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Loss of innocence

Juvenile offenders should be treated with compassion. The law should not be punitive but humane and compassionate, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Jul 24, 2007 00:40 IST

It was a devastating fury that raged through the young boy’s heart. It died down almost as quickly as it rose, but it was too late. By then it had already destroyed many lives. A 14-year-old domestic help working in Mumbai was so infuriated one afternoon by the obdurate refusal of his employer to pay him his accumulated wages that he impetuously picked up an iron vessel in the kitchen and smashed it on her head repeatedly. She screamed, bleeding profusely, struggled briefly, then crumpled on to the kitchen floor, motionless.

More frightened than he had ever been in his life, the boy ran out of the flat to the nearest bus stop. It was deserted. As he crouched in a corner, weeping inconsolably, the terrifying reality began to slowly seep in. He had gravely wounded a woman of means. He was absolutely alone in a strange city, with no relatives or friends to whom he could go for shelter or advice, to suggest to him a way out of his sudden horrific predicament.

His heart heaved, as he desperately missed his parents, their thatched hut, his village in Jharkhand and even their poverty. It was a dreadful mistake. He should never have come to Mumbai in the first place, however hard life was back at home. His only chance now was to return to his village, before the police discovered his crime.

But Rahul had no money, therefore he could not board a bus. Instead, he alternately ran and walked as fast as he could, breathless and panting, his heart beating against his breast, to the train station. There were barely minutes left for the train to depart, when a police inspector identified him, and he was bundled into a jeep and driven to the police station. The petrified boy put up no resistance, and told them truthfully all that had happened. “The sethani is dead. You will have to go to jail,” they told him. “You have destroyed your life. There is nothing that anyone can do for you.”

He lay that night on the floor of the lock-up of the police station, in a restless, fitful, troubled sleep. The next morning, he was presented before a court. The magistrate did not ask Rahul his age, although he was clearly a minor. A month after his police remand, the magistrate ordered his transfer to Arthur Road Jail, Mumbai.

Rahul was placed in what prisoners and jailors alike termed as the ‘Baba Barrack’, or the ‘Children’s Ward’ of the prison. Indian penal law, reiterated by repeated court judgments, firmly debars the incarceration in jails of children below the age of 18. The irony of barracks explicitly reserved for children despite the severe strictures of the law, escaped the latest entrant to it of the most populous jail in India’s wealthiest and largest metropolis.

There were nearly 250 boys and very young men in the dormitory, ranging from the ages of 14 to some who were just over 20. There was only a frayed durrie on the floor to sleep, with no sheets to cover themselves. The inmates were given only one bottle of water every morning and evening. They were given no plates and glasses to eat and drink out of, and were forced collect the daily fare on their palms.

Four months later, Rahul was transferred to the Nashik district jail. The facilities were better, the jailors more considerate. One social worker collected names of undertrial prisoners who were clearly under-age like Rahul, and advised them to ask their families to send their school certificates. Rahul wrote home to his school teacher in his village, who sent his school certificate.

There was a doctor at the Nashik jail serving a life sentence. He liked best to gather the children in the prison each day, and teach them from a few textbooks that the jailor collected for him. The jail also had a computer room, and drawing classes. For the first time in many months, Rahul was able to push aside his despair, by immersing himself in the joy of learning. Brothers from the Don Bosco Church began formal classes, including English. Rahul decided to apply for admission in class 10 open school.

His hearings commenced eight months later. By then the doctor in the Nashik jail had coached him well, and before the proceedings in the sessions court could begin, Rahul protested to the judge that he was under-age. The judge looked at him in surprise, then asked if he could prove his age. Rahul showed him his school certificate. The judge agreed that Rahul be shifted to an observation home meant for children in conflict with the law.

In popular parlance in Mumbai, these homes are called ‘chillar homes’, chillar meaning ‘small change’. The home housed no adult prisoners, but otherwise Rahul found it in far worse condition than the Nashik jail. Drugs, smuggled in with the food, were rampant and many of the runaways who were housed in the home were addicted to a variety of substances. The boys spent the whole day cleaning, cooking or idling, and unlike in Nashik, there were no arrangements for studies or recreation, except watching black-and-white TV programmes.

Rahul met a legal aid lawyer, Yug Chaudhari, who appeared for Rahul in the juvenile court. The lawyer argued that even though the boy had taken the life of another, he was too young under the law to be held criminally responsible for his actions. The law should not be punitive but humane and compassionate. It should measure its success not by incarcerating Rahul, but by whether Rahul grows up into a productive, law-abiding citizen. He argued that Rahul had clearly manifested a desire to improve himself via education, and that his guilty plea was a clear indication of his penitence. So the twin objectives of punishment had been achieved.

The magistrate compassionately agreed to place Rahul as an experiment for the first time with Saathi, a voluntary organisation working with streetchildren in Mumbai. His lawyer was triumphant, because it was rare for a judge to agree to set free a boy charged with murder, although this humane course was indeed open under the law.

Rahul found the atmosphere in the streetchildren shelter welcoming, even though the facilities were austere. He made friends with the other inmates. He asked for a tutor to assist him in his further studies. He spent five hours a day, making carrybags out of newspapers, earning Rs 1,350 per month. The rest of the day was devoted to studies.

Looking back on his short but turbulent life, Rahul has two major regrets: leaving his home and killing his employer. “I was too young to understand,” he said. In his years in Mumbai, he "learnt good and bad ways, met good and bad people”. He wants to keep studying, especially computers. But in the end, he wants to return to his village. “I will live there the rest of my life,” he affirms. “I do miss my village a lot."

His is a life saved. Because, for once, the law cared.

Harsh Mander is Convenor, Aman Biradari.