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The media monster of the juvenile offender: Enakshi Ganguly and Anant Asthana

July 24, 2013

This is a guest post by ENAKSHI GANGULY and ANANT ASTHANA

July 17 was an important day. Supreme Court announced its judgment refusing to interfere with the Juvenile Justice Act. This was with respect to the eight petitions that were filed in the wake of the alleged involvement of a juvenile in the rape and murder of a 23 year young girl on December 16, 2012. The boy, who was found to be below 18 years, was described by the media as the most heinous of the rapists, a monster and a beast, and even the main accused—and this even before the police had filed the charge –sheets based on statements of the witnesses and evidence gathered. Should there be a fair judicial process that decides the case based on scrutiny of relevant facts or should we let media undertake a trial?

As if that was not enough, this was followed by creating a panic of increased juvenile crime, which if unaddressed will destroy the society. The 8 petitions in the Supreme Court resulted from this panic. The final order on the involvement of this juvenile is awaited on the 25th of July. Then again we can expect outpourings of emotion and anger from sections of the public.

Anyone who has tried to defend a pragmatic, strategic and well-conceived juvenile crime prevention policy inbuilt in India’s juvenile Justice Law is being accused of being irrational, unjust and even an“enemy of society”. This is because this country has never had a serious debate on juvenile crime and there were always very few who were concerned about it. There is very little information or knowledge on the philosophy and understanding behind the juvenile justice law. This incident is probably the first time in the history of India that public at large has paid attention to juvenile crime. Unfortunately what they have been served with by the media to base their opinions on is bound to shape the popular public image of all juveniles. Instead of bringing this welfare legislation on to the priority of our government and promising better results on juvenile crime prevention, irresponsible and sensational media reporting has caused serious damage

Authors of this article are persons who work with victims of sexual violence as well as juvenile offenders. It is in our interest to see that victims get justice, but also to see that juvenile justice is implemented. In other words, we wish to see that rights of all children are protected and realised. It is not about rights of victims at the cost of rights of offenders.

In this context, it must be placed on record what the Juvenile Justice Act recognises that children who commit offences must be brought before the juvenile justice system. The system must not just assess the circumstances under which the child has offended and his/her socio-psychological condition, but also make an order with an individual care plan for the child. The idea is to make the juvenile offenders understand that they have committed an offence but because they are underage, they are being given a chance to reform and re-integrate into society as a responsible citizen. This is the basis of the treatment of the juvenile in question. This has been recognised the world over as a pragmatic and more effective approach to juvenile crime prevention.

No doubt data shows an increase in juvenile crimes, just as there is an increase in crimes by adults. At the same time the reality also is that despite this increase, juvenile crimes constitute only 1% of total crimes. It is important to note that this is of one of the main reasons the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions. It said “we do not think that any interference is necessary with the provisions of the Statute till such time as sufficient data is available to warrant any change in the provisions of the aforesaid Act and the Rules.”

Already some of the facts about the juvenile in question have turned out to be wrong. There was a rumour created by media that the juvenile will be released within 6 months, as soon he turns 18. Did it happen? No. There was a rumour that juvenile was the “main accused”. The reading of the charge sheet, which records the statements of both the victim and the prime witnesses, prepared by the police, tells us that it was Ram Singh (now deceased) who was the main accused. Apart from the presence of the juvenile, there is no mention of his role in detail. So should we not await the final order from the Magistrate of the Juvenile Justice Board before condemning him?

Coming to the question of amending the law. Amendments or improvements in the law on juveniles have been regularly undertaken. There were changes in 2000, in 2006, and again in 2011 and there was a process of further amendment going on just before the Dec 16 incident. During the deliberations, amendments being suggested in terms of reduction of age, treating them as adults, punishing them harsher etc. were discussed. Studies and experiences documented over the last four decades have shown that they have only put societies at greater peril and risk. It is therefore important to strengthen the implementation of provisions for reform and reintegration for children.

The main problem, as many point out, is the inadequate-indeed tardy implementation of the law. Children who have offended are not brought into the ‘system’, not because the law allows them to ‘get away’, but because of those who implement the law. But should children be penalised because the country has failed to implement the law meant for them? Hence should we not give children a chance by ensuring that the juvenile justice law is implemented in letter and spirit before denouncing it?

