Mumbai’s Juvenile Justice Board has packed off the two underage rapists of a photojournalist and a telephone operator at Shakti Mills to three years in a reformatory school to learn ‘good behaviour’. The two young men were part of a group of five repeat offenders. So grave was their crime that the three adults have received death sentences for the same offence.
Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi’s view that juveniles who commit crimes like rape and murder must be treated at par with adults coincides not just with the Shakti Mills judgment but also a Supreme Court observation that there cannot be ‘blanket immunity’ for underage offenders of serious crimes.
Gandhi’s ministry has prepared a draft to replace the existing Juvenile Justice Act, a move that has been opposed by child and women rights activists, many of whom work closely with victims of those terrible crimes.
The debate for and against lowering the age of juveniles convicted of heinous crimes has raged ever since six men, one of them a 17-year-old, gang-raped and subsequently killed a medical student in December 2012. It is often couched in emotional terms and the prevailing public sentiment seems to be: If you’re old enough to rape, then you’re old enough to face the consequences.
But at the heart of the issue — to lower the age of juveniles or not — lies a fundamental philosophical difference: The purpose of justice. To those who argue for the lowering of age, justice means retribution and punishment. This, they argue, is the only way of granting traumatised victims a measure of closure.
Those who want the status quo to be maintained believe in justice as reformation, particularly in the case of underage offenders. They believe that younger minds can be changed and rehabilitated. They believe that throwing 16-year-old offenders into jail with hardened criminals will only place them beyond the pale of reform.
To listen to the first side would leave you with the impression of a rampaging mob of 16 to 18 year olds. Maneka Gandhi says ‘50% of all sexual crimes are committed by 16-year-olds’. If she had looked at National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures for 2013, she would have known that juveniles accounted for 1.2% of all crimes under the Indian Penal Code, and 3.4% of the total 1.17 lakh sexual crimes against women.
Yet, undeniably, the number of underage arrests has been going up. In 2013, there was a 60% increase in rapes committed by juveniles, from 1,316 in 2012 to 2,074 in 2013. Two of every three rapes by juveniles in 2013 were by those in the age group 16 to 18.
Even those who want the juvenile age lowered, stress that this must only be for crimes like rape, acid attacks and murder with exemption from both death sentences and life imprisonment. After a dramatic increase in violent juvenile offences in the United States in the early 1990s, new legislation allowed for some to be tried by criminal courts. Today, as many as 23 American states have no minimum age for the transfer of juveniles to adult courts.
I have argued previously in this column that an insistence on 18 as the cut-off age for juveniles is out of touch with social reality where serious underage offences are on the rise.
But the grim reality is that crimes against women by juveniles and adults alike have shot up. Partly the statistics reflect increased reporting — women are less willing to remain silent. But partly this is due to a culture of impunity that we have allowed to flourish, despite tougher laws. When an elected member of Parliament can threaten to rape political rivals and get away with barely a rap on his knuckles he sends a message that rape as retribution is acceptable and offenders have the protection of the State.
Lowering the age of juveniles will take into account the reality of a changed India where crimes against women are on the rise. It will not, however, stop them unless we first create an environment of zero-tolerance.
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal