On juvenile age, need for maturer debate
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Over the past one week, Woman and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath has not just sent activists and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights into a spin with her statement that the juvenile allegedly involved in the Delhi gangrape incident should be tried as an adult. She has also challenged a law enacted as per the United Nations Convention on Child Rights. India ratified it in 1992 and any exception now made in the 18-year cut-off age for offenders to be treated as criminals would invite complications.
The Juvenile Justice Act that derives from this convention — raising the cut-off date from 16 years for boys — was lauded as a progressive step bringing India at par with most western nations. Some countries like Germany even treat those aged between 19-21 years as a disparate group that is more accountable for their actions than juveniles/children but likely to face less harsh punitive actions than those aged more.
Moreover, in her reactionary outburst demanding criminal action against underage offenders involved in heinous crimes, Tirath risked the same prejudices that activists had warned against when her ministry pushed through the Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act 2012 that removed the concept of age of consent. Activists as well as the NCPCR had warned that this would open floodgates of criminal complaints against minor "lovers" defying parental diktats.
The ministry's logic then was that accommodating exceptions should not jeopardise thousands of others — a position in reverse of the stand Tirath has taken now. A change in the law to deal with one heinous offender, it is feared, might affect many others.
Neither have calls for an amendment in the JJ Act factored in views of an existing committee set up for the purpose. Some of its members have met the minister requesting consultations.