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.