The greatest challenge that every one of us who works with the juvenile justice system faces is keeping the balance between being fair to both the CICL [child in conflict with the law] and the victim. There are some rare cases of gruesome murder or brutal sexual assault that have to be handled with care and sensitivity.
Reflecting on her inner turmoil, Bipasha Roy [a former member of JJB in Kolkata] says, ‘While talking to a CICL, conflicting emotions would rage in me. I would be torn between detaining the offenders in the Observation Home and at the same time talking to them gently to assuage their fears and apprehensions. With experience I could control my emotions as the child’s vulnerability and helplessness would soften my stance. I realized, after years of delving into the backgrounds of so many children, that most of them never got the opportunity of imbibing good values. Their life was a big struggle to survive. With no roof over their heads, or even the certainty of two square meals a day, often with no parents or guardians to take care of them…it was difficult, almost impossible grow into well-behaved, mature adults.’
What one finds when interacting with the children is that the effects of poverty are often compounded by peer influence.
It has in fact been isolated by several studies as a major factor that predisposes offending children to criminal behaviour. The fact that many among the children who end up in the system are in a severe state of deprivation only encourages the formation of gangs. It is through these gangs that the young people acquire criminal behaviour. It isn’t hard to imagine why there is far higher likelihood of delinquency among young people belonging to a gang than those who are not.
A young boy of about 8-10 years, we’ll call him Sonu, along with another friend of 14-15 years, was having a good time till they were apprehended by the police. The mother of the young boy worked in a high-ranking civil servant’s house as a maid and the father worked in a private company. Sonu and his friend, who also lived in the neighbourhood, would leave home every morning with their bags full of books, ‘apparently headed for school.
However, instead of going to school, they would walk around identifying houses where everyone had gone out. Perched on his older friend’s shoulder, Sonu would enter the homes through windows or balconies. After stealing whatever small items they could carry in their bags, they would go to some scrap dealer, sell them and then buy guavas, ice cream, chocolate, etc., eat them and go back home.
The parents were both illiterate and too busy to ask about their school activities. Soon the boys felt more emboldened and started stealing more expensive things as well. The complaints in the neighbourhood about the thefts increased and the police were alerted. One day, as Sonu was trying to climb into a house through a kitchen window, perched on his friend’s shoulder, the police arrived. The older boy ran away leaving Sonu to be caught by the police. Later, the older boy was caught too. There was a lot of pressure from the government officials whose houses had been stolen from by Sonu and his friend that they be ‘punished’.
But the JJB magistrate, after hearing the details of the case, decided to have a ‘chat’ with the boys. They both pleaded guilty and promised that they would go back to school, upon which they were handed over to the parents.
‘Friendship thi, ma’am’ (It was friendship, ma’am), is how many children will describe what made them step into the world of crime.
This was what was repeated to me in a recent visit to a Place of Safety (PoS) where the older boys are housed. Ranjan (name changed) could not hold back his tears, and nor could we. He was in school and was doing fairly well. He made friends with Kunal (name changed) who convinced him to pick pockets. On the fateful day they picked a fancy cellphone from someone’s pocket. As luck would have it, the pocket was that of a police officer who managed to catch Ranjan. He said he had been taken to the police station and even tortured but he did not reveal Kunal’s name. The reason? Kunal was not a very good student and was already behind in class. He was over 18 and if caught would be sent to adult prison. Ranjan did not wish that for him, so he took on the blame alone. His loyalty to his friend was moving. It also showed his strength of character. But his story also confirms how peer pressure, or ‘friendship’, remains one of the many reasons for children to get into the world of crime.
Richa Arora, in a report titled ‘Study of Children in Conflict with Law’ in Delhi, which she wrote for TISS, spotlights residence as a key determinant of child delinquency. A child who witnesses crimes in his surroundings and neighbourhood becomes accustomed to such actions and learns from them. The area where the child lives, the surroundings and the socio-economic status of people around, play an important role in determining what the child is exposed to and what his/her actions might be.
Jagdeep has been in and out of the system for a long time. Beginning with offences of lesser gravity, this time he was in for murder. It’s his ‘family honour’ that he must protect, he said. He had in fact been convicted for not one but several murders, which he committed to save his family’s ‘honour’ in a property dispute. When I met him, his older brother and father were in jail, and Jagdeep was in a PoS. It is quite clear that he does not think he did anything wrong, and nor does he think have his father and brothers. In fact, his family is proud of him.
One can only imagine how much worse it might be when the violence is not just in the surroundings but is directed specifically at the child.
Enakshi Ganguly has been involved in research, advocacy and training on a wide range of human rights issues, such as displacement due to development, child rights, women rights and those concerning other marginalised groups since 1985. She is an Advisor at HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, which she founded in 1998 and co-directed till 2018.
The above is an excerpt from Juvenile, Not Delinquent: Children in Conflict With The Law, written by Enakshi Ganguly, Kalpana Purushothaman, and Puneeta Roy, and published by Speaking Tiger in 2023.