Summer afternoons are a sleepy time in Bhosari. It’s when the small, industrial town 14 km north of Pune, in western Maharashtra, begins to shield itself from the sun — housewives retreat indoors, shopkeepers nap inside dozens of unassuming general stores, dust rises from the sites of buildings under construction and on the narrow streets, children traipse home from school.
On the afternoon of March 31, 15-year-old Shubham Shirke was at home, looking after his grandmother and playing with Sujan, his six-year-old brother. His Class 10 exams had ended three days before, and he was looking forward to a long vacation, studying software engineering in a good college and migrating, like one of his uncles, to the US.
Shubham’s father, Mahadev, an automobile engineer in one of Bhosari’s many industrial companies, was busy at work, 45 minutes away from his son. At 2 pm, his mother Sunita, a finance manager in another company, called him from her office. It was her regular afternoon call to check on the kids, and she asked her usual questions: “What are you doing? Is Sujan okay? Did you eat your lunch?”
That was the last time Sunita would ever hear her son’s voice.
At 2.30 pm, Shubham’s cell phone rang again. It was a boy from the town, a former classmate who was rusticated from Class 9, calling from under Shubham’s first-floor balcony, asking for help with his computer. Shubham was friendly and tech-savvy, and, telling his grandmother that he was going downstairs for a while, stepped out of the house. What followed was a gruesome case of abduction and murder that catapulted the Shirkes’ trauma, the unknown town of Bhosari and the horror of juvenile crime to the headlines.
Shubham was kidnapped and strangled to death by Amit Nair, 19, and two 15-year-old boys — one of them his former classmate — for a ransom of Rs 50,000, say the police. The police say the minors told them they were inspired by villains on the TV show CID, that they wanted the money to “enjoy a party” and that murder was always a part of their plan. So far, they have expressed no remorse for their act, say the police.
Shubham’s killing is not an isolated case of urban youth turning to violence. In the past few years, Indian cities and emerging commercial towns have seen a spate of assaults, abductions and murders committed by juveniles and young adults. The latest incident occurred two days ago in New Delhi, when 23-year-old engineer Johny Gupta was kidnapped and strangled to death by a friend and two acquaintances, for a ransom of Rs 1 crore. In most cases, the goal has been to make a quick buck; young offenders don’t mind using unlawful means to acquire it.
What is it about urbanisation, a hyper-consumerist culture and a sensationalist media that is turning some Indian youths into criminals? Is it merely a case of parenting gone wrong or is it the way our society is changing?
“In an open-market economy with consumer goods pouring in, rising economic disparities are making moral lines disappear,” says Sharit Bhowmik, a sociologist from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who believes India’s urban situation today manifests what French sociologist Émile Durkheim called ‘anomie’ — a condition of social normlessness in which the end becomes more important than the means. “The young emulate what they see. A lot of the business and land dealings in the market today are not legal.”
In Bhosari, where the Shirkes had lived for nearly two decades, people were growing familiar with normlessness. With the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation setting up more auto, metal and plastic industries in the past decade, Bhosari began attracting more migrants and the population grew. “Gundagardi — petty thefts and kidnapping — has increased there after real estate prices boomed and the land mafia was born,” says Sudhir Nikam, 35, Shubham’s maternal uncle and a mechanical engineer based in Pune’s well-to-do Kalyani Nagar. In fact, Shubham’s parents were planning to move to their flat in Pune next month. “They were feeling unsafe because of all the crimes,” says Nikam.
Paul Braganza, a Class 11 student of Shubham’s Priyadarshini English School, remembers a time when Bhosari was a village and he had to walk to a neighbouring town to fetch water from a hand pump. “Now, there are buildings everywhere, and every young boy wants money for cell phones, bikes and city malls,” says Braganza, 16.
Not every such young boy in urbanising India, however, turns to crime. What is it that makes some do?
In Bhosari, two of the teens who killed Shubham came from lower socio-economic conditions. The third — the 15-year-old son of a local builder who was allegedly the mastermind of the plan — was “notorious”, according to Shubham’s school mates, for thefts and violence: the police claim he was rusticated from Class 9 after he hit a younger boy.
“Neglected children and those from broken homes try to overcome their insecurities by looking for peer support,” says psychiatrist Sameer Malhotra. “They tend to lack impulse control.”
Sitting amidst grieving relatives in the Shirke home, with Sunita wailing in another room, Nikam agrees. “If the town had reported the minor’s abusive tendencies earlier, maybe our boy would still be alive,” he says.
‘Our cities have become risk societies’
Our cities have become what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls a “risk society”, in which anyone can take calculative risks in order to fulfil their needs. Such risks are a part of modern, corporate culture; there is plenty of wealth being made in such societies, and everyone wants to make big money quickly.
Pleasure-seeking youth do not often discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate — the idea is to manage the risks on the way. But in cities where large populations are pushed together for the creation of wealth, what can we expect?
We must not create mega-cities without the proper institutional means to control crime.
‘We need responsible consumption’
We rave about consumerism and desire in small towns, but if you actually observe the small towns developing, you see that crime is the other side of youngistan. Why do we separate the two sides? Desire is not spontaneous — it becomes very systematic and we plan for it. We need to tell our youth that it is fine to fulfil desires legitimately, but we are sending out the wrong message.
In a consumerist world, why can’t we have responsible consumerism portrayed in advertisements? Today parents, too, go wrong — they give children love and money, but not enough attention. But if the family is more in control, then urbanisation is not so much of a problem.
‘The lack of control points to a frustrated society’
Dr Jitendra Nagpal
Psychiatrist, New Delhi
Ibelieve young people are going through an existential crisis today: With economic disparities rising, they are under great pressure to make successful lives and careers, and if they don’t find easy answers, they can turn to unlawful activities.
I have seen teens as young as 14 and 15 years old indulging in violence and aggression and high-risk behaviour in order to feel a sense of victory. The fear of authority is no longer a deterrent for them.
I’ve seen cases in which youth have no empathy after cyber-bullying or ragging, and completely ignore the consequences of their actions. This lack of impulse control is remarkable evidence of a frustrated society.
‘Parents need to monitor exposure to violence’
Juvenile Justice Board member
Violence and negativity are prevalent all around us — in homes, on TV, in cartoons and the media. Exposure to such violence may not necessarily make every child violent, but it can make them more accepting of violence and give them a feeling that violence can be a legitimate way to sort out issues. As adults we have to take [responsibility] for this.
Moreover, development that is not inclusive or has vested interests has its downfall. Due to the lack of enough spaces for children to engage in wholesome recreational activities, entertainment has become the new mantra for fun. And entertainment does not come cheap. Children link happiness to buying a product, and success is measured in terms of the goodies one has accumulated.
Parents need to spend time regularly with children. Children then feel emotionally secure and confident and are able to share their aspirations and anxieties with parents. For adults, it becomes easier to monitor and pick up cues of anything out of the ordinary that the child may be doing. Youth who feel good about themselves and their potential for success do not usually engage in inappropriate behaviour.
Outside the home, if we are able to sponsor the education of children or training of youth who do not have as much, it will surely prevent many disadvantaged children from ending up as so-called “juveniles in conflict with law.” A happy school-going child growing up in an atmosphere of care and having equitable access to society’s resources will rarely get into crime.