The Sunday Story: ‘Couldn’t I be like them too?’ he asked

From the age of 13, when he smashed up a classmate in a school brawl, he has been in and out of Delhi’s juvenile homes.

Written by Amrita Dutta | New Delhi | Published:November 30, 2014 12:50 am

hand The Juvenile Justice Bill, 2014, which seeks to try 16- to 18-year-olds accused of heinous crimes as adults, is likely to be introduced in this session of Parliament. Amrita Dutta visits juvenile homes and de-addiction centres where the black and white lines between guilt and innocence blur constantly, and asks if the State should be trying to redraw them .

Angry, young, dangerous and male. Seventeen-year-old Mehul was all of these and more. From the age of 13, when he smashed up a classmate in a school brawl, he has been in and out of Delhi’s juvenile homes. The first transgressions were minor, but he soon had a reputation and a record. By December last year, when he led a gang of 16-year-old boys in a rampage at a government-run observation home in Mukherjee Nagar, north Delhi, he was a smack addict, a seasoned thief, and had over 30 cases against him, including multiple murder charges. In the world after December 16, 2012, where the “juvenile” male evokes great anxiety, Mehul could well have represented the breakdown of the possibility of reform.

A few days later, when he arrived at the de-addiction centre in Mukherjee Nagar for juveniles in conflict with the law run by the non-profit SPYM, all bets were off on how long he would last. In his first week, the ganja he had smuggled in had been confiscated and he had become violent during a test identification parade. Besides, there was his history of violence. Having been through the whole gamut of experience at juvenile homes, from solitary confinement to being herded into a small room with 50 other boys, where days passed in a narcotic stupor, where blade-baazi bouts determined who was boss, he had triumphed by becoming a gang leader. “He was the most difficult child in the juvenile justice system in Delhi. And he had younger boys working under him,” says Shibendu Bhattacharjee, who is in charge of the centre.

And yet, here he is, lean and flinty-eyed, once the undisputed bhai of 16- to 18-year-olds, and now a volunteer-cum-counsellor. Clean of his addiction and crime for almost a year now, he is among the senior boys here, among those who Bhattacharjee can trust to run the centre in the absence of residential staff. “Bhagne ka mauka bahut mila, par mein bhaga nahi (I could have escaped many times, but I didn’t),” Mehul says.

In August this year, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi introduced the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which seeks to replace the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000. Though the Bill continues to define anyone younger than 18 as a child, it also makes it possible to try 16- to 18-year-olds accused of heinous crimes as adults. Justifying the amendment, Gandhi said that “50 per cent of all sexual crimes were committed by 16-year-olds who know the Juvenile Justice Act so they can do it”. It’s not a figure that passes muster: according to the NCRB, the figure is more like 5.5 per cent (See pictures).
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“In 2013, juveniles between 16 and 18 years apprehended for murder and rape constituted 2.17% and 3.5% of all juveniles apprehended for IPC crimes. They also constituted a meager 1.3% and 3.29% of all persons arrested for murder and rape in 2013, thus clearly indicating that they are not responsible for a significant proportion of violent crimes in India,” says Enakshi Ganguly of HAQ, a child rights organisation.

In its previous form, the law assumed that adolescents, whether 15 or 17, are less morally culpable than adults for criminal behaviour and more capable of change and rehabilitation. But that is a view that is being increasingly questioned since December 2012 and the Shakti Mills gang rape of August 2013 (in both cases, young men below 18 were the co-accused). Mehul and his friends’ escape from the government-run juvenile home last year only added to the spectre of dangerous young boys loose in the city.

Less than a few hundred metres separates the home where Mehul ran amok from the modest, stark-white SPYM building where he is now. For a place that offers shelter to young boys accused of criminal misdemeanour ranging from theft to murder, the SPYM shows a remarkable lack of paranoia about security. There are no high gates, and only two security guards — no match for a gang of able-bodied teenagers if they decide to make a run for it.

Unwilling to talk about his past, Mehul denies having murdered anyone and then reluctantly admits to ganging up with other boys in East Delhi and knifing the badmaash of his area as a teenager — his first murder. He is matter of fact about his life as a criminal, as are most other young men here.
Why doesn’t he run away from here?  “Bhaagne mein mazaa hai jab saamne wala bhi powerful ho tab. Ab kisine chhoot de diya aur tab faida uthaenge toh galat hai na? Phir aage se kisi pe bishwas nahi kar sakte. Is chakkar mein (It’s fun to escape when your adversary is powerful. If someone has given you the freedom, and you misuse it, it’s wrong, no? Then no one can trust anyone anymore),” says Mehul. The freedom he finds difficult to misuse comes from the fact that the centre is run almost entirely by “clients” in recovery: those who were into addiction and crime but are now clean of both fixes, including Mehul. Till a while ago, he was their canteen manager, and is now a volunteer, earning a salary of Rs 2,500 a month. He once earned nearly Rs 30,000 a day from his life in crime.

He hated it, at first, the waking up at 5 am, the yoga sessions, cleaning clothes and dishes, and even the Just for Today classes where the boys talk about everything, their rage and resentment, their fight against themselves and the addiction, the niggling urge to get back to a life of crime. He was made the housekeeping in charge, and then given more responsibilities — made chief of a core group of boys entrusted with the task of running the show at the centre. “Jhanjhat lagi thi shuru mein. Phir kari liya mein (It was a pain, but I did it finally). There are no restrictions here, it’s an open place,” he says.

