By Urvashi Prasad:
A few days ago, three boys, aged 9, 12 and 14, reportedly raped and sodomised a 7-year-old girl. They took her to a park on the pretext of plucking mangoes and after committing the heinous act warned her not to tell anyone about what had happened. What shocked me when I read about this incident was not just the fact that these “children” had committed rape (which is evil enough), but also the manner in which they had developed a clever scheme to lure the little girl and subsequently threaten her. The latter is clearly indicative of their ability to be cognizant of the fact that what they were doing was wrong. Considering that we have been hearing of episodes like this since years, re-examining the Juvenile Justice Act is a long overdue and much needed step.
The Women and Child Development Minister, Ms. Maneka Gandhi, recently suggested that the existing law which fixes a maximum punishment of 3 years in a correctional home for any individual below the age of 18 years, needs to be revised to 16 years. She supported her position by citing police statistics according to which 16-year-olds who are well aware of the provisions of the current law are involved with nearly 50% of all sexual crimes. Her statement was welcomed by many, including the family of the Delhi girl who bravely fought her most vicious assailants (including a 17-year-old juvenile) on the night of December 16, 2012. However, many human rights groups, child activists and NGOs have opposed the Minister’s viewpoint. The reasons they cite range from biological (incomplete development of the human brain by the age of 16 years) to socio-economic (young criminals often belong to poor households and are not well educated). Clearly this is a complex issue with strong arguments both for and against a possible reform. However, no matter which side of the fence one is on, a few critical issues need to be kept in mind.
Firstly, we must remember that the primary purpose of law is to ensure that there is justice for those who suffer at the hands of ruthless criminals. Reforming the criminal is an important (some would say utopian) thought, but as far as I am concerned, it is definitely a secondary consideration. Many activists argue that this issue needs to be looked at “dispassionately”. According to me when a little girl is raped in the most brutal fashion and is left to die or live with psychological and emotional scars forever, it is difficult to remain dispassionate. Perhaps those who feature regularly on television panels and make self-righteous comments about possibly every issue in the country can remain detached but for an ordinary human being who hears about these gut wrenching cases day in and day out, I certainly cannot. Law is incapable of reversing the damage that is done to a young girl who is raped but the very least it can do is to ensure justice for her and her family.
Secondly, reforming juveniles is a wonderful idea in theory but the reality is that our juvenile homes are ill equipped to do so. Not only are the facilities suboptimal, several juveniles escape from these homes and commit other, often more serious, crimes. In one incident, a juvenile raped a 23-year-old woman just two weeks after he had been put in remand for molestation. He also filmed the incident and blackmailed the woman and her friend by threatening to make the clip public. If reforming juveniles is to even come close to becoming a reality, the quality and capacity of these homes needs urgent and sustained attention.
Thirdly, it is important to recognise that juveniles are not a homogenous group. The crimes they commit are also far from homogenous. If most juveniles were committing thefts of food or bicycles, for instance, there would perhaps be no doubt in anyone’s mind that they need to be helped more than punished. Interestingly the original Juvenile Justice Act does not even refer to rape or murder. Possibly those who were writing the document never conceived that a juvenile could be capable of committing premeditated acts of violence. But we know very well that nothing could be farther from the reality. We cannot let juveniles who are a few months or days shy of turning 18 years (assuming that the birth records are accurate) get away with rape and murder. When a juvenile commits the most violent crime in the most cold-blooded manner possible, it definitely merits a serious punishment. It is also vital to note that a number of juveniles come up with deceptive schemes for luring unsuspecting victims. It takes a lot to rape or murder another human being and if someone is capable of doing that, there can be no excuse for letting him or her off the hook on the basis of age alone.
In fact, even police officers and managers of juvenile homes (whose voices are rarely heard) believe that it is critical to segregate juveniles on the basis of the nature of crimes they commit and whether or not they are repeat offenders. In the absence of this, a minority of juveniles who are well aware of the fact that they can get away even with murder so long as they are under 18 years, will continue to abuse the law.
After the Mumbai gang rape, an activist was quoted as saying that we need to be kinder as a society to children. I cannot disagree with that. But we also need to be fair and empathetic to sufferers and survivors of violent crimes. Of course children have human rights. But so do those who are raped and murdered. In fact, it is they whose rights to freedom, dignity and life are snatched away. We need to relook at the law urgently and ensure that it is fair not only to children but also to those who fall prey to crime. And ultimately we need to remember that laws are only as good as their implementation. In a country where the conviction rate is abysmally low and it takes years, often decades to get justice, simply reforming a law will never be enough. It is an important first step, however, and I hope that it will happen before the next incident of a violent crime by a juvenile, hits the headlines.