On 23 December 2015, four juvenile contract killers were apprehended at the Karkardooma district court in north-east Delhi for the attempted murder of Irfan, alias Cheena Pehalwan, an alleged gangster who was under trial in courtroom 73. Two of the shooters, who were already present in the courtroom when Irfan was produced at about 11 am, fired 10 rounds, injuring Irfan and killing his escort, the head constable Ram Kunwar Meena. Subsequent investigation revealed that the shooters were aided by two adults, who had driven them to court. One had even accompanied them inside. The investigation also revealed that the juveniles had been hired by Irfan’s rival, Abdul Nasir, alias Khyber Hayat—currently lodged at Tihar jail. They were chosen because of their age, and the legal provisions it entailed.
A fortnight later, on 7 January 2016, a circular restricting public access to the court was issued. This circular stated that only litigants would be allowed entry, either on the basis of summons or with passes issued by concerned advocates. The larger pattern—that of juveniles being hired to commit crimes because the law was lenient towards them—remained unaddressed.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (JJ) provides that instead of jail time, juveniles accused of committing criminal acts would be given access to protection, treatment and rehabilitation. A recent amendment to the JJ Act in 2015, which allowed for juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18 to be tried as adults in heinous cases came into force on 15 January 2016. A couple of constables from the south-west district of Delhi told me that the law, however, was often misused, and added that several juveniles they had apprehended mocked them with statements such as “Kya bigaad logey humaara? Atharah saal se kam hain (What can you do to us? We’re less than 18 years of age).” Various senior police officials from the north and north-east districts confirmed that the use of juveniles by organised gangs was common. However, none of the officers were willing to divulge further details. An inspector from the south district, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “Our hands are tied. We can’t arrest juveniles, and we are not even allowed to keep criminal records for them,” adding, “how do we trace patterns and investigate?”
On 6 January, I visited the advocate Anant Kumar Asthana at his residence-cum-office in south Delhi. For the past eight years, Asthana has been working on child rights issues in various capacities. He also worked with the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB). Juveniles accused or detained for a crime are brought before the JJB, whose aim is to hold a child culpable for their criminal activity, not through punishment, but through counselling and rehabilitation.
Asthana told me that he and another lawyer, Bhupesh Samad, had filed separate reports with the JJB regarding the Delhi-based “thak thak giroh”, or the “knock knock gang,” and the “kabadiwalla gangs”—a term used to refer to junk or scrap dealers—both of which employed juveniles. The police found that children belonging to the knock-knock gang worked in groups, and would target stopped cars at traffic intersections. One of the children would knock on the window and distract the driver by claiming that there was a leak in the fuel tank, while others would reach into the car and steal whatever possible. When apprehended, these children always told the same story—they claimed that they were beaten by their parents and so, they had run away, and that they were driven to committing crimes due to hunger. Asthana alleged, however, that none of these children had missing reports filed against their names. Moreover, all of them had ready legal representation, and often through the same lawyers. “There was one lawyer who would arrive even before the child could be produced by the police before the JJB,” Asthana told me. “Whenever we saw him, we knew it’s a thak thak gang case.” The leaders of the kabadiwalla gangs brought children under their protection by providing them with food, shelter, drugs and alcohol, in exchange for cheap labour. These children would then go about collecting garbage and scrap or committing petty crimes for the gang. In both instances, the adults and the children involved were aware of the leniencies afforded by the JJ act and knew how to manipulate it. Often, the families of the children were also privy to this arrangement.
Asthana also told me about a case that was similar to the Karkardooma shootout. A young boy from Najafgarh in south-west Delhi was approached by an adult to commit a murder for a fee of Rs 50,000. “The boy knew he cannot be sent to jail and so he ended up killing,” Asthana said, “but we must keep in mind that 16 to 18 is the most volatile and impressionable age, and the risk-taking behaviour is high.” The larger problem, he stressed however, was that adults would often entice the youth with money and even provide them weapons, all the while assuring them that they would be released within months. “These are the people who are abusing the provisions of the JJ Act,” he stressed, “because otherwise, that person would have had to spend 5 lakhs on an adult shooter.” Asthana concluded the story, telling me that despite accepting Rs 26,000 the boy could not work up the courage to execute the murder. Threatened and pestered for months by the man who hired him, and realising that time was running out, “he committed the murder in May [last] year, just before he turned 18.” He added that the boy never received the remaining money, and was now serving a sentence of one year at an observation home in Delhi. The adult who hired him was never apprehended.
