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#JuvenileJusticeAct: Has Parliament failed children?

Panini Anand & Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 2:21 IST

The legislation

  • Rajya Sabha passed the Juvenile Justice Act on 22 December
  • It allows 16-18 year old children to be tried as adults in case of heinous crimes

The debate

  • Activists have slammed this as \"unconstitutional\" and a violation of UN conventions
  • They plan to challenge in the Supreme Court

More in the story

  • Who said what in the Rajya Sabha?
  • What is the criticism of the legislation?
  • Was it passed in haste?

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015 was passed in the Rajya Sabha on 22 December. The Bill will become a law once it is signed by the President.

The legislation, which was passed in the Lok Sabha in May this year, allows children in the 16-18 age group to be tried as adults if they commit heinous crimes.

Also read - #JuvenileJusticeBill: what's at stake in the big debate?

This "historic" legislation is seen as a setback to juvenile justice in the country. Activists are planning to challenge it in the Supreme Court, arguing that it is "unconstitutional".

Dissent in the House

The passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha was a forgone conclusion with the ruling NDA and the main Opposition party, the Congress, backing it. But it did not go without contestation.

The Bill was introduced by Maneka Gandhi, Minister of Women and Child Welfare.

However, there were a number of dissenting voices in the Upper House. The most vociferous was the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose leaders strongly opposed the Bill and demanded that it should be sent to a select committee for more clarity. When the demand wasn't accepted, the party MPs walked out of the House in protest.

CPM MP Sitaram Yechury, who is also the party's General Secretary, told Catch "The Justice JS Verma Committee had so much more to offer for women's safety. Why are those recommendations being ignored?"

He further said, "we regret that the Parliament has missed an opportunity to consider such an important Bill in a more dispassionate and scientific manner. The Justice Verma Committee as well as the Standing Committee opposed this lowering of age. We need to think about how we treat our young persons and how crime should be fought".

Both BJP and Congress voted for the Bill. Till recently, Congress wanted it sent to a select committee

The other party which was voiced strong opposition to the Bill was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

DMK MP Kanimozhi made an emotional speech and read the testimony of a juvenile in the House. Even though it was appreciated by many MPs, it didn't change their minds.

NCP MP Vandana Chavan and Samajwadi Party MP Ravi Prakash Verma also made strong arguments against the Bill in the form it was tabled. Almost 20 MPs spoke on the Bill and suggested amendments for the same.

A number of MPs stated that they weren't in favour of the Bill being passed in a hurry. A few, such as Viplove Thakur, a Congress MP from Himachal Pradesh, even took a stand against her own party.

The Congress, which till recently seemed in favour of sending the Bill to a select committee, stood strongly in favour of the Bill.

The party was particularly firm in its support of clause that provides juveniles involved in heinous crimes to be tried as adults.

CPI(M) and DMK were vociferous in their opposition. Congress MP Viplove Thakur went against her party

Leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, Congress MP Ghulam Nabi Azad said that Rajiv Gandhi proposed this reduction in 1986. He said that it was the NDA which changed it to 18 years and now it is going back to the Congress' proposal.

Maneka Gandhi rejected all the objections raised by the dissenting members. She termed the Bill as "historic" and promised that it will lead to reforms in the juvenile justice system.

"Instead of opposing it, it should be voted on and passed. The members should give us at least a year and see how we bring about changes," she said.

However, a few MPs and many experts felt that the Rajya Sabha was bulldozed into passing the Bill because of the popular mood in its favour.

"No one wants to be on the other side because the popular mood was in the favour of the Bill. However, the Bill violates the Constitution and also UN declaration on Human Rights signed by India. It would not stand in the court, " said an MP who didn't want to be named.

Also read - #Nirbhaya trial was a test case to destroy juvenile justice. Here's why it worked

Activists slam the legislation

The legislation received flak from activists who have been working in the field of human rights and the welfare of children.

According to lawyer and activist Colin Gonsalves, it wasn't the juvenile but the entire society that was on trial.

"I have come across juveniles who were picked up by policemen, sodomised and exploited by them, made to clean their toilets, polish their shoes and so on," he said.

Activists are planning to challenge the Act in the Supreme Court. They say it's unconstitutional

Gonsalves feels that the state and society cannot ignore its own responsibility by enacting a stronger law against juvenile criminals.

"Why are there so many juveniles on the streets? Why aren't they in school? What have we done to keep them away from crime?" he asked.

He further pointed out that the entire legislation was based on a wrong premise that juvenile crime is on the rise.

"The overall percentage of juveniles in crime is minuscule. And we speak of rape cases, most cases are ones in which there has been consensual sex between underage couples," he stated.

Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, also slammed the legislation. "Political interests have trumped the interests of children," she said.

Chandra Suman, a lawyer who works on juvenile and child rights, said that the law can be challenged in the Supreme Court.

"This law violates two or three basic UN conventions India is a signatory to. After so much consideration that went into making the first Juvenile Justice Bill in 2000, one single incident has changed our view about juveniles," she said.

"I have handled the case of a juvenile who was thirteen and a half years old and participated in a crime that was more brutal crime than the Jyoti Singh case. Should we now lower the juvenile limit to 14 years?" she asked.

R Sudarshan, Dean at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, said that laws can't be framed on the basis of such extreme cases.

Many argue the Act violates UN Conventions on the rights of children that India is a signatory to

"The Bill isn't unconstitutional and the Parliament can decide the definition of juvenile. "But there is a dictum that hard cases make for bad laws. If on the basis of that juvenile convicted in Jyoti Singh case you want to make law, it isn't good. You have to draw the line somewhere. What if someone younger than 15 commits rape tomorrow?" he asked.

According to him, the Bill is like a retrospective legislation.

"We are basically trying to create a law for the boy whom we cannot now punish, because criminal laws cannot be applied retrospectively," he said.

Even Sudarshan felt that the legislation does violate UN conventions that India has signed.

"We are also party to UN conventions that are internationally agreed upon. There are international treaties that bind us to that convention, that is a factor to be considered. I think we've rushed, quite impulsively, in case of this legislation," he added.

More in Catch - Juvenile Justice Bill gives justice to none. Least of all Jyoti's parents

The Juvenile Justice Debate: why the lynch mobs should not win

Has the #JuvenileRapist really been reformed?: DCW chief Swati Maliwal

First published: 23 December 2015, 2:12 IST