In India, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds suspected of heinous crimes can now be tried as adults, due to the amendment of the country’s juvenile delinquency law, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, which took effect on January 15.
Many experts and child rights activists assert that through this amendment the government has veered away from the goals of reformation and rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents.
The act was passed by Parliament, the supreme legislative body in the country, on December 22, 2015 and signed by President Pranab Mukherjee on December 31, amid heated debate and protests.
It runs contrary to the earlier Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, which took a reformative approach toward those under 18 irrespective of the severity of their crime. That law was passed in compliance with the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which considers individuals below the age of 18 as children.
Thus, the amended law marks a paradigm change in the way minors in violation of the law are treated in India – the world’s second most populous country with more than 1.2 billion people.
“This bill marks a fundamental shift in jurisprudence where, for the first time, there is an emphasis on the offense rather than the offender,” children’s rights activist Anant Asthana said in an interview. “The provisions of the bill are very poorly conceived and do not adhere to the basic principles of justice.”
“It is a terrible act,” said senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves.“It is based on a lie told by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi – that juvenile crimes have gone up exponentially.”
When the bill was being discussed in Parliament, the legislators cited statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to show that juvenile crime was on the rise. This argument, experts say, is misleading. The NCRB data shows that juvenile crime increased by only 0.9 percent since 2003. Also, a parliamentary committee, to which the bill was referred, pointed out that the data was based on the number of police reports filed and not actual convictions. The legislation was passed despite the committee’s reservations about the validity of the data.
By emphasizing punishment of juveniles rather than the stated constitutional objective of all juvenile laws, which is care and protection, the new law violates the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Experts also cite neurological science studies showing that the frontal lobe – responsible for decision-making – is not fully developed in teenagers; hence it is unfair to expect them to have adult-level decision-making skills.
Many of these objections were raised in a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court against the new law. The Supreme Court, which has the power to review legislative enactments of Parliament if they are not in accordance to constitutional provisions, declined to hear the petition as the new law “may be challenged by somebody who is convicted or affected by the new legislation.”
Leaders in the opposition also voiced their objections to the bill before its passage. During a discussion in Parliament, opposition member Shashi Tharoor gave a speech, in which he said, “What does justice seek to achieve? Does the state exercise its punitive powers in order to be vengeful …Or do we hope to use the justice mechanism as a corrective method, to wean people from error and to rehabilitate the young? This question is all the more necessary in the case of children who commit crimes because they are often not sufficiently mentally or emotionally developed to understand the gravity of their wrongdoing. Are we, as a society, now wanting to take revenge on children?”
The momentum behind this change stems from 2012, when a physiotherapy student was brutally tortured and raped on a moving bus in the nation’s capital of Delhi and died from the attack two weeks later. This incident sent shockwaves through the nation and sparked widespread protests.
Six men were arrested. Five of them were adults, aged 19 to 33, while the sixth was a juvenile. Four of them were sentenced to death for the crime while one convict hanged himself in jail. The sixth, who was a few months short of 18 when the incident took place, was tried in a juvenile court and set free after a three-year sentence in a reform home. The public outrage at his release prompted lawmakers to review the issue of teenage crime.
The parents of the rape and torture victim played a large role in demanding a change in the law, and the mother expressed her satisfaction with the legal change in interviews with news media. The new act will not affect the juvenile who was convicted in that case, however.
“I am satisfied that the bill has been passed, and other young girls will get justice,” she told India Today. “But I am sad that my daughter did not get justice.”
“We may not be able to do anything about the juvenile convict in this case, but we can deter many other boys from doing the same,” said Maneka Gandhi, making a strong pitch for the bill in Parliament.
Many questions remain about the larger impact of the legislation in India and what it means for juvenile justice on a global level.
Arundhati Chakravarty is a copy editor for The Indian Express, an English-language newspaper in New Delhi, India. She wrote this story for the Journalism for Social Change massive open online course.