Is the punishment commensurate with the crime committed? Why should someone be treated as a juvenile when they have committed a heinous crime? Shouldn't there be a change in the legal system to contain rising youth crime?
These are the questions being asked after the verdict by the juvenile court in Delhi on Saturday, sentencing the youngest accused in last December’s gang-rape case to three years in a reform center.
Of the six culprits, he was the youngest – not yet 18 years old – at the time of the crime. Therefore, his case was heard by the Juvenile Justice Board. Indian law gives deferential treatment to people below the age of 18. Under juvenile law the emphasis is on the reform of the delinquent and the maximum sentence is three years.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There is outrage over the lighter sentence.
The most distraught after the verdict was the mother of the victim, who told The Diplomat “The ruling is an insult to me. It has pained me beyond words. Nothing less than a death sentence would satisfy me and the culprit should be treated on par with the other accused.” She added that “the Juvenile Law should be changed and such criminality should not go unpunished.”
According to Hindustan Times, the younger brother of the victim allegedly tried to attack the juvenile on hearing the news of the sentence.
There was high drama outside the court premises on Saturday evening after the verdict was announced. The brother broke down after coming out of the courtroom and expressed shock at the “leniency shown to the accused.” Speaking with The Diplomat, he asked, “If the court had to announce this sentence then why did it take more than eight months to finish the case?”
Similar sentiments were expressed by a small group of protesters gathered outside the court after the verdict. They shouted slogans against the verdict and asked for the change in law to reflect the “countrywide anger against the brutal nature of the crime.”
The presence of a large number of national and international media outside the court was indicative of the worldwide attention the case is getting. The verdict came just weeks after the gang-rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai.
Reflecting the widespread anger against the verdict The Asian Age published an editorial which says:
“What lies forgotten behind the delivery of the first verdict in the sensational Delhi gang-rape is the victim was also set upon in such an uncivilized manner as to have caused her death. In not making a distinction between a most heinous crime and petty thievery or juvenile delinquency, the justice system has only stoked more anger in not only the kin of the deceased but also in the mind of the greater community as a whole.”
However, some children’s rights activists and those working in the field of juvenile justice do not share the outrage. They feel that sensationalized reporting on the incident has made a criminal of a juvenile and stoked public anger towards a system meant to protect youths and reform them.
Ved Kumari, an eminent expert on juvenile justice law and ex-chairperson of the Delhi judicial academy, told the Hindustan Times, “While condemning the ghastly gang rape, I want to focus on the child involved in the offence. This boy was all of 13 years when he left home.”
Kumari went on to pose a number of questions in an attempt to frame the conversation in a wider context: “Why did he leave? What was his home like? What happened to him in the last five years? What all has been responsible for turning him into this beast? Why did the juvenile justice system in place in our country not reach out to him and prevented him from being what he has become today?”
Anant Kumar Asthana, an expert on India’s juvenile justice system and also an activist who is passionately involved in counseling and reforming young delinquents, expressed a similar sentiment. In an interview with The Diplomat, the lawyer lambasted the media “for sensational reporting and not understanding the nuances of the juvenile justice system.” He added that “a lot of what media has reported about juveniles in this case is false and part of larger design to discredit the juvenile justice system.”
The Justice Verma committee, set up after the December 16 gang-rape case with the aim of suggesting changes to laws to curb the rising incidents of rape in the country, has not recommended any alterations to the juvenile justice system either.
The debate over juvenile justice is sure to continue. But for now the attention is on the fast-track court in Delhi where the other four accused in the case are facing trial on various charges of murder and rape. The ruling is expected sometime this month.