On 22 December 2015, the Rajya Sabha concluded a grueling debate that lasted over five hours by passing the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015. The bill, which was cleared by the Lok Sabha earlier this year in May, now awaits presidential sanction to become a law. Once the president gives his assent, juveniles who are between 16 to 18 years old and have committed heinous crimes—those that are punishable with a minimum of seven years under the Indian Penal Code—would be penalised as adults. The Rajya Sabha’s decision was met with mixed reactions. However, closer scrutiny of the process of passing the bill, and the new law’s implications, should raise concerns about such institutional responses to public outcry.
Four days ago, the juvenile involved in the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on 16 December 2012 completed the three-year sentence he had been awarded in August 2013 by a district court in Delhi. The juvenile’s release and the subsequent protests brought the Juvenile Justice Bill into the limelight. Most people demanded that the Rajya Sabha pass the new bill that the Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi had introduced in August last year. Many public figures contributed to this collective outrage. The chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, for instance, claimed that the juvenile would have been tried as an adult and received the punishment he deserved had the Rajya Sabha expedited the passage of the new bill. This was completely inaccurate since laws cannot be applied retrospectively. Meanwhile, celebrities such as Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar and musician Vishal Dadlani, who actively engage with the country’s political discourse, put forward the unconstitutional proposition of retrying the juvenile as an adult. Such sweeping statements illustrate how influential people fuelled public anger with misinformation, instead of engaging with it effectively.
The most disappointing reaction to the public outcry around the juvenile’s release however, came from the Rajya Sabha. Throughout the winter session—which started on 26 November and ended yesterday—the upper house has witnessed adjournments because of regular disruptions. According to the data released by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research organisation based in New Delhi, the Rajya Sabha worked for only 51 percent of its scheduled time. The cost of running each house is Rs 29,000 per minute, and the wasted hours have reportedly resulted in a loss of around Rs 10 crore for the exchequer. This lack of efficiency momentarily dissipated with the bill. Prompted by the anger and disappointment of a large section of the society, the government listed the bill for immediate discussion on 22 December and moved to pass it urgently. The good news is that the house functioned without disruption as several members of parliament (MPs) attempted to engage with the bill. The bad news is that it took public outrage of this scale for MPs to reconcile and come to the discussion table. The Rajya Sabha passed seven bills this session. Six of these were passed without any discussion. The house functioned as it ought to only when it had to pass a legislation to assuage the anger of a mob. This is a distressing signal of the continued weakening of our legislative institution.
In its enthusiasm to pass the bill, the house proceeded in a disconcertingly hurried manner. The Juvenile Justice Bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation. Although the penalty that the bill is attempting to introduce for juveniles who are 16-years-old has gotten the most attention, this is just one of its provisions. The bill also serves a number of other functions: setting the penalties for other crimes such as trafficking and intoxication of children and prescribing the provisions for the adoption of children. While some of these aspects were briefly raised by a few MPs, the thrust of the debate remained the reduction in the age of juveniles.
Opening the discussion on the bill this Tuesday, Maneka Gandhi declared, “This is a very nuanced bill.” She went on to address the problem of the reduction in the age of juveniles by telling the house that this provision would be invoked only for those who had committed crimes with an “adult” bent of mind. Gandhi continued by describing how the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB)—comprising psychologists, social workers and other experts—would play a key role in ascertaining whether or not a juvenile would be sent to an adult court. Their decision, she reiterated, would ascertain whether the juvenile committed the crime with a “child-like mind” or an “adult mind.” When Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent MP from Karnataka asked Gandhi about how the JJB would be created and whether it would be equipped to deal with such cases, she offered rhetoric on having faith in the ability of the board. She did not list any measures that could illustrate what recourse the government would take if these boards got overburdened by the sudden spike in cases, and started working less efficiently as a result.