“If we pass this Bill, I say it to our treasury benches, posterity will judge us harshly. The child is our future. We must protect the child, rescue the child and not destroy the child,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said while initiating the discussion on the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill in Lok Sabha on May 6 this year.
Calling it an “extremely unjust” and “bad law”, Tharoor said, “I must sadly accuse the Government of having chosen political expediency over justice.”
On Tuesday, seven months later, the Congress did the same. It chose “political expediency over justice” in Rajya Sabha and, along with the Trinamool Congress, helped pass the Bill which it had opposed in Lok Sabha. The party was spooked by the demand on the streets and, as one senior Rajya Sabha MP put it, “dragged along by the tide of public opinion”.
The Congress had several objections to the Bill — the main being provisions treating children as adults. Even Tuesday morning, it wanted the Bill referred to a Select Committee for more deliberations.
Congress leaders conceded they had to factor in “the mood outside”. Sources in both Congress and Trinamool Congress said they did not want to be seen as blocking the Bill and going against “sentiments on the streets”, so they altered their positions.
Like the Congress, many other parties were in favour of referring the Bill to a Select Committee, a view they shared at the all-party meeting convened by Chairman Hamid Ansari last Friday. It was decided to pass six Bills in the last three days of the winter session and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill was not among those.
“There were developments outside… events outside overtook us,” a senior Congress leader told The Indian Express.
In fact, Shantaram Naik of the Congress and Derek O’Brien of Trinamool Congress, who was the most vociferous supporter of the Bill Tuesday, had given notices earlier, demanding that the Bill be sent to the Select Committee.
Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad admitted that the Congress was divided on the Bill and that its stand changed within a matter of days.
A senior Congress leader said, “We decided in the morning that on a highly sensitive issue like this, Congress should not be isolated. We decided to look whether there was consensus on Select Committee referral as this was our preferred option. But when we saw the mood, we decided there is no point in isolating ourselves from public opinion.”
Naik and O’Brien did not press the amendments when the Bill was taken up for consideration and passage.
Asked why he did not press for referring the Bill to the select committee, Naik said: “We decided not to move. My party decided.” Asked whether the protests outside — over the release of the juvenile convicted in the December 16 gangrape case — was the reason for the change of heart, he said: “So many factors may be there. Taking the overall situation in the country, we decided to pass it.”
So why did he then give a notice earlier seeking that the Bill be referred to the Select Committee? “There may have been certain views. There can be so many causes. But considering all other views… We had initially decided. Then we reviewed and came to the conclusion that we should pass it,” Naik said.
Azad was more forthright. “The entire country is divided. Even the media is divided…There are write-ups and also editorials supporting it and some not supporting it even today. So the entire country, entire society is divided and we are a part of the society. And I have also said that all political parties are divided individually. Now what we are taking and other parties are taking inside the House are party decisions… Majority of the parties are divided on the issue of age but we are not talking about age, we are talking on the whole as a holistic bill,” he said.
Reminded that the decision at the all-party meeting last Friday was to refer the Bill to the Select Committee, Azad said: “That was about four days back. Things change overnight.”