Do we even know what juvenile justice means, or for that matter, justice?

Jyoti Singh India and rape - Justice is not vengeance
Voices Opinion Monday, December 21, 2015 - 17:22

One of Jyoti Singh’s rapists has been handed over to an NGO today and will most likely be given a new identity. His release is a litmus test of our democracy, its institutions, our successes and failure.

Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we as a people have grown a conscience after Ms. Singh’s brutal rape and murder on the streets of Delhi three winters ago. Let us also not pretend we care. We don’t.  If we did, some one would have stopped their car to help the lady as she lay on the road dying. It took us – we the cowards – three years to go from calling her Nirbhaya the fearless to Jyoti, her real name. We were frightened, so we called her brave and fearless - we the stupid, we the ridiculous, we the juvenile. We were afraid because it happened close to where we live, streets we frequent, shops we patronize and areas we know. Not in some back-of-beyond Indian hamlet where unspeakable violence is a daily fare and women and girls get raped and mutilated when they go to the fields to answer nature’s call.

Last week, my colleagues Dhanya Rajendran and Ramanathan Subramaniam busted six myths about the juvenile rapist. Among them was this – there is no record that he was the most brutal. In fact, there is nothing in the statements of Ms. Singh and her friend that confirm this concoction, trumped up and fed to the media and repeated ad nauseam like a war cry.  In addition, he was not going to be roaming around freely with scissors and needles in hand as an eminence bayed on national television, referring to his release and rehabilitation as a tailor. Read here

The role of mass hysteria in the juvenile justice debate currently agitating us is like the contribution of marching bands to music – bombastic and fearsome noise. If we were truly traumatised as a nation, we would have gone about our work of ensuring justice without fanning vengeance. We would have held our lawmakers responsible and accountable to us, we the people. We would have forced parliament to come to a standstill on something far more important than any bill it has passed in recent years. A country that cannot protect its people, especially women and children, skews itself for generations. A wounded psyche produces warped outcomes, much like juveniles left to fend for themselves on India’s streets.

There’s worse. We the people of India have come to think that justice is vengeance. When called to account – and the National Herald story is the latest case in point – we play victim. Deadly combination this can be – juvenile, vile and perpetually victimized people, running for cover under the glare of light and enquiry. We were bloodthirsty to hang the juvenile so we could return to business as usual. We couched our stupidity in questions we thought targeted systemic flaws but ended up showing our vacuity instead.

Example? Try this. Who was the worst of the rapists who took turns in tearing Ms. Singh apart?  Graded brutality entered the scene and the selection went from very brutal to mildly brutal and presumably middle brutal somewhere there. I am not a lawyer but try to make up for my lack of formal legal training by reading, listening, questioning. Normal, like all normal journalists and here is a normal question – do we even know what we were talking about when holding forth on juvenile justice?

The News Minute followed up on its first piece about the myths with another informed piece by Nina P. Nayak who has read the chargesheet while she served at the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. She also met the person in question in prison. “I found neither in the judgment delivered by the Juvenile Justice Board nor in the charge sheet that the minor was the most brutal of those who assaulted Jyoti Singh,” she said. Read her piece here.

We are not expected to agree with Ms. Nayak or with the myths, but responsibility for preventing our democracy from descending into free-for-all vigilantism is ours. Baying for blood – hang the juvenile – would have hurt our already weak legal processes in ways, where we could have ended up nurturing more rapists. We are not required to buy this person’s paintings while in prison, or his despondency – for me, all of it bears the stench of death, but that is my problem. As a reporter, I will have to work my way through this without jingoism. There are millions of children in this world who have been subjected to far greater indifference, wars, famine and abuse, but how many of them have taken to more violence as an answer? There are no simple answers, and we need to think this through as soon as possible. As a member of the fourth estate, the importance of our responsibility cannot be overstated.

We neither fear nor respect our laws. We know how our law enforcement systems are weak and farcical. We fear the society we have created because it has no way of ensuring reforms and rehabilitation. We are indifferent to murder and misery, poverty and abuse. Our society that needs root and branch reform and reflection cannot be given the task of ensuring due process of justice. That is what we fear – the absence of due process even as we contribute to its decimation.   Let us not make it worse by cheering for more farce. Ms. Singh’s rape has questioned our institutions, our democracy - we could pay our tribute to her by naming the proposed new law on juvenile justice after her so it serves as a constant reminder of what we are capable of doing to ourselves. This is possibly an ‘in the meantime solution’ but we all live in that space and timeframe. Let us not hang our democracy while we search for a median.

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