Asthana explained that while the JJ Act served a noble purpose, it had to be regulated and actually implemented. In 2012, he had filed a civil writ petition at the Delhi High Court regarding the “issue of organised gangs using juveniles to commit crimes at the behest and command of adult perpetrators,” listing the Delhi Police and the Delhi government as respondents. He wrote in the petition that children as young as 10 or 11 years old “get trapped in [the] cycle of crime and their childhood is lost forever in the dark streets of crime.” Asthana’s major grievance was that the “main perpetrators who are influencing these children to commit the crime are not traced and caught.” According to a 25 January 2011 order issued by the JJB, the authorities must follow the guidelines of the JJ Act, and that “investigation should not stop at juvenile apprehension.” The order also issued directions for proper investigation on the involvement of adult perpetrators, the role of parents, the role of gangs, and the circumstances of the child, before decreeing that henceforth, it would not accept incomplete reports from the police that did not contain the above-mentioned details beyond the facts of crime.
“But police doesn’t really do investigation on those aspects unless they happen to be some high profile cases, like the Karkardooma case,” Asthana stressed. He went on to explain that looking at the larger problem as recommended by the JJB would risk additional First Information Reports (FIRs) and cases, which would in turn mean an increase in the workload and crime statistics. He then relented, admitting that the police were already overworked, and weren’t entirely at fault because there were no proper systems in place. For instance, as per the JJ Act, apart from state-level Child Police Units (CPUs) there must be a subordinate CPU for each district. Each police station must also have a Special Juvenile Police Unit (SJPU), along with two social workers appointed by the department of women and child development (DWCD). The act also mandates that every station must also have at least two juvenile welfare officers (JWOs) or child welfare officers (CWOs) to handle cases of juvenile crime only. However, according to Asthana’s petition, most police stations lack the said social workers, and the JWOs and CWOs do not work exclusively on juvenile cases. Asthana told me that, at present, for the 11 districts of Delhi, there are only two district-level CPUs. If this was the condition in the capital, Asthana wondered what the situation would be outside it. “For the rest of the country,” he said, “the [JJ] system doesn’t even exist—it’s just air!”
On 27 January, I spoke with Samvedna Singh over the phone. Singh is a CWO with the SJPU at Seemapuri in north-east Delhi. She confirmed what Asthana said: that the SJPU did have two JWOs, but they did not work on juvenile cases alone. In addition, there were two social workers provided by the DWCD. She explained that her duty was to counsel juveniles, ensure that they are produced before the JJB within 24 hours, and to help the investigating officers with filing FIRs and ascertaining the juveniles’ background. While Singh personally hadn’t encountered any instances of juveniles associated with gangs, she said she had heard of such cases in north Delhi.
Asthana believes, however, that the JJB is a limited organisation. Their mandate is to identify why a particular juvenile committed the crime and to find ways of rehabilitation. “They can only issue orders,” he lamented. “The investigation and implementation have to be done by the police and other authorities,” he said, before adding, “the problem is implementation.” A major reason for this problem, he stated, was institutional apathy and the electoral insignificance of children, especially those belonging to poorer or at-risk environments. “If the ministers don’t care, how will the bureaucrats? Bureaucracy is only interested in the money aspect. They’ll build observation homes, release the contracts, take the commissions, and so forth. But in terms of actual services, the situation is bad.”
In response to the high court order issued after Asthana’s petition, the Delhi police filed a status report on 30 January 2013, claiming that the JJB order had been circulated to all police stations and that its guidelines were being followed. It also claimed that the police had taken care of the juvenile gangs, asking that Asthana share their details if they were still active. “But I had already been doing that for years,” Asthana told me. “Because the authorities didn’t pay any attention, I had to file the petition in the high court.”
Similarly, the state government too filed an affidavit outlining various steps taken and proposed to strengthen the implementation of the JJ act. Consequently, on 24 September 2013, the petition was disposed with a direction to the respondents to ensure that the JJB guidelines were adhered to. Thus, Asthana found he was effectively back to square one. “That’s how the courts function. If the police tells the court that they are doing the needful and will continue to do so, the court has to believe them. The court doesn’t expect them to lie,” he told me.“But I’ll go back to court on this, don’t worry, I will go!” Asthana declared.
It remains to be seen how the recent 2015 amendment to the JJ Act fits with the larger pattern of the juvenile justice system in India.