Let’s Talk About Teenage Violence: Behind every serious crime, there’s a track record of petty crime that has gone unchecked

Those who have transgressed can be brought back to the mainstream by a systematic and compassionate enforcement of the law.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2018 07:55 IST
Teen Violence,Juveniles,Juvenile Crime
Teenagers have diversified into contemporary violent and serious crimes, the latest instance of which was the anti-Padmaavat protesters pelting stones at a bus full of school kids in the Delhi-National Capital Region.(ILLUSTRATION: MALAY KARMAKAR)

Like every concerned citizen of a civilised society, I am worried about the increase in juvenile crime, both nationally and globally. It is all the more disturbing to me because I find the Indian police unable to cope with the increase. Our organisation, Prayas, deals with a huge number of children involved in crime.

There are several obvious reasons for the rise, which transcends socio-economic boundaries. Besides poverty, ignorance, breakdown of traditional values and the tendency to defy norms, one major factor contributing to teenage crime is something very crucial, which is being missed by most agencies. Behind every adult crime and serious juvenile crime, there is invariably a track record of petty crime that has gone unchecked.

The growing phenomenon of teenage violence may include delinquent aggression, petty revolts and stone-pelting to heinous crimes such as murder, rape, riots and even taking to arms as insurgents and participating in ‘fidayeen’ attacks. The phenomenon is called juveniles in conflict with law within the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act 2015.

They are to be given differential treatment under Indian law despite the emotion-driven 2015 changes in the juvenile justice act which permit children in the 16-to-18 age group to be tried as adults. The change came about because of the public outrage caused by the December 2012 rape and murder of a young student in Delhi by a group of men who included a juvenile. Recent incidents of a teenager slitting the throat of a younger child to put off an examination and another boy killing a principal have caused huge concern about teenage crime.

I recall my five-year tenure in the violent 1980’s as Dy. Commissioner of Police, Crime, in Delhi when besides unprecedented riots, bomb blasts, assassinations and other crimes, heroin entered Delhi and its use spread rapidly among the young. We conducted a study on 5,834 drug addicts arrested as pedlars and most of them were young.

Teenagers have diversified into contemporary violent and serious crimes, the latest instance of which was the anti-Padmaavat protesters pelting stones at a bus full of school kids in the Delhi-National Capital Region.

There is a running thread of continuity and similarity from the stone pelters of Kashmir whom I met recently, to the rural and semi-urban teenagers of Bihar, Assam and Jharkhand, the last one representing the unusual ‘Jaamtara’ delinquent children who have swindled banks through their Internet ingenuity. Teenage crime is changing with times; juveniles are now turning to more dangerous, violent and tech-savvy crimes.

Our socio-economic profile and disturbing human development indicators — with half of India’s 1.3 billion people deep in poverty, half the children who constitute 40% of India’s population never being able to reach school or dropping out, 20 million of them being orphans or without family care — are already threatening to convert our demographic dividend into a demographic disaster.

Decidedly, 2.5 million Indian policemen, their hands already full with daily law-and-order duties and routine crimes, coupled with regulatory and VIP functions to serve the privileged and powerful, are bound to be confronted by a crisis unless they change their approach and job profiles to accommodate the youth.

No more can the Indian police consider service-oriented community policing aimed at children, women and youth as peripheral to their traditional, hard-boiled, force-driven role.

Personally, I have had many opportunities to interact with thousands of so-called juveniles as a policeman and at Prayas homes ( Prayas runs 47 homes and shelters among 200+ Centres in nine states/ UTs) which has looked after nearly 14,000 “children in conflict with law” or in “need of care and protection”.

I found the juvenile involved in the December 2012 rape-murder of the Delhi student to be extremely withdrawn and reticent. Hundreds of children in serious crimes rehabilitated within juvenile homes and the Delhi Police ‘Yuva Connect’ program are leading perfectly dignified lives. Two of them, an advocate and a manager in a business house, appeared on national TV channels with me recently to narrate their stories. They could well be role models for youthful offenders who want to reform.

From my long and direct experience with teenage crime and juvenile delinquency, a common factor appears to be that the offenders, being highly impressionable, are easily swayed by malevolent influences.

Whether at home under weak guardianship and adverse family circumstances or in schools and institutions under inept and inefficient teachers and caretakers, such young vulnerable people tend to get carried away. The breakdown of Indian family norms due to poverty or parental neglect and an indisciplined school system that is unable to rein in teenagers who are heavily influenced by the media and the evil underbelly of the internet tends to encourage juvenile behaviour that could eventually turn criminal.

But our undying optimism still prompts people like me to think that all is not lost, and there are strong reasons to be hopeful. In India, where children make up 40% of the total population, around 35,000 to 40,000 juvenile crimes are committed annually, of which only 4,000 to 5,000 could be deemed serious offences. Indian teenagers are far more resilient and even obedient compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the world, In the US, an extremely violent society, teenagers commit over 1.2 million crimes.

I am not only hopeful but absolutely certain that given our positive cultural moorings and the present dimensions of the problems, we can definitely stem the tide and correct the situation while we look after our teenagers as responsible families and institutions. Those who have transgressed the law can be brought back to the mainstream by a systematic and compassionate enforcement of the law.

The author is former DGP and Founder General Secretary, Prayas

First Published: Mar 23, 2018 07:45 IST