The Bold Voice of J&K

Justice to victims, not only to juveniles

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Rajesh Singh

There should not be any doubt that the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Bill, 2015, reflected the sense of both Parliament and the country. As usual, it took Parliament a big public outcry (this time led by the parents of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the victim of the 16th December, 2012, gangrape in Delhi) over the release of the juvenile convict in the case after merely three years at a correctional home, to be roused into action. The Bill was eventually discussed and passed in the space of a few hours post-lunch in the Rajya Sabha on 22nd December; the Lok Sabha had adopted it back in May. So, why had the passage of the amendments been kept in abeyance for seven months after the lower House had endorsed it?
The primary reason is the conduct of the opposition parties, primarily the Congress, which later lost no opportunity in gloating that it had backed the Union Government to the hilt in ensuring that the Rajya Sabha adopted the amendment Bill. The claim is true, no doubt. But for the Congress’s support, the Bill would have met the same uncertain fate that the Government’s other proposed legislations, including the high-profile Goods and Services Tax Bill, have. And yet, it cannot be denied that, but for the Congress’s obstructionist behaviour in the upper House, where it enjoys the superiority of numbers over an elected Government, the juvenile justice amendment Bill would have been a law months earlier.
Indeed, there had been voices in the Congress which had called for the Bill to be referred to a Select Committee on the pretext that provisions which have enormous socio-legal ramifications should not be adopted in ‘haste’. If reports are to be believed, even as late as the morning of 22nd December, the Congress had maintained this stand. However, sensing the mood of the House, feeling the heat of the agitation outside and battling the perception that it had been the principle blocker of the amendments to a stronger juvenile justice law, its senior leadership decided to change track. It was done not out of conviction but compulsion. And the change came after Jyoti Singh Pandey’s mother met Congress vice president to seek his party’s support for the Bill’s passage in the upper House.
Even as the Congress rallied behind the Bill, Rajya Sabha MPs belonging to certain other parties obstinately remained stuck in the old groove. Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Ms Kanimozhi of the DMK seemed more concerned about juvenile rapists than about the victims – at least that is the perception which went out when they opposed the amendments and demanded a review by a House panel. Of course they supported justice to rape victims, they said; but of course they did not want punishment to be proportionate to the crime committed when it came to juvenile accused in rape cases. For most, this logic was convoluted; for them and the like-minded ones, some of whom ironically belong to non-Government organisations working for the welfare of women, it was not succumbing to ‘mob justice’.
As a phrase, ‘mob justice’ could not have been used in a more twisted fashion. Are we to believe that all those hundreds of people who gathered at Jantar Mantar along with Jyoti’s parents demanding amendments to the juvenile justice Act of 2000 (among others, lowering the age limit for juveniles accused of heinous crimes such as rape, murder and acid attacks), and the millions of others across the country who backed the amendments, were part of a ‘mob’? What about the massive protests in the immediate wake of the December 2012 rape, when the Government of the day was compelled to amend criminal laws relating to sexual violence against women? The truth is: Most politicians wake up only when they are caught by the scruff of their neck. It happened then and it has happened now. Jyoti’s parents were not just fighting in the name of their lost child, but to ensure justice to others in the future.
Criticism had been voiced in certain quarters that the Narendra Modi Government had dragged its feet on the legislation. The question being hurled at it is: What had the Government been doing for 18 months? Facts tell a different story. Sometime in July 2014, barely three months after the new Government took over, the Ministry of Women and Child Development helmed by Maneka Gandhi, had moved a proposal to amend the Act. Inter alia, it suggested lowering the age of juveniles from 18 to 16 in cases where the juveniles were accused of grave crimes. Maneka Gandhi had begun battling for change barely days after she took charge of the ministry. The amendment proposal was cleared by the Union Law Ministry and thereafter the Cabinet gave it the nod. Within the next few months, the amendment Bill incorporating a slew of provisions – not just relating to lowering the juvenile age but also revamping juvenile justice boards and improving the working of correctional homes – was brought before the lower House of Parliament. It was passed because the Government had (and has) a majority there, and the disruptionist tactics of the opposition parties failed to work beyond a point.

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