We must not repeat this mistake of exaggerating juvenile crime profile and cause serious damage to a well thought and systematically evolved juvenile crime policy, more so when we have precedents to learn from. Time and again the American experiment with juvenile crime is being cited. Hence it is important to examine the American reality in some detail here. 1990s was the time when United States witnessed an unprecedented onslaught on liberal juvenile justice policies, mostly fed by the unrealistic and panic driven media reporting such as “The tsunami is coming…Juvenile crime is going up and getting worse”, (USA Today 05.09.1996) and “America is being threatened by a growing cadre of cold –blooded teens called ‘superpredators’ (Christian Science Monitor 06.02.1997 ) or “The invasion of the Superpredators has burdened the United States with children capable of remorseless brutality” (London Times.16.02.1997). Responding to these reports, an angry citizenry panicked and forced politicians and policy makers to introduce harsher provisions and reduce the age for juvenility. Political Scientist John Dilulio, who at that time became the chief theorist on “young superpredators” and had advocated for harsh measures on children, later expressed regret about his assessment and predictions of juvenile crime and admitted that they were misplaced. In 2012 he went on to sign up as an amicus brief on behalf of a juvenile who pleaded in an American court to liberalise harsh laws. The regression fuelled primarily by media reporting since 1990s onwards caused havoc to the lives of millions of American youths, based on which a process of course correction started in 2005 and is going on since then. The American experience of falling prey to media frenzy and having suffered miserably is a telling story- something Indians need to consider seriously.

Do we in India want to go the same way?

(Enakshi Ganguly Thukral is the Co-Director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights. Anant Asthana is an advocate who represents children.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. akansha permalink
    July 24, 2013 5:34 PM

    I’m surprised at the use of the word “children.” The juvenile in this case is nearly 18. Can we call him a child? Also, this arguement seems to be based on the principle that all “children” are “innocent.” The age to become adult is 18 years. does that mean anybody below 18 is a child? The “child” we’re talking about raped a woman, who was herself 23 years old. I’d also like to question what kind of “reform” is being spoken of here. If he is let off after given counselling and whatever treatment the juvenlie act entails, do we know for sure he will not commit the same crime again? Are we talking about taking chances here?

    • Kunal Vohra permalink
      July 25, 2013 1:09 PM

      “Children”, I agree, doesn’t sit very well, especially in matters relating to crimes of violence. Neither does the implication that at 18, someone who’s until then a ‘child’, suddenly develops the maturity an adult has. But, then, the ‘’child’ here is more a technical term than a literal one. Because we have to draw the line somewhere between assumed innocence and the loss of it. And, to be honest, I don’t have a problem with it being drawn at 18, although, with the world being what it is now, there is some basis to the argument that we cease to be children at 16. But, that calls for a serious and considered debate. We can’t, and shouldn’t, allow our impassioned reactions to a horrific incident to set the precedent for the way we deal with juvenile crime and the fond hope we nurture for the possibility of reform. If we abandon that possibility of reform, I think, we will have shut the door a little bit on all notions of goodness and change.

    • A. Anil permalink
      July 25, 2013 2:19 PM

      Thing is, the world “children” hasn’t been applied to this offender. He’s always referred to as a juvenile or the accused.
      And as for him being nearly 18, that and the seriousness of the crime should’ve been enough to try him as an adult.
      Unfortunately, that’s not what this piece is about. It’s a little all over the place but essentially, it seems to me about how irresponsible reporting by media damages the public opinion of young people in general. It’s just that the example used to highlight it is a terrible one.
      Overall, though, the question of whether the media should act as judge & jury is a good one. After all, our entire perception of such events is based on what they report as “facts”.

