There has been a debate recently on laws related to juveniles in two countries – Australia and India — though for different reasons.
A 15-year-old shot dead a police officer in Sydney, the largest city of Australia in October this year. The boy was allegedly radicalised. In the aftermath of the shooting the state speeded up its legal machinery to put children as young as 14 under police control orders. The police control orders mean constant surveillance of a suspect if there are apprehensions that he/she would indulge in terror related activities.
In India too, the law related to juveniles is under the scanner in light of a brutal rape and subsequent death of a young girl that took place three years back in Delhi. One of the culprits in what is now known as the Nirbhaya case, was just under 18 years of age. A demand has subsequently arisen from some quarters that the juvenile age be lowered to 16 years. This demand is misinformed, emotive and motivated. It is a ploy to add to already overwhelming powers of the state that it exercises over its citizens.
In Australia terror related activities have increasingly grown and surfaced in recent past. By April 2015, 61 Australian were fighting in Syria and 21 had died doing so . The state is aware of the menace and has taken several social measures under its ‘deradicalisation programme.’
However what is worrisome is the readiness with which authorities legalised stringent measures curtailing juvenile’s rights and liberties, netting children as young as 14 under draconian legal provisions that lead to life imprisonment. In one stroke the state spread its net wider, extending its authoritarian reach to a segment of population that hitherto was considered juvenile and dealt with as per the requirements of their unique situation of biological and psychological transition.
The government has ignored the reality that there are social reasons for radicalisation of the Muslims in Australia. They are a marginalized community. The Muslims are 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than an average Australian; they own only 14% homes as compared with the national non-Muslim average that stands at 32% . Poverty is the breeding ground for alienation from, and turning against the system.
The fact that the Australian foreign policy is no more than a shadow of the US foreign policy in the Middle East also creates a distance between the Muslims and the system. This ideological vacuum is filled up by misleading religious propaganda by Muslim extremists to which the young of the community are the most susceptible.
Increase in juvenile crime
In India too, as the government informed the parliament, crime has increased amongst the juvenile by about 50 percent in the last decade. However, one must note that this was also the decade of state’s promotion of subtle commercialisation of primary education and gradually withdrawing from it. Consequently, it has deprived the poorest of the society from quality basic education. The Rajasthan government effectively closed down 17000 government schools by merging them with other schools in 2014, while Jammu and Kashmir government got rid of 3000 government schools in 2015.
Therefore, it is not surprising that 52.9% of the juveniles that had a brush with the law in 2014 were either illiterate or educated up to the primary level. At the same time 55.6% of them came from households with an annual income below Rs 25,000 . It translates to about $ 1.00 per day, considerably below the new global poverty line of $1.90 as set out by the World Bank using 2011 prices.
If the state was to be genuinely interested in the welfare of children it would invest into eliminating causes that breed juvenile radicalisation in Australia and juvenile crime in India. It would invest liberally in education and social support system that ensures a child’s healthy transition to adulthood and proud citizenship.
Instead, the government has chosen to legislate tougher laws to extend its reach and control. For example, according to Civil Liberties Australia, a human rights organization, after 9/11 Australia had legislated 54 security laws till 2012, an average of one every two months. Similarly, Indian courts handed out death sentence to 5054 people between 2004-13, an average of 505 per year. And now, clamor for death for juvenile!
Governments are always keen to resort to legal measures to fix social problems. They derive three advantages out of it. First, It takes zero imagination and little effort. Second, it gives them chance to exploit people’s charged emotions (on terrorism, rape) which get translated into votes. Thirdly, it makes them stronger, proportionately weakening the citizen. A society composed of powerless citizenry is easier to influence, control and suppress. What more can a government ask for?
Pushkar Raj is an independent writer based in Melbourne. Earlier, he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India.