The law, if and when it changes, would reflect the scepticism that a minor accused of heinous crime is not capable of change, or deserving of such an opportunity. But Bhattacharjee, the 28-year-old mentor of the centre, says that by lowering the age at which a young adult can be tried under adult law, the government seems to be saying it cannot handle these children. He says that in most of the cases when juveniles have been accused of heinous crimes, there are adults involved. “It was the case in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills gang rape. This age group, between 15 to 18, starts to think of themselves as adults. For boys, this is a time when they want to prove their masculinity. They need acceptance of their group,which includes adults. You cannot expect a child who has always been on the street, who has been initiated into crime, to turn out to be a hero, without any intervention from the state,” he says.

At the Juvenile Justice Board-1, Prayas Complex, tucked away behind Feroze Shah Kotla, 17-year-old Sushant has arrived for his first counselling session. He has studied till Class X and works in his father’s gas repair shop. He is accused of raping another 17-year-old from his mohalla.
“She and I used to talk on the phone, but when I heard that she had trapped other boys too, I stopped talking to her. Then her mother demanded that I marry her, and then asked for money, Rs 3 lakh or so. When I didn’t pay, she accused me of rape,” he says. It’s only later, when his counsellor Shahbaz Khan Sherwani coaxes him, that he admits the girl was his girlfriend. “But we never went out on dates, only spoke over the phone.” How did it start? “She used to come to my father’s shop. And to collect water from the tap nearby. Then she started sending me messages.” Was she pretty? “Theek thi.”

The black and white lines between guilt and innocence blur constantly in these interactions. “Many of the cases that come to us are consensual sexual relationships, which have failed… or of parents who have accused eloping couples of rape. In the juvenile justice system, at least there is a possibility of reform, a counsellor can push the child towards introspection, which is not possible in an adult system,” says Sherwani. He also talks about the hyper-sexualised environments in which young people find themselves, where there is little conversation about sex and sexuality, but porn is accessible even to 10- or 12-year-olds.

What is the journey a child undergoes, from being in the care of family and society to a life in conflict with the law of the land? Aslam, an orphan from Madhubani in Bihar, ran away from home with a friend. The train took him to Delhi, and then on to a sweatshop in Seelampur. He was soon into marijuana and then smack. In that drug-addled state, he would break into homes and steal. He was caught and a juvenile justice board referred him to this de-addiction centre in 2012. He was 16. The first time, he walked away and was back on the street in a few weeks. But when a friend walked into a speeding train in a drug haze, he came back to the centre. “His death was a huge jolt. At least, my friend had family to do his final rites. If I died, there would be no one. Here, I would have a chance to reform,” he says.

Seventy per cent of the boys who come to the centre are poor. Many of them are from the slums and resettlement colonies of Delhi, where drugs are easily available. Schools are where they start on their addiction. “Some run away from abusive homes to live on the street. Those on the street take drugs to fight hunger,” says Bhattacharjee. From drugs to crime is a one-way street. “A child addicted to opium needs Rs 3,000 a day. That’s about Rs 10 lakh a year. In Delhi, there are about 20,000 minor opium users. If they don’t take to crime, how else will they fund their habit?”

Surinder Kumar, a counsellor and former addict, who hand-held Mehul through the process of “recovery”, speaks of the complete lack of moral guidance that leads some of these children to crime. “Parents aren’t always the right guides. Many of them accept drug or crime money. Most of the children are in government schools, where teachers are either indifferent or scared of the students,” he says.

School was where Arun started on marijuana and beer. He was six years old. “Some of my friends prodded me to try it. They had a lot of money. They used to feed me, so I hung out with them. They gave me cigarettes to smoke, I liked that. Then I started on drugs. Soon, I started stealing at school to buy drugs. I stole Rs 20,000 from ma’am’s purse during lunch. Nobody caught me. Sarkari school tha na? Koi dekhta nahi tha.”

By 11 years, he had made a rep for himself as a troublemaker and thief. That’s when he found smack: “For smack, you needed Rs 7,000-8,000 a day. When you were on it, you felt like a sher, I felt I could beat up anyone, do anything. If anyone tried to get into a wrangle, I felt I could have killed him. Jab nasha kar lete they, toh koi dar nahi lagta tha. We could barge into anyone’s houses, pick up TVs, cylinders, DVD players. My family had given up on me,” he says.

Three years ago, he arrived at the centre, having been caught stealing from a policeman’s house. “I saw other people like me, who were into drugs and crime, and had quit. They were clean and out of crime. Couldn’t I be like them then? I started thinking about that. If I hadn’t come here, I would have been dead by now. Smack users live up to 20 or 25. So many of my friends have died like that,” he says.

Today, he is a counsellor at a Chandni Chowk shelter for street children on drugs. He goes out into the streets, looking for children in need of help. He counsels them and tends to their wounds:
children on drugs, especially smack, often slash their limbs because it gives them a high. “You have to know how to approach them. I shake their hands, ask their names, ask them why they are on the street, tell them about the centre, that no one will say anything to you there, you’ll get a brush and toothpaste, you can have a bath there and have food. They think, let’s go check this out.
When they come and see that there are medicines here, and no one to judge them, they stay here. Some of them listen to me and try and get out of drugs. Some don’t,” he says.

While Arun is now out of the centre and lives with his parents, for most of the boys, the world outside is not a place they are at ease. The bustling North Campus of Delhi University is a few steps away from the Mukherjee Nagar deaddiction centre, but it does not beckon Mehul. He, however, gets angry at the money he earns at the centre. “Gussa toh abhi abhi aaata hai, paiso pe hi (Of course, I get angry still, at the money especially). Rs 500 mila tha pehle din, ek din mein phook gaya,” he says. But he won’t leave the centre. “Baahar kya rakha? Sab kuch toh khatam hai. Wapas toh nahi jaaonga (What is left outside? Everything is over. I don’t think I will go back),” says Mehul.

(Names have been changed to protect identities)

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