ON 21 FEBRUARY, 17-year-old Ayushmaan woke up at 4 am. It was the first day of the higher secondary examinations organised by the Maharashtra state education board for twelfth-standard students like him. The portal to an undergraduate degree and better employment opportunities, board exams are a milestone in the life of students in India. Making his way past the boys sleeping all around him, Ayushmaan retrieved a textbook from a nearby shelf and came back to sit down on his mattress. He tried to ignore the pangs of anxiety in his stomach. Under the sterile glare of the tubelight, he studied from his English textbook for two hours, until daylight broke.
After bathing, combing his hair and dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, he collected his books and went down to the front gate with a friend, and they both went over the syllabus. The yellowing buildings shaded by huge, dense trees were just beginning to show signs of morning activity. At 9.30 am, Ayushmaan’s stomach began to turn again, in a combination of hunger and anxiety. “When will they come?” he asked his friend impatiently.
Finally, two well-built men bowed through the low, barred gate. Ayushmaan stood up with relief. Picking up a plastic bag that contained two pens, pencils and an eraser, he and his friend got into the vehicle to be driven to the examination centre. There was another reason for his eagerness to leave. He was stepping out of the premises for the first time in four months. This was not a dormitory or a hostel, but a juvenile detention centre called the Umerkhadi observation home—one of two such homes in south-central Mumbai. The men who arrived to pick up the boys were not relatives but local armed police officers, who had specifically been assigned this duty after a prolonged administrative back and forth.
Ayushmaan, and his younger brother, who is now in the twelfth standard, are first-generation learners. Their father is a sweeper and their mother a domestic worker. Ayushmaan had full attendance at his junior college right through the eleventh standard. Two years ago, his education, and life as he knew it, came to a halt when he was charged with the rape of a three-year-old child. According to the chargesheet filed at Worli Police Station, Ayushmaan’s neighbour found him lying naked next to her three-year-old daughter at the anganwadi—a childcare centre—where she had left her. The document states that her daughter’s undergarments had been taken off and that there was semen on her private parts.
Ayushmaan’s mother tried to convince me of her son’s innocence. “The anganwadi teacher had asked him to babysit the child,” she said. “It was raining heavily outside and water was seeping into the room. The child asked to go to the toilet. On her way out, she slipped and fell.” She insisted that Ayushmaan was only trying to dry her when the child’s mother entered the room. (Ayushmaan is not the boy’s real name, but a name that is meaningful to his parents because an astrologer recommended it.)
For Ayushmaan to be able to sit for his exams with a state board, while incarcerated in a juvenile home, was unusual. Detention centres are usually only able to provide adolescent inmates with vocational training. A flagship initiative by a non-profit organisation and the detention-centre staff was taken forward by a small group of committed volunteer teachers to make this possible. The volunteers in the programme, mostly women, have been working with a few boys in the home since April last year.
The Umerkhadi observation home, better known as the Dongri remand home, once served as the Dongri jail, where figures such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were imprisoned during British rule. The home houses two categories of children left in charge of the state—minors who are abandoned, rescued or orphaned; and children in conflict with law. The former group, including minor girls who are victims of rape and domestic violence, live in a building on the western side of the campus until they are claimed by their families, adopted or transferred to another institution. The latter, to which Ayushmaan belongs, are kept in a locked and guarded building on the other side of the campus. They are detained here for as long as it takes for the Juvenile Justice Board to assess their cases. The children’s aid society and the children’s court—part of the JJB—share space with the two homes in which the children live.
A typical day in the remand home comprises counselling sessions and vocational training in tailoring and carpentry. A headcount of the children is undertaken five times a day. Family members are allowed to meet them once a week for two hours. Guards escort them to attend court hearings in the adjacent building, where sessions of the city and suburban courts of the JJB are held. The legal intent of the home is to aid in the children’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The conditions in which they live, however, are less than ideal.
The government allots a sum of Rs 635 per child every month for all expenses including food, clothes and medicines. The nearly 70 boys wear loose half-sleeved t-shirts and shorts as uniforms, and did not appear to be very well fed. They live with little privacy, sleep in overcrowded dormitories and share bathrooms. The period of stay at the detention home is a pause in time, where any aspirations or hope the families might have had for their children are put on hold, while the principles of reformative justice take their course.
