16/12/2015 4:36 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Is The Government Rehabilitating Or Rewarding Nirbhaya's Juvenile Rapist?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 16: A placard calling for capital punishment for rapists is pictured beside a memorial at the protestors corner in Jantar Mantar on the second anniversary of the fatal gang-rape of a student on December 16, 2014 in New Delhi, India. On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped and by six men, including a juvenile, in a moving bus. The incident unleashed a wave of public anger over levels of violence against women in the country. (Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Let’s be honest. It does make one queasy to think the juvenile in the Nirbhaya gangrape case might walk free on December 20 2015. That terrible gang rape happened on December 16 2012. Thanks to the technicality of his age, the juvenile was spared the punishment served on his co-accused. His sentence, like the court that tried the case, turned out to be fast-track.

Laws meant for juveniles are based on a number – their age. And in his case the number worked in his favour even though there was not much evidence that he was any less willing a participant in the horrors of that night than the adults with him. It’s worth noting he may not have been the worst of the worst as media hype made him out to be. But if that rape had happened barely six months later, he would have been tried as an adult. In that sense he got lucky.

ALSO READ: Three Years 'Nirbhaya' Rape, Govt To Help Juvenile Convict Set Up Tailoring Shop

Now it seems he could get even luckier. As part of the rehabilitation process, the Delhi government’s Department of Women and Child Development is proposing to set up a tailoring shop for him. Reports say it will give him a one-time financial grant of Rs 10,000 and arrange for a sewing machine. It has worked out what he needs to sustain his business for at least six months – a signboard, receipts books, clothes hangers, tailoring material, rental space. Rs 10,000 is not any bonanza but it’s the principle of it all.

That’s where it starts getting tricky. It raises thorny questions about whether in the end this juvenile just got a sort of micro-business grant from the government in return for a terrible crime, a grant and a helping-hand that would probably not have been easily available to him before that fateful night in December 2012. He is the eldest of six children, according to a report on the BBC who left his village in Uttar Pradesh at the age of 11 and survived in Delhi on his own doing menial jobs. The mother hoped he would be the earning member of the family since his father was mentally disabled. But the boy sent money home for a couple of years and then disappeared leading the mother to presume him dead until the police came to her door in 2012.

He was probably not someone who would have qualified for a tailoring shop loan, let alone a tailoring shop grant. One can imagine many poor youths doing menial jobs, without getting into crime wondering why they will not get such a helping hand from the government. It’s as if they are being punished for not being criminals.

One can imagine many poor youths doing menial jobs, without getting into crime wondering why they will not get such a helping hand from the government.

Rehabilitation is obviously the goal here and that is only right. India’s juvenile law does not permit detention beyond three years because it believes that young people can be rehabilitated. But the point here is not to do good to him as much as it is to ensure that he leads a life where he does no harm to others anymore.

There are reports that the juvenile has become religious in prison, offers namaaz five times a day, developed a passion for cooking, and become very disciplined. That’s well and good but will the ministry that is organizing his tailoring shop also be keeping tabs on him and making sure he remains on the straight and narrow?

The mother of his victim has told ANI that by releasing the juvenile the government is “actually telling adolescents that they can commit any crime and there is no punishment for them.” Her anguish is understandable. Three years feels like no sentence at all but that is the way the law works. And to change the law, just based on outrage about one particular case, can boomerang on others, more deserving of its leniency, in unexpected ways.

But it his post-release plans that give us pause. As a society we are too focused on crime and punishment and nothing else. Hence the bloodthirsty cries of Death for the Juvenile after the gang-rape itself. Rehabilitation, or life after prison, is not newsworthy in that sense and thus mostly escapes our attention. But that’s where a society faces its most morally demanding questions with no easy answers.

That’s where we seem to get trapped between two extremes. On one end the state is talking about a tailoring shop and bringing his parents and relatives to Delhi in a “secure manner, preferably in a private taxi”. On the other end, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has no qualms about saying the “juvenile should be kept with wild animals for committing such a heinous crime”. There are demands that his picture and name be released to the public which can, in effect, be an invitation to a lynch mob. No right-thinking person wants that. If nothing else, as a society, we have to figure out some kind of middle path between the two.

Does it mean signing a legal bond affirming good behaviour as reports suggest the Union Home Ministry is contemplating? Does it mean reporting for regular sessions with counselors who get to keep an eye on him? Does it mean registering as a sex offender? These are questions that deserve debate and perhaps that is one good thing that can come out of this.

Rehabilitation is the goal but as a society we have to figure out how the person being rehabilitated also understands that what he did has consequences, and grave ones at that. Real consequences, and not just a tailoring shop. If there is a tailoring shop at the end it needs to come with strings attached. Otherwise the lines between rehabilitation and reward get uncomfortably fuzzy.

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