  2. kishore permalink
    July 24, 2013 7:58 PM

    एक झूठ को सौ बार कहने से झूठ सच नहीं बन जाता पर कुछ अखबार इस झूठ को सच बनाने पर आमादा हैं कि किशोरों द्वारा किये जाने वालें अपराधों में बेहताशा वृद्धि हुई है . ये बात तथ्यत गलत है . जैसा कि इस लेख में स्पष्ट किया गया है कि किशोर कुल अपराधों के केवल एक प्रतिशित के लिए जिम्मेदार है .
    जे जे एक्ट की बुनियाद सुधारात्मक प्रक्रिया पर आधारित है प्रतिक्रियात्मक हिंसा पर नहीं. इस विषय पर किये गए विभिन्न अध्ययनों के अनुसार सख्त सजा बच्चों द्वारा किये गए अपराधों को रोकने में इतनी कारगर नहीं है जितने की पेशेवर ढंग से चलाये गए शैक्षणिक कार्यक्रम. इस एक्ट का मुख्य उद्देश्य बच्चों को अपराध करने से बचाना है और अगर वो अपराध करतें है तो उन्हें सुधार कर उन्हें वापस समाज में समाहित करना है .
    समस्या यह है कि इस कानून का ध्यान कानून विवादित बच्चों पर रहा है उन बच्चों पर नहीं जिन्हें देखभाल और सुरक्षा कि जरूरत है . इस कानून को ठीक से लागू करने की कभी कोशिश ही नहीं की गयी और अब मांग उठ रही है की इस कानून को बदला जाये? ये कितना उचित है की जिस कानून को ठीक से किर्यान्वित करने का मौका नहीं दिया गया उसमे बदलाव लाया जाए

  3. July 25, 2013 8:25 AM

    “Young superpredator” is still a child, it means that the parents are the main culprit.

    http://www.newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/2012/10/18/371–Parents-responsible-for-making-kids-deviate-from-truth-.html

    It was expected that education will solve all problems. But unfortunately, education itself has become a problem. The doors of the prisons are opening towards Universities but the doors of the Universities are opening towards prisons. In today’s educational system, there is nothing Swadeshi. Everything is foreign. Akbar Allahabadi, a noted Urdu poet described present day education in his Urdu couplet thus:
    Tifla Men Boo Aye Kya Baap Ke Etabar Ki
    Doodh To Dibbe Ka Hai, Talim Hai Sarkar Ki
    The above couplet means that the culture of parents will not reflect in their children because of the powder milk and government education.

  4. Shubhra Shahare permalink
    July 25, 2013 4:02 PM

    Your points are well researched and articulate. For the most part, this article engages in arguing the importance of upholding the rights of all those who fall under the purview of the Juvenile Justice Act. Absolutely. To pick and choose which children (legally defined as below eighteen) come under the protection of this act would be a difficult process to standardise. However, that said, the nature of this act is horrendous and the scale barbaric. While the media has done its share of sensationalising this crime, it must be noted that there lies a difference between a bicycle thief and a rapist, no matter what the age of the offender. Their motivations, outlooks and personalities are highly different. The sort of crimes they are likely to commit in the future (if they turn out to be repeat offenders) are highly different. So while no one’s asking that a bicycle thief be given the same level of punishment as that of a rapist or a murderer, similarly individuals are not panicking because they’re wondering if the juvenile accused in this particular case is guilty or not but more so that regardless of what his sentence will be, his records will be sealed and that he will be anonymous. No one will know who he is and he will be free to roam the streets. This doesn’t sound as chilling if he were being tried for stealing a bike or vandalising property. But he didn’t do those things. He’s been accused of sadistically gang-raping a girl a few years older than him. So while justice must be upheld on both sides, for the girl who died as a result of her wounds and for the accused till they are sentenced…one can’t help but think that somewhere in the process of doing the right thing, the current system will be letting us all down.

  5. K Sumantha Rao permalink
    July 25, 2013 5:02 PM

    this “child” which will escape severe punishment under the garb of juvenile offender will in future grow into a full fledged healthy criminal and will execute similar of worse crimes with due care that he would have learnt by now, thanks to the lawyers and media trials !

  6. sng permalink
    July 30, 2013 11:37 PM

    Today’s Hindustan Times ( page 4, 30th July, Delhi Edition) carries a ‘Public Interest’ Ad by the Delhi Police about a vocational scheme that they run to keep to street kids from crime (alongside a full page story of their proposed plans to criminalise and inform the parents (!) of young motor cycle riders after ‘inadvertently’ shooting one of them dead). It features the image of a slightly evil -eyed young boy, (think Damien in Omen) and the words ‘Teach him to chop an Onion before someone teaches him to chop a head’. Just sayin’

  7. Debraj Bhattacharya permalink
    September 1, 2013 11:09 AM

    Trying to correct a “juvenile” is a wonderful idea. But who will take responsibility if the “juvenile” cannot be corrected within 3 years? The state has taken upon itself the responsibility of reforming him. But the state should let rest of the society know after three years whether this person has been corrected or not and what is the evidence of it. The state has no right to let loose a diabolical mind out in the street and make law-abiding citizens vulnerable once more.

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  1. Need to re-enact Juvenile Justice Act – Myths and Realities: Kishore | Kafila

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