IN 1986, THE JUVENILE JUSTICE ACT was established as a measure to develop a uniform framework for juvenile justice in the country and build infrastructure for children who came under its purview. Prior to this, each state could dispense with cases relating to minors at its own discretion. One of the core principles of the Act was to establish norms and standards regarding the investigation and prosecution of juvenile crime. In 2000, the Act was replaced by the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, which was revised in accordance with United Nations conventions for child rights. A later amendment upheld the “principle of fresh start,” a legal ruling through which past records of crime of juveniles would be erased from the system, except in special circumstances. This was another step in enhancing rehabilitative and reformative frameworks for juvenile offenders, in contrast to the punitive principles of criminal justice used for adults.
Since 2012, however, following the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern that produced unprecedented protests on the street and a change in India’s rape laws, the discourse around sexual violence and assault has been particularly charged. The sixth convict in the case was a few months from turning 18, because of which he was sent to a juvenile home instead of being tried as an adult with the rest of the accused. Amidst growing demands for more stringent laws against perpetrators of sexual violence, the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy moved the Supreme Court to issue a fresh interpretation of the term juvenile, arguing that the “mental and intellectual maturity” of minors should be a criterion rather than age.
India is at a critical juncture with regard to gender violence. Rape is highly underreported in the country because of the stigma associated with it, a culture of victim blaming and the lack of proper laws for protecting victims and witnesses. Conviction rates are low for those crimes that are actually reported. A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June this year found that India is perceived to be the most unsafe country for women. Although the report created outrage among various sections of society, including the national commission for women, most of the indignation had to do with the fact that India was deemed the worst in the world. There was no disagreement about the fact that there was indeed a high prevalence of violence against women in the country, and that India fared poorly on most indicators pointing to how patriarchal a society is. The increased attention that issues of sexual violence receives in the mainstream media now is welcome, but the popular response tends to limit itself to ramping up security for women, and punishing and making an example of perpetrators, rather than probing deeper into the reasons for the violence.
Recently, following another horrific case of abduction, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, the Indian parliament passed an ordinance that introduced the death penalty for child rapists. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have denounced such a measure, arguing that capital punishment is “inherently cruel and irreversible, with little evidence that it serves as a deterrent.” Besides, according to recent government data, 95 percent of rape victims are known to the perpetrators. “If the government is serious about dealing with violence against women and children,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW, said, “it will have to do the hard work of reforming the criminal justice system.”
Many women’s rights groups have cautioned against treating sexual violence and brutality as an aberration, arguing that it should be seen in continuum with larger societal patterns and ways of thinking. In 2013, Madhumita Pandey, a doctoral student in criminology, interviewed almost a hundred rape convicts in Tihar jail in Delhi to understand their attitudes towards the victims. In an interview to the Washington Post, Pandey said she had gone into the project expecting to find monsters, but was struck by “how these are not extraordinary men, they are really ordinary.”
India’s approach to juvenile justice is susceptible to the pulls and pressures of the public mood regarding gender violence. In January 2016, a heinous-offence clause was added to the Juvenile Justice Act. According to this new revision, the board must assess the mental and physical capacity of minors, as well as their ability to grasp the consequences of the alleged offence, and accordingly decide whether they should be transferred to an adult court. Ayushmaan was charged under the clause.
Mahrukh Adenwalla, an eminent child-rights lawyer and a sturdy detractor of the revisions to the Act, spoke to me about the characteristics she thought were inherent to teenagers. “They are impulsive, reckless, and often do not see the consequences of their actions.” Adenwalla believes that treating boys such as Ayushmaan as adult criminals would be a huge mistake. “Should a person suffer the consequences of a rash action performed in this transitory phase for the rest of his life?” Child-rights activists have argued that although adolescents are impressionable and have the potential to inflict grievous harm, they also demonstrate a greater capacity towards reform. Juvenile homes are meant to create a safe space to aid that process of course correction. The aim is to keep them out of adult jails where the cycle of crime and punishment is harder to escape. Reformative justice requires communities and non-state actors to contribute towards the work of care and rehabilitation. Social workers, non-profits and volunteers often pick up part of the load of catering to the overall growth of minors. But navigating the justice system, even with separate laws for juvenile offenders, is not easy.
According to 2016 data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, out of 19 Indian cities that were surveyed, Mumbai has the second-highest number of crimes committed by juveniles. The crimes ranged from petty offences such as pickpocketing and theft to heinous acts such as sexual assault and murder. The majority of those arrested only had a primary education, or had not yet passed their higher secondary exams. With more than half of these adolescents falling within the age group of 16 to 18 years, the disruption to their education is significant.
