be 28 peaceful months for the convicted minor before he returns to the mean streets is about as facetious as asking for him to be handed over to be dealt with by "the public".
Public outrage and blood thirst cannot replace cogent arguments for legislative changes. Certainly, we owe it to our children to engage in more nuanced debate.
Updated Date: Sep 11, 2013 13:01 PM