Proposed changes to India's juvenile Act draw debate

Proposed changes to India's juvenile Act draw debate
Indian students at an anti-rape protest in Hyderabad last year.

The Indian government's move to amend the Juvenile Justice Act to raise the punishment for juveniles to include jail terms for murder and rape has received a mixed reaction.

Under a proposed amendment to the country's Juvenile Justice Act, those aged between 16 and 18 years old will be tried as adults in rape and murder cases and face prison terms, but not the death penalty.

The move followed public calls for harsher punishment to be meted out to juveniles found guilty of heinous crimes. This was sparked by the 2012 Delhi gang rape of a 23-year-old woman who was brutally assaulted by six males, one of them a 17-year-old, on a bus. She died of her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

A juvenile court later convicted the teenager of rape and murder and handed down the maximum penalty - three years in a reform facility. In contrast, his adult partners in crime were given the death sentence.

The proposed amendment has led activists and international agencies like Unicef to warn that tinkering with the Juvenile Justice Act would be a counter-productive move and to suggest instead that the focus be on reform.

But the family of the gang-rape victim expressed disappointment that the punishments were not harsh enough.

"The amendments should have gone further and the system needs to be changed. We want the death penalty for the juvenile," said the dead woman's father. Under Indian laws, a rape victim's identity cannot be revealed even after her death.

"The punishment should be (meted out) according to the crime and not the age," the father added. "He (the juvenile) took someone's life... He is serving three years in a remand home - that is not punishment."

In the gang-rape case, which caused a massive uproar both in India and around the world, the government at the time took steps to strengthen India's anti-rape law, but avoided the trickier issue of amending the Juvenile Justice Act.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party government took power in May, it decided to go ahead with revising the Act.

Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, who tabled the Bill on Tuesday, said recently that half of all sexual crimes were committed by "16-year-olds who were aware of the lenient laws".

But according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 858 juveniles were charged with rape in 2010 and 1,316 last year. These figures compare with the total number of rape cases which stood at 22,172 in 2010 and 33,707 last year.

Child-rights activists maintain that trying juveniles as adults would only make a bad situation worse.

"The focus should be on reformative measures. We have to believe children can be reformed," said Dr Antony Sebastian, executive director of the Empowerment of Children and Human Rights Organisation.

Mr Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, a non-profit outfit, suggested improving the conditions at reform homes and rehabilitation.

"In Agra, one home meant to take 50 to 60 children has 120," said Mr Gupta.

"A child who stole 500 rupees is kept with children who committed more serious crimes," he added. (500 rupees is the equivalent of S$10.)

"Unless we improve existing infrastructure and improve rehabilitation, the current amendments will see the child rebel more and become hardened criminals."

Still, some believe the amendments are exactly what is needed.

"I think it is important that we consider the nature of the crime," said Dr Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist and director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. "But we also need to look at protecting 18-year-olds and those younger from (the hardened) criminals."

On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the growing concerns about sexual violence in India, saying a recent spate of rapes was a source of shame for the country.

This article was published on Aug 18 in The Straits Times.

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