Umerkhadi’s flagship education programme to return the children to a formal education system is fraught with challenges. Most schools and state boards are not prepared to have juvenile convicts on their roster, the children stay on the radar of the police regardless of their complicity in new offences and the lack of support structures outside the home leave the children vulnerable to recidivism. Further, it is hard for juveniles to wipe the slate clean and begin anew, as the brutalising conditions of poverty they often return to remain the same. Yet, the mutually transformative relationship of the adolescents with the women teacher-volunteers I witnessed at the Umerkhadi home gave me the sense that all was not lost.
IN JUNE 2017, I came across an email asking for volunteers to teach boys preparing to write their tenth- and twelfth-standard board exams at the Umerkhadi observation home. I wanted to understand what drove people to want to work with juvenile offenders, particularly those who had committed heinous acts. I was also curious about how these young boys would respond to the efforts of these teachers. A few months later, I met Sachi Maniar, the head of Project Ashiyana—one of three non-profits housed within the remand home that work with the children there—who agreed to let me meet the boys she and other volunteers were teaching. She led me through a maze of old markets and crumbling three-storey buildings till we arrived at the home. It seemed a grim place for children to live—the ceilings are low and the windows and corridors barred. The old trees, although providing much-needed shade to the tired parents waiting to meet their children, do not allow in a lot of light.
Maniar wrote a permission request for the “education boys” to be allowed out of the locked and guarded facilities. “There are less restrictions placed on these particular children because the remand home authorities support the education initiative,” Maniar told me. “The boys sometimes study with the volunteer teachers up till 9.30 pm.”
The six education boys, sitting cross-legged in their dark-blue uniforms in a semi-circle before me, got tired of the somewhat stilted interaction that followed quite quickly. When I asked them why they decided to attempt these exams, among the reasons they listed were the desire for a driver’s licence, to learn English and to run a shop. Only two of them suggested they had a long-term vision—Ayushmaan said he wanted to be a lawyer, and another boy said he wanted to go on to do a Bachelor’s. Although they appeared to be quite reticent with me, I was struck by the ease with which they interacted with Maniar.
Maniar has a determined manner about her and often refers to the need for cultivating discipline among the boys. “I wanted to join the army and serve my country,” she told me. “It may not be linked, but I have a feeling that these boys, if we do not work with them now, will become an easy catch for Naxal, criminal and terror groups.” This stern prognosis is offset by her tender preoccupation with the lives of the boys once they have left the remand home. Maniar is sensitive to the difficult backgrounds they come from and the recidivism that it may enable. “Instead of giving up on them,” she said, “you have to keep showing up, even if they go back to drugs and crime.”
Her first few interactions with juvenile inmates occurred in 2014, when her work was focussed exclusively on the abandoned children in Umerkhadi. The boys would call out from their windows when she was on her way there: “Didi, why aren’t you coming in here? Why won’t you work with us?” After talking to a boy who said that he wanted to murder someone to become famous and have his name published in the newspapers, she felt doubtful about the process of rehabilitation that was actually taking place. “They come here as undertrials and serve a sentence, but do not leave reformed,” she remembered thinking. “So what���s the point of the time they spend here?”
This was when she came across a book about peace circles, a Native American practice that emphasises healing through group or community sharing—a practice that was adapted to criminal justice systems in the United States and Canada in the 1980s. Along with a few volunteers, Maniar decided to apply this method with the boys to help create a safe space for them. “There were rules to the engagement,” she said. “It took authority away. Instead each got the power to share and express themselves.” In the process, some of the adolescents spoke of their sufferings, and opened up about their fear of abandonment and the violence of their upbringing.
Maheshwari Kamal, another volunteer teacher at the home, is conflicted about allocating time and resources to boys accused of sexual assault. She argued that, in the larger scale of things, there appeared to be a greater focus on mercy for these juvenile offenders than on the rehabilitation of victims. “The girls these boys have hurt should have the first right to rehab!” she told me. But she responded to the call for volunteer teachers to teach juveniles in conflict with law last September anyway. When I first met her, she was sitting comfortably on a big wooden seat in a dusty corridor that flanks the probation office, bantering with the boys to whom she was teaching an economics lesson. Family members who had come to visit their wards stood by, watching them. As an exercise she devised to teach them about budgets, she allocated one 19-year-old student a certain amount of money within which he was to make a plan to run a grocery shop. He listed the overheads and expenses out loud.
“What about salaries for staff to run your shop? Or will the customers serve themselves?” she playfully asked in Marathi.
