Does he deserve another chance?

File picture of a rally in New Delhi after the incident in December 2012. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

It was a crime that wrenched the nation. In the winter of 2012, an adolescent along with his older friends brutally raped a young woman in Delhi. He will now be discharged on December 21, 2015, after completing three years in a “special home” for juvenile offenders. The country is profoundly divided over whether this young man, now an adult, deserves another chance in life.

Harsh Mander
The law is clear that he does. After 1986, child offenders in India lawfully can neither be housed with adults in adult jails nor tried by adult courts. Instead, they must appear before juvenile boards that include trained social workers. The boards have many options if they conclude that the child has indeed acted against the law. They may admonish or counsel him, order community service, or require his detention in a special home for a maximum of three years.

In the past, when children were jailed with adult criminals (and they sometimes continue to be even today, illegally), what they learned in prison was crime, and they often emerged as criminals. Today, humane law is founded in the hope that the juvenile home will teach, counsel the child to grow into a responsible adult. The conviction is that every child, even one who has caused grave harm, deserves one more chance. The media is accordingly barred from publicising the child’s identity and the law requires that when he/she leaves the special home, he/she carries no criminal record into his/her adulthood.

The minister responsible for administering this statute, however, is unconvinced that it serves the ends of justice. Maneka Gandhi informed PTI recently that she would direct authorities to keep a “close watch” on the youth after his discharge. “We can’t just let him go and wait for him to do something else again…,” she declared. She clearly has little faith in the possibility of his authentic reform or that a boy’s criminal record should not follow him after he becomes an adult.

His prospects plummeted further after the claim by the country’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) that he could have been radicalised during his detention. I cannot understand what public good was served by the IB publicly announcing its speculation about the boy. The redoubtable Subramanian Swamy had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi some months earlier alleging that the juvenile rapist had now become a jihadi. The IB alleged, according to a report in Midday, that the youth has been brainwashed by a Kashmiri youth, who had motivated him to join jihad in Kashmir after his discharge. The IB official said that it could not reveal its sources. The report added that the Union Home Ministry consequently ordered his counselling for ‘de-radicalisation’, and quoted an official as saying: “We will review his case… If it is found that he is completely de-radicalised, he will be released.” But legally, the right to decide on whether or not to discharge him rests with the Juvenile Justice Board. The only way the IB could prevent his freedom would be if it arrests him after his release and where he is charged as a radicalised, adult terrorist sympathiser.

The mass of public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to the youth. A readers’ poll conducted by Hindustan Times asked: “Does he deserve a fair chance in life now?” An overwhelming 89 per cent were convinced that he does not. Only 8 per cent agreed. Is this surprising when the police first claimed that he was the cruellest among the rapists, leading one newsmagazine to describe him in a cover story as “India’s Most Hated”? Later evidence proved this claim to be false but the damage done was irreversible. And now the IB puts out for public consumption speculation about his Muslim identity and linking this to prejudices of terror sympathies. This makes him both an unrepentant rapist and a jihadi.

Contrast this with the humane statements of the staff in the special home that housed the youth. A welfare officer observed approvingly to Hindustan Times that the boy is “a changed person, and the home’s most disciplined inmate. He has turned religious, growing a beard and offering namaz five times a day.” He fasted during Ramzan, and prepared the Iftar meal to break the Ramzan fast for other friends in the home. He reported that he loves to cook.

To escape intense violence and penury, this boy had abandoned his village in Uttar Pradesh nearly a decade earlier. On the mean streets of Delhi, he encountered men who taught him more brutality and hate. His years in Delhi’s special home proved very different. Here he learnt to cook and paint, to control his anger and to pray. Most still believe that once free, he will inevitably slip into crime again. If our government is to be believed, the crimes could be of terror.

Are we convinced that he does not deserve another chance?

The views expressed here are personal.

Harsh Mander is a human rights worker, writer and teacher

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 3:24:09 AM |

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