When the judgment in the Nirbhaya rape case came out, there was a huge uproar among the masses and the media over the sentence given to the minor involved in the case. The boy who was referred to as “nabalig" along the course of the trial was the one accused of committing the most gruesome acts in the events that took place on that fateful December night.
His actions were such that shocked the nation and people involved in the case beyond belief. The public outrage following the trial was a result of the court’s decision to send the boy to a juvenile home for only 27 months, the reason being the boy’s status of a minor.
A lot of people argued aggressively that despite the accused being a minor, the court should have taken into consideration the gruesome nature of the crime committed by him. The public anger and the media storm that followed called for the boy to be punished just as others convicted in the case were.
Legal experts and media panels discussed the possibility as well as the need for reviewing the juvenile laws in the country and making changes necessary. Following this, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Development for Children) Bill was drafted in 2014 by Women and Children Development Minister Maneka Gandhi.
The bill proposes that in cases of heinous crimes such as rape, murder, robbery, Kidnapping and drug trafficking, children falling between the age group of 16 to 18 can be tried by laws prescribed for adults in a regular court. This is something that has come under a lot of suspicion from legal bigwigs and rights groups, who are concerned about the possibility of such a law being misused. The reason for such a reaction is the risk of many children in the age bracket of 16 to 18 being detained and relatively harsh charges being pressed against them by the police.
Before making up our mind about the proposed act, it is necessary that we also pay attention towards those who might be victimized in case of the law being misused.
The boy next door
Now this might seem highly unlikely but is something that can happen to anyone. Despite legal restrictions, it is a known fact that minor below the age of 18 and as young as 16 are embracing sexuality in our country. Around 10% of teens admitted to having sex by the time they were 15. The argument put up by activists is based on the possibility that a teen couple “sexually experimenting” can also land behind bars as even consensual sex with anyone below the age of 18 is seen as rape as per the law. Serving time in jail is certainly a bit harsh for a teenager seeking to satisfy new found curiosities.
Minors in conflict zones
It is not hidden that the police have been involved in harassing and illegally detaining a lot of people in conflict zones. Such tales of police brutality and misuse of laws against those picked up merely on suspicion are emerging out of the Naxal affected belt in Chhattisgarh and neighbouring states. Child detainees are a large number among those put behind bars by the police and ensuring the protection of child rights might become even more difficult if these changes are introduced. In a conflict zone it may be a huge risk to allow children as young as 16 to be booked as adults.
Children forced into the illegal drug trade
The drug trafficking industry is booming in India, especially in urban areas and is a major concern for law enforcement agencies. But what is even more worrying is the rising practice of using children as drug peddlers in cities and drug mules to traffic contraband across borders and within the country. These children are usually abducted and forced into the trade or in many cases they are first addicted to drugs and then forced to work in the trade. Such children need help and rehabilitation in the society more than persecution. Being tried as adults in such cases will certainly not help the cause.
While the protection of children in the country is already under scrutiny due to the new child labour bill, the legal changes in juvenile laws also possess the potential to endanger minors. The provisions of the bill will also be in conflict of the United Nations Convention for Child Rights.
Activists say that that these changes do not take social realities into account. Though, Maneka Gandhi did acknowledge the criminalization of consensual sex between teens as a “legitimate concern”, she dismissed most concerns as unnecessary hysteria created by assuming all policemen being against children.
Protection of child rights is an issue that demands a lot of attention in our country at the moment. We hope, for the best, that lawmakers consider all possibilities before taking a decision on the amendments.