The debate on the > Juvenile Justice Bill had been getting louder, with several developments unfolding in the horrific December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape case, till the Rajya Sabha finally passed it on Tuesday.
Ahead of release of ‘Raju’ (the name used to refer to the convict in this case, as the >Juvenile Justice Act does not permit the disclosure of the person’s identity), Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi had said that she would ask the authorities to keep a “close watch” on him after his release. She did not flinch when she said “there is nothing we can do about it until or unless he commits another crime”, indicating that she was sure he would commit a crime again.
No concrete action The case throws open several questions. Did Raju serve the order that he was given by the JJ Board? Yes. How effectively was the JJ Act implemented in this case to ensure its stated goals of reform, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society, and how closely did Ms. Gandhi’s team monitor his progress before deciding that he was sure to offend again? It is disappointing that nothing concrete by way of treatment, reform or rehabilitation was given to Raju for three years, but now the entire blame and responsibility for reform is being placed squarely on his shoulders.
So, what did Raju do in the almost three years that he was in the special home? According to some media reports, he learnt to cook, sew and paint. Does this mean he can be considered reformed and is ready to be reintegrated into society? Will he able to lead an independent life now? Who has evaluated him and what were the criteria according to which he was declared, according to some reports, ‘not reformed’? What is especially saddening is the breach of confidentiality by the counsellor, who declared that Raju showed “no remorse”. What would have been the acceptable display of remorse for us to believe that he is repentant? Also, was the counsellor’s role to record Raju’s expression of remorse or to enable Raju to understand the consequences of his actions and take responsibility for them? Is Raju’s non-reformation his fault or that of the state, which has not provided him with the support and services that he needs to be able to reform?
An important concern was raised by Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain. Mr. Jain said he was dissatisfied with the follow-up action, which required a plan that spread over two-three years post the release of the convict, prepared by the Rehabilitation Management Committee that was set up under the JJ Act for this purpose. Mr. Jain also said the juvenile’s mental health report was not available. Should Raju pay the price for being deprived of his liberty — which he is entitled to by the law — because the management committee did not submit a crucial part of the rehabilitation plan?
Whose responsibility is reform? Even as the public speculates that Raju is a “monster and a beast” who unleashed his animal instincts on a hapless victim, what can we assume about the mental health status of a 17-and-a-half-year-old who has been witness to, and participated in, a violent gang rape? Has he been helped by the JJ system in understanding the consequences of his behaviour on his own life as well as the victim and her family’s? What led him to get involved in such a brutal act in the first place? Was he ever assessed or treated for any mental illness by child psychiatrists? What is his psychological background in terms of exposure to sexual or violent acts in his own life that perhaps led to his becoming a willing accomplice in this act? And more disturbingly, how many more such children in need of care and protection are living lives of quiet desperation in a society in which the state pays little attention to their health, education, family, or moral development till they commit a crime that grabs national headlines?
An emotionally disturbed young person such as Raju would need a comprehensive and long-term mental health plan. This would include services such as psychiatric assessment and intervention, intensive therapy and counselling services, day-to-day supervision, monitoring and modelling of positive and socially appropriate behaviour, and life skills education. He would also need support from mental health professionals and support systems to help him learn the skills necessary to live in community after a long period of isolation.
The media has been full of reports that Raju has not been reformed, and worse, according to the Intelligence Bureau, he may have been radicalised by another juvenile charged with involvement in terrorist activities and may even join some extremist group. His stay at the special home was meant to provide him with access to measures that would enable him to take responsibility for his actions and become a responsible citizen. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that juveniles are rehabilitated and not radicalised while in state custody?
And what about the victim’s family? Have the girl’s family members been offered counselling support to help deal with the tragedy? What about the girl’s friend, who was a witness to the act? The constant media glare that they have been subjected to may have probably delayed or obstructed rather than enabled their healing. One wonders whether the family has even been allowed the privacy to grieve not only their daughter’s death but the loss of a life as they knew it. Has the state even explored the possibility of a restorative justice approach rather than the retributive model that has been presented as the only one that will ensure justice for the girl and her family?
As for Raju, what options does he really have? Like many other young persons who don’t have the skills or the means to find employment, Raju may be unable to find legal and dignified means to earn a living. The relentless media attention, public shaming, and social exclusion over the last three years may have most certainly had a huge impact on his mental health. He may be acutely aware that when he is released from the special home, he won’t have friends and family members welcoming him home. What he will be going back to will be state surveillance despite having served his legal time, threats of vigilante justice, social exclusion and poverty.
For those of us who believe that Raju has been ‘let off leniently’ and is going to ‘walk free’ again, please think again. Is he really going to ‘walk free’ ever again?
(Kalpana Purushothaman is a Bengaluru-based senior counselling psychologist and researcher working with children in conflict with the law. )