ByÂ Mahitha Kasireddi:
“If an adult commits rape, it is his fault. But, if a minor commits rape, it is the society’s fault.”
I am sorry; I’d like to disagree on that!
Did you ever have to put up with an uncouth, twisted, imprudent teenager who lacks self-resistance on his hormones and is absolutely inconsiderate on repercussions that could follow outraging the modesty of a woman in the course of satisfying his urges?
On a sultry February morning in 2012, when I was travelling from Bangalore to Tirupathi, I had to change bus midway in Chittoor which was around 3 hours from Tirupathi. It was a typical rural bus, two-seater, overcrowded with more luggage than people and hardly any place to move. After a lot of waggling with my luggage, I somehow got to grab one of the rear seats. I had to almost fold up my legs and sit after accommodating my luggage under my feet. A boy who would be around 15 or 16, frail, short approached decently to seek my permission to sit beside me. I allowed (how I wish I hadn’t). The conductor was very passive, busily snapping fingers and issuing tickets, neither spoke nor heard people’s complaints. The noise subsided and the bus started off rattling and swaying on the bad roads of Chittoor. Nothing went wrong for at least around two hours. The boy beside me was busy with his Smartphone and I got to doze off for a while.
I had cramps in my legs, I could hardly move them and the rhythmic swaying of the overloaded bus forced me to ignore the detail that I was very close to the boy beside me. This isn’t my first bus journey. In my four years of Engineering this would be my 30th journey from home to hostel. I was so much used to the perks of travelling in small towns that I underestimated the bad world that day.
I would have fallen back some hundred times before I gained composure over my emotions to finally construct this paragraph. It’s not that I was totally unaware. I was unconsciously watching his hand from the corner of my eye which was beside my thigh. Something unwanted, unpleasant happened then. He snapped his sweaty hand on my thigh and I was startled and shaken for that very second. When I looked at his face, it was plain and expressionless and even more casually he said “What is your name?” in raw rural-telugu slang.
I would get into an expressional depression if I didn’t let this out. I was baffled, confused, shocked and every word that fits here. I was angry but confident with the rage that took over me that I could handle this wayward younker. I wore an expression-less face too, looking at his hand on my thigh and then into his eyes. He looked at his hand and removed it. I thought I solved it. We were another hour away from Tirupathi. I did not ponder much over this, thinking he was only being naughty. But, within minutes he was at it again and repeated the same question. This time I screamed, threw some abuses though I cannot remember what I spoke. I was mad at him, shaking with temper. I called out to the conductor who just raised his head but did not even bother to come over. I thought I was not audible enough to evoke others attention as the environment was very consumed with the loud rattling of the bus and gushing hot wind, but the people in the bus seemed to be too normalized with just incidents. Or they were too tired and sleepy to react. The third time he touched me I was only screaming to myself.
A few people got down and the seats beside us were vacant. He did not shift. Oh, why would he? I asked him to shift, he did not move, then the old man behind us asked him to shift in a sympathetic tone. Yes, he enjoyed all the sympathy. Reason being he was only a kid, presumed innocent and I was an overreacting dented city girl disturbing everyone with my shrill voice. What would be the fault of a kid after all? All those who were getting down at the respective stops did not go without having a look at me. What surprised me the most was that I was being scrutinized for no fault of mine.
When someone of your age or above your age abuses you, at least it is comprehendible. What had happened that day was beyond my cognizance. His age baffled me. I could not understand his capacity to develop such intentions at 16, in public, without a pinch of guilt or fear. To me he looked like an undisciplined, uncivilized delinquent ape living among humans. I still recall the incident over and over again with regret, thinking why I did not slap him or thrash his head to a poll. But, what would have happened if I reacted violently? The society would come to rescue the kid, the most desirable beloved male child of the country and reprimand me in turn.
Ours is the only nation where minors are constitutionally granted all impunity against law irrespective of the gravity of the offence. In developed counties like USA and U.K serious offences such as murder and rape are automatically tried in adult courts. Later, I got occupied with my life and seldom thought about this. But, the unpleasant reminiscence happens more often now after the unsatisfying verdict in the Delhi Nirbhaya case. The juvenile as he claims to be, was one who assaulted the girl the most with an iron rod and would get away with the lightest of punishments. Both the Delhi and Mumbai gang rape cases involve an under 18 in the accused list. Apparently, the popular conditioning is only throwing us into a self-chosen ignorance. Why can’t we see that in such instances the synergy between children and innocence is gradually fading away?
