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Catching them young

india Updated: Aug 31, 2007 00:49 IST
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The recent case of the kidnapping and murder of Adnan Patrawala, the 16-year-old son of a Mumbai-based businessman, has sent shock waves through civil society and the media. What seems to have shocked people is not only the nature of the offence and the age and social class of the victim, but also the fact that at least two of the accused also belong to the same age group as the victim’s and come from the middle class and that the kidnapping and murder seem to have been committed by persons known to the victim. There are some pertinent issues that arise from this case.

This is not the first time a crime of this nature has occurred. If one goes by the Crime in India figures (published by the National Crime Records Bureau), roughly 35 per cent of the arrested population for all crimes are youth in the age group of 18 to 30 years. This matches the trend the world over, as the commission of crime, by its very nature, requires taking undue risks, a certain reckless attitude, bravado, rebelliousness and energy levels that are usually associated with younger age groups. It may be pointed out here that while the media becomes interested in this issue only when there is a sensational angle to it, data indicates that the involvement of youth cuts across types of crimes committed and socio-economic background.

With society in transition, traditional forms of social control have weakened due to newer and individualistic family structures. This is leading to teenagers leading unsupervised lives at home. The experience of Prayas in working with youth offenders shows that a substantial number of these youth come from broken or conflict-ridden families. Most have not been able to complete their education beyond the tenth standard. In the case of those involved in property crimes, they are part of a peer culture that encourages ‘hanging out’ and late nights, which in turn has led them into criminal activities. In such a scenario, the crimes seem to have been triggered by a need to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle.

Indian society is changing from one whose accent was on assimilation and incorporation to one that separates and excludes, with a focus on individualism. Also, the line between the lifestyles of the potential victim and the offender is increasingly getting blurred, making it difficult for the law enforcement agencies to zero in on offending groups, based on their behaviour patterns. For instance, visiting pubs and beer bars, and being out on the streets or riding cars and bikes late into the night are activities which may now almost be considered ‘normal’ and, therefore, difficult for the police to single out as deviant behaviour.

Many of these youth suffer from a poor self-concept, which is a result of fractured or negative interactions with parents and family members, teachers and peers. This low self-esteem leads to reactive behaviour and formation of groups and gangs, and a consequent ‘acting out’, which could further propel them into crime. Today, the Internet generation’s interactions are less with ‘real people’ and more with people in cyber space leading to poor social skills. One increasingly finds the younger generation, particularly from the class that has access to the Internet, with poorer abilities to form and sustain positive social relationships.

The push and pull factors towards crime, such as peer influences, high-end lifestyle patterns, gizmos and the non-availability of healthy recreation avenues, open spaces and time for sports and hobbies, are playing a deciding role in this scenario. Many of the employment options today such as call centre and marketing jobs no longer provide a young person with a skill one can engage and grow with; the focus is purely on earning.

Timely preventive action needs to be taken if one wants to reverse this worrying trend. This action could be in terms of getting closer to young people, creating spaces for informal and formal counselling, focussing on the person’s talent or hobbies, finding ways to use leisure time in a constructive way or helping find employment with the help of persons to whom our youth feels a sense of loyalty.

Lastly, what needs to be pointed out here is that the reaction of the social audience, those who constitute the immediate social group of the youth, to certain behaviour and acts needs to be consistent. We condone or overlook lifestyle patterns until they go wrong and reach a point of social censure or arrest. This leaves the person confused, since the same behaviour, as long as it had not led to an act with negative consequences, was not taken seriously by the same set of persons who now express shock, disbelief and condemnation.

Vijay Raghavan is Assistant Professor, Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.