Five men and a 17-year old boy were arrested after the December 16 bus rape in 2012. Of the five adults convicted of the crime one is dead, and four have had the death sentence passed against them.
The 17-year-old, called Accused #6, was also convicted and punished. After serving his time in jail, equipped with some education and skills, he is set to start a new life.
He was not sentenced to die because he was a child under Indian law as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Yet, many in India felt justice had evaded Jyoti Singh, the rape victim, because the 17-year-old served just three years in prison.
The public was baying for the blood of the 17-year-old. Some want him castrated, others want him hanged. They wanted a new law passed in parliament that would mete the same punishment to him as to the adult rapists in the group. Irrationally, they believed that he should be re-tried under the new law for the same crime for which he had already been convicted and punished.
Nobody wanted to address the root causes of how he came to be part of the gang of rapists. In this new culture of intolerance, they simply wanted blood – not long-term solutions.
This viciousness is reflected in the public pressure that resulted in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, being passed by Parliament this week. The Narendra Modi government’s amendment to India’s existing juvenile justice law has reduced the age of children liable for life imprisonment from 18 to 16.
This means the number of children in jail will only go up. The same money that will now have to be spent to feed, house, educate, and counsel these children for a longer number of years could instead be used to prevent children from being in conflict with the law. After all it is a child in need who becomes a child in conflict with the law.
The 17-year old, known as Accused #6, was trafficked as a 11-year old to Delhi.
His mother, a destitute single mom abandoned by her also-starving husband, was unable to feed him, clothe him or educate him. Hungry and skill-less he ended up trafficked in Delhi exploited for five long years by restaurant owners, construction companies, garages and bus drivers.
Lonely, homeless and rudderless he ended up with a gang of older men for a family. In fact, Ram Singh, the prime accused, who died in prison, was his boss at one time.
He had gone on the night of the rape to ask Ram Singh to return the money that he had borrowed. Instead, he was made to join the gang, get senselessly drunk, join the gang-rape and left to wash the bus.
If he had been in school, properly educated and fed, he would never have been recruited by traffickers, abused and used by gangs.
But the same BJP that is the architect of the bill to reduce the age of punishment was quite happy to cut – in the 2015 National Budget – public expenditure on women and children by 44% and on some education programmes by 25%.
These cuts have effectively led to compromises on the quality of the mid-day meal programme in some art of the country. These cuts have also led to the closure of boarding schools under the previous government’s Education for All initiative through which poor girls could study with proper guidance, safe housing and adequate nourishment.
In addition, this summer the Modi cabinet approved a bill to legalise child labour in certain sectors like audio-visual entertainment and family enterprises, giving impunity to the sexualization of children in media and domestic servitude users.
Weeks after the Modi government came to power, the chairperson of its National Commission for Women even said she would like to legalise prostitution. Since an adult woman can legally sell her body for sex in India, she could only have meant the legalisation of pimping and brothel keeping.
If impunity is given to abusers and the basic needs of children are not met, more children will be in conflict with the law. Lowering the punishable age of children cannot prevent rape or other heinous crimes. In any case, data shows that only 2.4 % of sexual crimes in India are committed by offenders between the ages of 16 and 18.
Investing in schools, meals, clothes, for our children is more likely to prevent heinous crimes. Those baying for the blood of children should be lobbying with the ruling party to re-invest in the basic needs of poor children.