In Its Haste to Pass the Juvenile Justice Bill, the Parliament has Weakened Itself

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. Vinod Singh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
24 December, 2015

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.

In May, during the discussion on the bill in the Lok Sabha, Gandhi had furthered the case of stronger punitive action against juveniles by citing data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The records, she said, indicated that 28,000 children had committed crimes in 2013, of which 3,883 had committed serious crimes such as murder and rape. The data that she was quoting was based on First Information Reports (FIRs) and not on convictions. Basing laws on such information is a potentially dangerous practice as FIRs do not determine the rate of crime in society. If anything, they reveal patterns in the reporting of these crimes. But this discrepancy went completely unaddressed, apart from a passing reference made by Rajeev Gowda—a Congress MP from Karnataka who opposed the bill even though his party supported it—in the Rajya Sabha discussion. During the discussion on Tuesday, several MPs cited varying figures to support their inference of an increase in juvenile crime: some suggested an increase of 2 percent and others that of 140 percent, over periods ranging from two to 10 years. The inconsistency in the understanding of juvenile crime rate was evident.

Gandhi repeatedly justified the urgency of this bill by claiming that juvenile crimes comprise the fastest rising segment in crimes across the country. However, as The Indian Expresspointed out in a report yesterday, this assertion is flawed. While the absolute numbers of crimes committed by juveniles has increased, these crimes still form a minuscule 1.2 percent of the total number of crimes in India. The increase in the rate, the report noted, could be attributed to several factors that include the natural growth of the population, more cases being reported and an increase in the age of consent (from 16 to 18 years), which may mean that several cases of consensual sex are registered as rape.

Almost all MPs—irrespective of the political party they belonged to, and whether or not they were supporting the bill—urged the government to work on improving the dismal condition of juvenile homes in India. Gandhi’s response to this was merely the assurance of regular social audits. Some such as Ravi Prakash Verma of the Samajwadi Party, Ritabrata Banerjee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Vandana Chavan of the Nationalist Congress Party, pointed out that the that a reduction in juvenile crime falls under the overarching issue of children’s development. Although they inquired about the provision of improved educational facilities for such juveniles, Gandhi did not talk of any cross-ministry collaboration with the human resource development ministry to address these concerns.

By focusing almost entirely on enabling a law to punish juveniles severely, the discussion restricted its scope and barely scraped the surface to deliberate upon factors that lead to juvenile crimes in the first place. There was little explanation on the rationale behind lowering the age for juveniles from 18 to 16 years. When Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M) asked the government whether it would propose amendments to the new law if a child just one month short of turning 16-years-old committed a heinous crime in future, Gandhi did not respond.

In addition to Yechury, three women MPs—Anu Aga, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha; MK Kanimozhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham; and Chavan—demanded that the bill be sent to a select committee for a more thorough examination. Since no motion to this effect was even presented to PJ Kurien, the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, at the beginning of the discussion, he had to put the bill to vote. Eventually, it was passed without any amendments through a voice vote.

The house did not appear to be concerned about facilitating a comprehensive piece of legislation that would deliver on the goal of deterring juveniles from committing heinous crimes. Instead, the focus seemed to be on passing the bill, and quickly. This sentiment was succinctly captured by Derek O’Brien from the All India Trinamool Congress when he said, “We would rather not wait indefinitely for the ideal bill, this is good enough for today.” The reason for this haste was unclear, given that the juvenile whose case had prompted the new bill was decidedly outside its purview.

The manner in which this legislation has been followed through, from its ideation to its passage, is worrisome. Laws should not be proposed as a reaction to one particular case. The purpose of laws is not to serve the morality of the day, it is to help define the kind of society we choose to build and live in. As Chavan said during the debate, “Laws should not be based on emotion, but on reason.”

For those who believe that stricter punishment is the key to addressing juvenile crime, the passage of this bill is an achievement. Defying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, India now joins the list of countries such as USA, UK and France that treat children falling under certain age groups as adults for heinous crimes. However, we have undermined our legislature in the process. The bill appears to have been created to appease a majority, and to help it feel less complicit about being an active part of a society in which children commit such crimes.