“I will make my grandfather and grandmother serve customers,” he replied promptly. “They do nothing all day.”
“Planning to put old people to work, are you?” Kamal said, as everybody laughed.
The congeniality and mutual fondness between the teacher and students was discernible. Despite her misgivings, Kamal has never asked Ayushmaan, or any of the other boys, about the alleged crimes for which they are incarcerated. The general impression of Ayushmaan among the teachers, for instance, was that of a hardworking and eager student. Their main concern regarding him was centred on helping him plug back into a formal education system. To do this they have had to jump various bureaucratic hurdles and overcome institutional biases.
“While he was preparing for his twelfth-standard exams, I paid visits to Ayushmaan’s college,” Maniar recalled. “The authorities promised to allow him to give the exams in February 2017 as scheduled. Then, at the last minute, they said he does not have 75-percent attendance, which he obviously could not have because he was locked up in the observation home.” Maniar and the probation staff at Umerkhadi then sent a letter from the JJB to the Maharashtra education board explaining his circumstances and requesting permission for him to write the exams, but to no avail. “A juvenile undertrial is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” she said, “but the stigma of being in a detention centre casts a deep shadow.” Ayushmaan lost a year of study but was finally registered privately for the board exams that would be held in February this year.
For Ayushmaan and the other boys, the road to an education was hard to pave in more ways than one. “We went to every possible coaching institute in Mumbai, ready to pay for teachers to come and teach our boys,” Maniar told me, “but none were willing even to have the boys’ names on their rosters, leave alone sending a teacher into Umerkhadi.”
Nishigandha Sequeira was an exception. A teacher at a school in Malad, she has coached special children through the tenth-standard board exams in the National Institute of Open Schooling—a distance learning course that comes under the aegis of the human resources ministry—for seven years. When Maniar confided in her the trouble that the Ashiyana team was having getting professional teachers to come to Umerkhadi to coach the boys, Sequeira volunteered. In 2017, five boys at the home wanted to attempt the tenth-standard exams through the NIOS—a more flexible board compared to the Central Board of Secondary Education, which requires regular school attendance. It is geared for learners who have not or cannot attend school regularly. The board usually holds exams twice a year, in May and October.
Between March and June last year, as summer reached its peak, the 67-year-old schoolteacher would board local trains to commute 30 kilometres to reach the home four days a week. Huffing and panting from the strain, she would enter the guarded iron gate to make her way to the building in which her NIOS students would be waiting. They would take her bag and help her up three flights of stairs to a room, where there were a few half-empty book cupboards lining the walls. This served as their classroom.
“I went to the remand home without any expectations,” Sequeira told me. “I only wanted to help them get ahead in life.” I asked her how she felt about teaching boys she knew may be juvenile offenders, some of whom might have committed heinous acts. “I feel they need a chance,” she replied. “The way society treats them has to change. When we look at them, we must not say this is typical of boys of this or that background.” She argued that the context of the boys’ lives had to be accounted for in order to understand the nature of their crimes.
According to Sequeira, the boys showed a lot of enthusiasm for learning right away. They would sometimes ask her to continue her classes much beyond their lunchtime. Pretty soon, she developed an almost maternal relationship with them. “I have two sons myself,” she said. “I understand boys very well.” More than straightforward pedagogy, she described her role as a nurturer. “You have to be a mother, soft. But also tough sometimes, so that they know what is required of them.”
Sequeira had her apprehensions, however. She was particularly concerned about taking them through subjects dealing with sexuality. To explain a chapter in home science, she recalled, “I had to speak about the woman’s period stopping and the enlargement of her breasts during pregnancy.” She was pleasantly surprised at the way the boys responded. “They received it better than I had expected. There was no giggling or nudging, no sideward glances. If we sensitise children, they respond in the correct way. We have a notion that children in a remand home would be rough and dangerous. But they too come from families.” She had other advice for her students as well: “Do not try and find a girlfriend until you do well in life and have money in your pocket!”
Trupti Dhananjay Jadhav, the superintendent of Umerkhadi observation home, spoke to me enthusiastically about what she saw as the success of the education initiative. “We allowed volunteer teachers to come in at any time that was convenient to them,” she said. Jadhav took measures to relax the rules for these particular set of boys, telling the guards to cooperate because the boys were “doing something good.” To her, it was not just the success of staff and officers of Umerkhadi observation home, but also the success of police and magistrates. “We were all links in a chain that needed to stay together and coordinate carefully so these boys could have a shot at formal education.”
