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Debating age

Debating age
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But circumstances under which a particular crime has been committed or the background of the person who committed it remains debatable. Punishment varies in accordance with the age of the offender from country to country.

Recently the Union cabinet approved a move to lower the age of juveniles from eighteen to sixteen years and the bill has been tabled in Lok Sabha. It also proposes to repeal the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, and provide for care and protection of children, including their rehabilitation.

Many people have reservations over the cabinet move. Advocate Anant Asthana, who had a specialisation in Juvenile Justice Act, has opposed the move while giving the example of United States (US). Anant says that in the US such an amendment was introduced about 20 years ago, however, instead of solving the problem, it has worsened it.

In India the debate over the amendment started after the outrage over the conviction of a minor in the Delhi gang-rape case of December, 2012, as he was tried in a juvenile court last year and sentenced to three years in a reform home. The ‘lighter’ punishment given to the accused triggered a debate on punishment for juveniles convicted for heinous crimes. However, the Justice Verma committee, constituted after the gang rape to amend the rape law, has rejected the idea of lowering the age.

Asthana believes that the law is for general application and not for a particular case. ‘The demand to lower the juvenile age has gathered, after it was intercepted into public’s mind that juveniles take advantage of the prevailing law and get free soon but such examples are very less and even incorrect and it cannot be implemented for everyone,’ Asthana said. ‘According to National Crime Records Bureau data there are a total of 1.2 per cent juvenile crimes of which heinous crimes like murder and rape are not even 5 per cent. So how can one treat these small figures to generalise a law on such a huge mass of juvenile which constitute 42 per cent of India’s total population,’ he questions.

On 17 July,  2013, a bench of Supreme Court headed by chief justice Altamas Kabir had refused to entertain a bunch of PILs which had contended that minors involved in heinous crimes should not be protected under the law, saying ‘interference in the law is not necessary’. Former chairman of Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) Amod Kanth, while talking to Millennium Post said that he had argued the matter has been discussed at length in the apex court, which was satisfied with his contentions.

The question that arises is when there was no change in law recommended by Justice Verma committee and also after refusal of such PILs by SC then why is the government proposing such an amendment. What purpose it will achieve, if a juvenile is tried in adult courts instead of being tried by juvenile board. ‘On the one hand, government says children do not understand system so their votes cannot be considered. Consequently, they are barred from voting. Similarly, their consent for sexual intercourse does not matter, then how can we assume that crime committed by children of 16 or 17 years was much to his knowledge and not something else,’ said Amod Kanth.

But not all agree to the contention. ‘People are taking this proposal in a wrong sense and it does not mean that after amending the law, children up to 16 years will now be tried in ordinary courts like adults,’ Anant says. Through this bill government has granted discretion to JJ Board to decide if a case of crime committed by children will be tried in ordinary courts or by JJB. He has also welcomed the government’s move that even if children will be tried in ordinary courts no life sentence or death sentence would be given to them.

Taking a psychological perspective of the situation, Gazi Shahnawaz feels that there is no way to decide what would be the correct age of a human to bring him into the category of child or adult. ‘Children who will get exposed to harsh and difficult situations get maximum maturity. For example, a child who has started dealing his family business after his father’s death will become a decision maker much earlier than others, who did not go through the same situation,’ said Shahnawaz.

Expressing unhappiness over the government’s move, he said that a child’s psychological background drives him towards crimes. In juvenile courts, policemen are unarmed and not in their uniform. So just think about the impact on children, after all individuals below 18 years of age are still very young and should not be treated harshly.

Quoting from Justice Verma’s report, Shahnawaz says, sexual offences are not necessarily carried out to satisfy lust. ‘I am not giving you any justification for such heinous crimes, but it would not be wrong to say that these are the aggressive reaction of disturbed system. Too much disparity in income, not getting opportunity to attend co-ed schools are the reasons for such heinous crimes and the degree of such crime increases when they see happiness of elite class such as a girl and a boy enjoying spending time together in a mall,’ said Shahnawaz, adding that decreasing age level will only complicate things, but will not solve the problem.

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