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Ryan School Murder: Who Is The Real Culprit – The Class 11 Student, Parents Or Society?

When Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”, she certainly wasn’t referring to the plight of the innumerable youngsters in the fast-paced, digital universe of the 21st century, but it seems to be an eerily self-fulfilling prophecy.

The murder of a young boy, studying in class 2, horrified the nation. Fast-forward to a shoddy investigation, followed by the CBI taking over. What came out was more shocking – the culprit was a class 11 student! Moreover, the gruesome crime was not out of childish anger or retribution, but done merely to postpone an exam and thereby avoid a parent-teacher meeting!

This raises a few fundamental questions.

Firstly, how tyrannical have the schools become, that students are willing to adopt such extreme measures to avoid academic failure? Stories of teenagers taking their lives, unable to cope with academic pressure, have become an everyday incident. I avoid the recounting of such tales, since I believe a simple Google search regarding the same would suffice.

Secondly, who is the real culprit? The teenager? Parents? Society? Or do we blame the overall circumstances that lead a person to such a harrowing psychological state, where he thinks that taking the life of another human being is ok?

The juvenile in question came from a broken family. The Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) report finds him to be witness to regular fights between his parents. His psychological test reports an average IQ with little interest in studies, which JJB attributed to the “hostile atmosphere at home”.  But, what is most interesting is the conflicting accounts of his teachers and neighbours.

While his teachers label him “highly aggressive” and “short-tempered” with a habit of picking fights on trivial issues, his neighbours, on the other hand, vouched that he was a “peaceful and calm” boy who was friendly and loving towards other children. Why such anomaly? Were the teachers adversely disposed, as they often are, towards academically weak students?

Children from families with conflict and animosity are prone to the risk of developing severe emotional, social and behavioural problems. Today’s nuclear family revolves around black LED screens (TV or mobile – take your pick), making this problem acuter. Such children tend to retract into a cocoon, dividing the world into ‘I’ and ‘them’. They interact with the outer world with the only emotions they know – anger, hatred, violence and resentment. There are indeed many ways to better such psychological issues – but is putting them away with actual, hardened criminals the only way?

To the uninformed, post Nirbhaya, the law was amended to allow juveniles between the age group of 16 and 18 years to be tried as “adults” for committing exceptional crimes of “heinous” nature. Despite Indian law being notorious for misuse and misinterpretation, no parameter was laid down to properly define “heinous” (except that it would constitute an offence punishable with at least seven years imprisonment), leaving it to be callously thrown around by a ‘selectively’ upright lower judiciary.

Then why do we – the “click-activism-friendly” middle class – rejoice that he will be tried not as a juvenile, but as an ‘adult’? That the State, instead of rehabilitating him, will punish him and push him further away from any hope of leading a normal life? The truth is, our jails lack reformatory and rehabilitation policies. We do not engage with inmates as human beings, flawed and hungry. Let us not begin to imagine what’ll happen to a 15-year-old down there.

Now some would point out that other developed countries like UK and USA allows minors to be treated at par with adults and there is no reason why we cannot do the same. The answer becomes clear when one takes a cursory glance at the social, cultural, economic and educational differences between the children “here and there”.

The abysmal level of education imparted, especially in government-run institutions, the caste-creed-religion and linguistically fragmented social backdrop,the deplorable material churned out by mainstream media (let us not pretend that we don’t get influenced by what we see) – have all contributed to creating a stark difference between the “mindsets”. Imagine two very busy working parents who compensate their physical and emotional absence with gadgets (“Turn on the TV, then he won’t create a fuss while eating!”). The children are left to fend for themselves emotionally. Add constant pressure and emotional blackmail to crack entrance exams whose success rate hovers below 1% (that’s IIT-JEE, for you) – you’re beginning to get the idea.

Should the juvenile wrongdoer be held responsible for their actions? Yes, of course. But doing so, ignoring social realities, will be a travesty of justice. It is argued that our laws do not act as proper deterrents to juveniles committing crimes. But have our overflowing and understaffed jails ever stood in the way of crime? As advocate Sanjay Hegde puts it, “Has Nirbhaya’s death necessitated such harsh laws to deal with India’s young people or have we elders failed our succeeding generations of youngsters by exposing them to adult penalties?”

On the other hand, a reformative approach will reduce the likelihood of these youngsters repeating their offences and allow them to be engulfed within the folds of society.

Let me end my homily by quoting Clarence Darrow, who, leading the defence in the Leopold and Loeb Case (one of the first cases of ‘thrill killing’) said, “Because somewhere in the infinite process that goes to the making of the boy or the man something slipped, and these … lads sit here hated, despised, outcast, with an entire community shouting for their blood.”

Let us ourselves behave like mature, understanding adults, before forcing someone else to do so.

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