SINCE THE HEINOUS-OFFENCES clause was put into the Juvenile Justice Act in 2016, officials working at the juvenile board are not certain whether to try some minors as children or as adults. In the case of Ayushmaan, they ordered the latter. Once at the adult sessions court, his lawyers successfully argued to bring the case back to the juvenile court, from where the case got transferred right back to the adult court.
The chief probation officer, Ranganath Kulkarni, a tall man with a slow smile, felt a lot of time had been wasted going back and forth between the two courts. “In the first place, the assessment of cases takes nearly six to eight months,” he said. “After the juvenile justice board transfers the case to the sessions court, the kids do not get summons for another eight months. Meanwhile the children are languishing in the observation home, without being presented in front of any competent authority.”
Ayushmaan was in Umerkhadi for two years. When I spoke to his mother, she recalled how the police took him away. “He had not even eaten any dinner that evening before being taken away from us,” she said. At the police station, the parents were made to wait for hours outside.
Ayushmaan spoke of how he was treated at the police station. He said, “They used a stick and a patti”—the strap used in flour mills, a tough, wide, semi-elastic band. “Each time they asked, did you do it, I said no, they would beat me harder. When I could not stand it anymore, I said that I did it.” It was in the early hours of the morning that Ayushmaan was finally taken to Umerkhadi. Although he said Kulkarni was very kind to him, he remembers being terrified. “I was bewildered and depressed. I longed for my life outside.”
I asked Kulkarni if it was common for children who came to the home to bear injuries inflicted by the police. He said it was, and that they were usually discouraged by their families from reporting it before the JJB. “The first time the child is presented before the magistrate,” Kulkarni told me, “he is asked, ‘Do you have any complaint against anybody? Were you beaten?’ The child says no, because they have been warned by the police to say no.” Kulkarni recalled that a decade-and-a-half ago, it was easier to file complaints on behalf of undertrials if they reported torture. “Now parents do not want to take up the fight against the police.”
The police is mandated to have a separate unit in each district called the Special Juvenile Police Unit, set up to handle cases of juvenile crime. The appointed officer in each police station is meant to apply the procedures stipulated by the JJB. Meeran Borwankar, former inspector general of prisons in Maharashtra told me, “Both prison officials and police are given basic training in how to handle special groups like women and juveniles. What is missing is regular in-service training and reinforcement, especially important for junior cadre.” However, according to Vinod Kumar Menon, a senior investigations editor at Mid Day who has covered many cases involving juvenile convicts, these rules are seldom followed. “The police constabulary that is the point of interface is trained only to apply the baton,” he told me. In many of the cases he has followed, the police barge into a boy’s house, search the family’s possessions, often without a warrant, and drag the minor to a police station without giving adequate explanation to parents. “This kind of treatment is meted out only to boys from underprivileged families, mind you” he adds. “Then they might accuse the boy, in not just one, but a host of cases.”
K has a tough relationship with the police even after serving his time at Umerkhadi and having his record expunged. He was among the boys that Sequeira taught last summer, someone she had grown particularly fond of. Ayushmaan and his friends in the remand home teasingly called him pandit, because of his habit of collecting pictures of gods and sticking them on the walls of an alcove in the boys’ dormitory to create a prayer altar. K served his sentence for stealing. Released after a four-month incarceration period at the home, he sought out Sequeira at her school for regular lessons. He passed three subjects and failed two during the tenth-standard NIOS exams that he took in October 2017.
After he appeared for the board exams, Ashiyana arranged for him to attend a vocational-training and English-speaking course in Tumkur, Karnataka, Maniar said, “to keep him out of sight of the local police, who have him pegged as a potential offender.” But K quit the course in Tumkur and returned to Mumbai. Three days later, he was picked up by the police.
On 7 December last year, I visited the police station in Andheri East with Maniar. The sub-inspector told Maniar that K and his friends had been apprehended on charges of stealing bikes, taking “joy rides” and abandoning them when they had run out of gas. “We are yet to recover two of the bikes,” he said. “Ten cycles were stolen recently. He probably was involved in those thefts too. You ask him.”
When K was brought in to meet Maniar, he looked distraught, and denied his involvement in the thefts. Maniar pointed out to the officers that it was illegal for minors to be detained in police stations even for a night, and that this was already K’s third night there. When we tried to determine his exact age, however, we found out he had recently turned 19. K was no longer a minor, which meant that if he was convicted, he would not be sent to Umerkhadi but to an adult jail. Having negotiated for his release, Maniar tried to ensure K left Mumbai again for a six-month stay at a vocational training centre, this time in Nagpur.
