As a potentially chaotic Rajya Sabha attempts to take up the contentious Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill 2015 — passed by the Lok Sabha and listed for the Rajya Sabha Wednesday — a number of legal luminaries and child rights activists have appealed to parliamentarians and the government not to let the legislation through.
Citing the recommendations of the Justice J S Verma Committee and the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee, the appeal reads: “We the members of the legal fraternity charged with the responsibility of ensuring rule of law based on the principle of justice equity and good conscience, condemn violence against women but do not believe that sending the children to jail is a way to curtail it. However, we are very concerned that this Bill will destroy the future of young children forever and will be detrimental to the safety of women and society as well is being pursued despite the double rejection and the proposal for exclusion of children younger than 18 years from the purview of juvenile justice by the government-appointed committee themselves.”
The bone of contention is a provision in the bill that allows heinous offenders aged between 16 and 18 to be tried under the IPC as adult offenders are, rather than under the more lenient Juvenile Justice Act. Setting aside a clear recommendation from the standing committee to review the decision, the government has stuck to its position that under exceptional circumstances, heinous offenders in this age group should be tried under adult law should the Juvenile Justice Board so decide. The Justice Verma Committee had not been in favour of such an amendment either.
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Signed by 24 legal luminaries including the vice chancellors of 16 universities and two former additional solicitor generals of India — Siddharth Luthra and Indira Jaising — the letter appeals to the government and parliamentarians to reexamine the bill by holding wide consultations for inclusion of restorative justice to strengthen the existing juvenile justice system rather than adopt the punitive approach contained in the bill. Actor Manoj Bajpai and former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) Shantha Sinha too are among the people who have endorsed the appeal to the government and the MPs to reconsider the bill.
There have been periodic demands from the police for introducing such a provision and the clamour peaked in the wake of the Delhi gangrape of December 2012 when it came to light that one of the offenders was a juvenile six months short of 18 years. He was tried under the JJ Act but the government subsequently gave in to shrill demands from a section of civil society for a change in the law. Women’s rights activists, though, have always opposed the idea.
One of the criticisms of the proposed amendment is that it could, in one stroke, legalise the illegal detention of thousands of underage children by policemen across the country. It could also become a tool at the hands of parents of adolescent children who are unhappy with the latter’s sexual experiments — a risk that even Women and Chile Development Minister Maneka Gandhi concedes is a “legitimate concern”.