Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reducing cut-off for defining juveniles is a good idea….

From amongst the several demands and suggestions for amending the present rape laws – some of which are extremely radical – one stands out as being entirely reasonable. The girl’s father has suggested that the cut-off age for defining a juvenile should be lowered from the present 18 years to 15 or maybe even 12. This suggestion is so appropriate  considering that the one who most badly brutalized the poor girl – and in fact lured her into the bus in the first place – was a 17 year old. As per current law, he could escape with just a few years in a juvenile delinquency home…..while the others, who are above 18, are likely to be given the death penalty.

I have said this earlier in a different context (when the Maharashtra government raised the age for drinking from 21 to 25 years) that kids are becoming adults much earlier these days. There is medical data that indicates that kids are hitting puberty a few years earlier than in the past, with some of the earliest cases being reported at just 11-12 years of age. With the onset of puberty, a kid’s physiology undergoes a dramatic transformation and he changes from being a “safe” kid to becoming a “dangerous” adult. A 17 year old is hardly a kid by this yardstick. Given this, how fair is it that he gets off with a few years of cooling his heals, but an 18 year old goes to the gallows?

I am sure many of the rape cases reported in the country are attributable to such “kids” who are less than 18 years of age. Who knows if the age had been reduced to 12 earlier itself, many of these perps would have been a little more worried about the consequences of their dastardly acts and may not have committed them at all. For if the purpose of punishment is to deter others, surely a harsher punishment to a 12+ yeare old would deter others of that age.

The reasons to reduce the age for juveniles is even stronger in a country like India considering that so many of these kids drop out of school and start working to fend for themselves and their families. Working makes you feel like an adult; it puts you in the company of adults and their roving eyes. The innocence of youth disappears. The hardships of life face you in the face. These kids suddenly grow stronger physically, even though they may be mentally weak and fragile. It’s a potent combination – a physically strong body without a correspondingly strong brain. As a corollary, had these kids remained in school or college, chances are their minds would have been focused on studies and learning, rather than working and doing. Unfortunate it may be, but the fact is that these drop-outs are one of the contributors to rape.

There’s also this debate about whether the girl should be named. I am of the firm belief that naming will only embarrass the rape victim (if she survives) and her family, given the pathetic society we live in. In a lot of cases, the girl will be blamed as people will hint that the girl “must have done something” to get into trouble. We already have police chiefs and politicians saying that girls should not wear skirts and jeans or carry mobiles or some such silly things. What’s to prevent society from targeting the girl or her family in the future if her identity became public? It’s impossible to keep the name a total secret, but if we have to give the girl and her family any chance at all, we have to keep the identity as much of a secret as possible.

In a progressive society where the ramifications of a rape are merely physical, it would be OK to put out the name. In India on the other hand, there is a social stigma attached to rape. This stigma is much more painful than the physical abuse itself. A girl may be able to overcome the physical assault, but overcoming the stigma is impossible in our society. Keeping the girl’s identity confidential is thus a good idea. The lame duck excuse that by revealing the girl’s name, we can name the new law after her is specious. It would really serve no purpose at all, aside from giving our politicians some brownie points.

While I am clear that a 17 year old should be treated just like an 18 year old, I am equally clear that the death penalty is not the solution. On the totempole of crimes, rapes come way below murders, even though they are horribly heinous by nature. A gang-rape is worse, and deserving of a much higher punishment, but its still lower down from a pre-meditated murder. Even with respect to murders, I personally feel death is not the right thing to do. Liberal societies have all moved away from the death penalty, preferring instead life long incarceration. I feel the death penalty should only be given to terrorists, and maybe drug dealers etc – those who threaten a whole society with their crimes.

The real truth thus is that with earlier maturity being quite the norm these days, 15 or even 12 should be the cut-off age for juveniles. A crime committed by a person above that age should be treated like a crime committed by an adult…..In this case, the punishment for the 17 year old should be the same as given to the others.

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