K’s tryst with the police was not quite over. In March, he was interrogated by the police in a case of bike theft once again. Some boys from a neighbouring area, whose bike had gone missing, came to his home while he was eating dinner and dragged him to Jogeshwari police station saying the police had summoned him for questioning.
“I was made to strip naked and sticks and a patti was placed before me,” he told me. “I was shown CCTV footage of the theft. In it, a man with a monkey cap hotwired a bike and made off with it. I repeatedly said that it was not me in the video.” The police finally let him go and asked him to come back the next morning. K spent the night in fear and distress. “I was terrified of going back there,” he told me. “They pick me up repeatedly and beat me. Whether I have done anything or not, I get picked up.”
Early the next morning, K went out and bought rat poison from a street vendor near his house. “I ate it like a biscuit on my way home,” he told me. Once he reached home, he felt sick and faint. “I told my mother what I had done and that I would not be troubling her anymore.” K’s father rushed him to the intensive-care unit of a municipal hospital just in time.
When I visited the hospital, K was impatient and half-jokingly threatening to pull out the tube dangling from his nostril that went through his food pipe to his stomach. “It has been 48 hours,” his father told me, looking grim. “But the poison hasn’t left his stomach. The doctors won’t let him eat regular food until it comes back up.”
“Time and again you play a story, call a kid into the police station and treat him like a suspect, the kid starts believing it,” Menon said when I asked him about the psychological distress minors experience. “Worse, the kid gets used to it. He figures that whether he does a bad thing or not, he will get picked up anyway.”
Borwankar pointed to the workload, stress and the lack of resources the lower police cadre needs to deal with. “You see, there are good cops and bad cops, but a stressed out cop will be much harder on the accused.” According to her, the police have a soft spot for studious children. “If the cops know the boys are studying, they would be kind to them.”
BEFORE HIS TENTH-STANDARD NIOS EXAMS, Zaid—not his real name, but a nickname his parents use—spent many hours sitting and studying under the shady trees. He recounted how the police guards on duty would help him by explaining passages from his textbook. Zaid is the only one of the October 2017 batch of NIOS students to have passed the exams from within Umerkhadi. “We are proud of him,” Kulkarni said with a smile.
I met Zaid’s parents when they came for their son’s court hearing. They sat on a mat that their son had rolled out for them in the far corner of a corridor, their backs against the wall. Two bottles of cold water, which he had filled, stood untouched by their side. Other parents who had come to visit their wards tried to make conversation, but they remained silent.
Zaid’s father took a creased clipping from the English newspaper Afternoon out of his wallet and carefully unfolded it. It had Zaid’s tenth-standard success story. He asked a literate man sitting by him to translate it into Hindi and read it aloud, so he could hear, once again, what the newspaper had said about his son who, even with his name changed and face pixellated in the report, had made him proud.
Ayushmaan was the second Ashiyana pupil to pass, having scored 50 percent in his higher-secondary exams while still in the observation home. In April this year, he was granted bail. He returned to live with his family and is pursuing an undergraduate arts degree.
The police might be harsh and the law fairly lenient towards minor offenders, but neither gives the accused what they really need. “Not much is done to improve a boy’s patterns of behaviour while he is in the system’s keep,” Maniar told me. “We need to really examine his circumstances, listen to him and understand why he has acted the way he has. The purpose of time away should be about helping him to change, to transform, so that he leaves the system with behaviour and skills that help him become a contributing member of the community. For this we need to see the good in him. We need to amplify it.”
Another of Maniar’s students, a resident of Thane who had been in and out of Umerkhadi for his involvement in street fights, is a product of this approach. Maniar urged him into registering for his tenth-standard state board exams last year, mentored him through his studies and bailed him out of bouts of depression. His examination result was the most recent to be announced—he had passed with a first class. The 18-year-old has now started a mobile-phone repair business along with a friend. He works long hours seven days a week and earns Rs 15,000 a month. He plans to continue studying.
Ayushmaan told me what made him happy about his experience of giving exams from the juvenile home. “You know, when we generally travel in police vans, if a cop takes a call on his cell phone from someone, he would say, ‘I’m taking the aaropi’”—the accused. “But when they took us to write our papers, they would say on the phone, I’m taking my brother to write his twelfth standard exam. When I overheard this, I felt happy.”