The point of debate actually constructs around what exactly should be optimum age of a juvenile? And what should be the optimum age that differentiates between a ‘child’ and an ‘adult’? Although legally, people under 18 are counted as children; according to general global parameters the age between 13 and 18 years is called ‘adolescence’. The period when one is neither as unacquainted as a small child nor as totally matured as an adult. There needs to be a special categorization of this group both scientifically and legally. The Supreme Court had rejected the plea to reduce the age of juvenile to 16 citing scientific studies which say that the cognitive ability of the brain continues to develop till the age of 18, to that matter there are also studies which show that this continues until the age of 22. But, it has also not accepted the need to bring reforms in the Juvenile Justice Act 2000. (JJ Act)
The philosophy that drives the Juvenile Board is — “No imprisonment for children” for any offence. The juveniles cannot be kept in the lock up, cannot be tried as adults but can only be remanded for three years in special homes. They can be kept at special homes only until they attain the age of 18 years, thereafter released on probation. There is visibly every guarantee that the juvenile would get arrested soon after release, but again we do not have any substantial evidence because the ‘child-centric’ Juvenile Justice Act prohibits maintaining judicial records of juvenile names and identities. This is very much against the interests of the society. So, the juvenile in the Delhi Gang Rape case will be released once he attains majority (18+). If an adult commits rape, it is his fault. But, if a minor commits rape, it is the society’s fault. Now, that is a biased argument. When it comes to shielding out women, girls and children from any kind of sexual abuse and violence, nobody should be pardoned, sending out a strong signal that there is no justification for rape, not even age! The courts shall not be lenient for outraging modesty even if the offender is a minor.
The antagonists of reforms in the Juvenile Act argue that there is a great misconception and exaggeration is saying that India is facing a threat from its children. They refer to the crime statistics in 2011 which shows that the rate of crime by children has gone up from 0.9% in 2000 to 2.1% in 2011. Unfortunately, this is only the hollow aspect of the entire issue. The following numbers speak volumes on the density of the persisting problem. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) conducted a survey, “Crimes in India-2011” and recorded an astonishing increase in number of rapes committed by juveniles from 399 in 2001 to 858 in 2010. “Crimes in India-2012” shows that 485 rapes in 2001 and 1149 rapes in 2011 were committed by minors. The reported rapes by minors were lover affairs or even instances of exploitatory sex. The number of under 18 boys caught with charges of rape in 2011 were 1200, murder-1100, kidnapping-500.
“17-year-olds take advantage of being juvenile”- Mumbai Joint Police Commissioner, Himanshu Roy.
The NGOs, communities and social workers who speak for child care are unconsciously providing a blanket cover and actually abetting juvenile offenders. Their argument of “see it from the child’s point of view”, itself attracts the need to introduce more deterrent laws. Before we term every juvenile offender as ‘socially handicapped’, is it not necessary to check facts especially when it involves offences against women and girls? It is hypocritical to stereotype every delinquent minor to be someone hailing from extremely impoverished background or someone without family or means of support. The boy I encountered in the bus was not living in poverty. He paid 200 bucks for the bus ticket, he possessed a Smartphone and was neatly dressed, polished enough to get deceived. He was not someone who has no adult guidance to instil values and ethics, he had acquired education too. But, what made him misbehave was that he is a product of the patriarchal social system where girls are considered to be just an accumulation of body parts.
No denying that scientifically it is not fair to try a young offender equivalent to an adult. It may be right not to keep juveniles with adults in lock-up as they may further get infiltrated with criminal thoughts. But, how far is the mere 3 years remand successful in reform and re-integrating them into the society? If someone gets remanded at the age of 17 years, he would not be able to complete the 3 years term itself owing to his age. How do you assess the mental ability of a youth who is 17 years and 6 months and the one who 18 years and 1 month old? The court could have counted the juvenile accused in Nirbhaya’s case as “socially handicapped” because he does not have a family and lived a vagabond life, but how do they answer this question. Can rapists be reformed? If the courts believe that rapists can be reformed then they should amend the law and increase the remand period depending on the gravity of the offence rather than a uniform 3 years. Obviously, it is foolish to prescribe the same medicine for all kinds of sickness.