NEW DELHI -- Agitation and unease over the release of the youngest person convicted in the Delhi Gang Rape case forced lawmakers to take a break from their political brouhaha which has eclipsed this Winter Session of Parliament.
Caving to public pressure, and the sentiments of the parents of Nirbhaya, who was brutally assaulted on Dec. 16, 2012, Rajya Sabha on Tuesday passed a law which will allow 16- to 18-year-old offenders in heinous crimes to be punished as adults, with the exception of the death penalty.
Under the bill, a Juvenile Justice Board will decide whether the minor, convicted of a heinous crime like murder or rape, has an adult mindset.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-majority Lok Sabha passed the amendments to the Juvenile Justice law in May.
Unlike the scenes of chaos, which have reigned supreme in the Rajya Sabha over the past few weeks, lawmakers vigorously debated the Juvenile Justice Bill for over five hours today.
"I can't make separate jails for rapists, murderers and Kashmiri terrorists," said Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, who introduced the Bill. "Do we really think they are children?"
Describing the Bill as "nuanced," Gandhi said that convicted minors can appeal against the Juvenile Justice Board's decision to treat them as adults, and they will be sent to a borstal instead of jail until they turned 21. They can also ask for a review at this stage.
"Are we going to protect the victims or are we going to protect the rapists," she said.
Are we going to protect the victims or are we going to protect the rapists.
Lawmakers, who spoke against lowering the age of juveniles, asked their colleagues not to legislate under the influence of public pressure or sentiment.
Urging against the passage of such a significant bill without due consideration of all its implications, Sitaram Yechury and other members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) staged a walk out during the vote. "Today, we are hearing a lot of speeches based on sentiments. Law-making, however, has to be a more considered thing," he said.
We are hearing a lot of speeches based on sentiments. Law-making has to be a more considered thing
Delhi Gang Rape
On December 16, 2012, a physiotherapy student was brutally raped by a minor and five adults, who assaulted her with an iron rod and threw her off the bus without any clothes.
While the 23-year-old fought for her life in hospital, massive demonstrations for justice and women's safety erupted in the capital. The nation came to call her Nirbhaya (fearless) for trying hard to fend off the men and cooperating with the police despite her horrific injuries. She died on Dec. 29, 2012.
While one accused was found hanging from his prison cell before the trial could be completed, the other four adults were convicted for rape and murder, and sentenced to death in September, 2013.
The minor was sentenced to three years in a correctional facility, which used to be the maximum punishment allowed for minors, and the new law does not apply retrospectively to him.
On Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition against his release.
Ahead of the Rajya Sabha session today, Nirbhaya's parents met with top leaders across party lines including Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
"If this law had passed six months ago then that criminal would not be outside. Better late than never because it will help other women," Asha Devi, the mother, said before the debate.
If this law had passed six months ago then that criminal would not be outside.
'What If The Juvenile Is 15 Years, 11 Months?'
Although the law passed today, lawmakers speaking against the amendments outnumbered those speaking in favour. While expressing sympathy for Nirbhaya's parents, they underlined the futility of lowering the age as a deterrent, and emphasized the need for India to take better care of its children by providing them opportunities and resources.
Several lawmakers also raised concerns about the poor conditions of correctional facilities, the lack of caregivers and psychologists to take care of juveniles, and whether it made any sense to put them into crammed adult prisons alongside hardened criminals.
Nationalist Congress Party's Vandana Chavan said that India had failed to protect its women and children, and this law was the shortest possible route to give a false perception of safety.
Quoting U.S. actor Jessica Lang, who served as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, she said, "There can be no better measure of our governance than the way we treat our children, and no greater failing on our part than to allow them to be subjected to violence, abuse or exploitation."
There can be no better measure of our governance than the way we treat our children.
Ahead of the debate, Nirbhaya's parents met with top leaders across party lines including Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Samajwadi Party's Ravi Prakash Verma refused to agree to a "piecemeal remedy."
“Why are children becoming like this," he said. "Media is harping on one incident (Delhi Gang Rape). There are children who are living a worse life than death. How can the media ignore this?"
While public support for harsher punishment for minors has been growing since the Delhi Gang Rape, human rights groups fundamentally oppose tougher penalties for juveniles since it contradicts universal standards.
In 2000, the age of juveniles was raised from 16 to 18 in India to conform to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was Gandhi who pushed changed the definition to 18 years.
"We should be discussing about the horrible condition of juvenile homes. Lowering age will be a backward step, said Anu Aga, businesswoman and education activist. "India is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. We should honour our commitment."
If a juvenile of 15 years, 11 months commits a crime then will you change the law again.
Kahkasha Praveen, a lawmaker from Janata Dal (United), said that improving the lives of children should be the priority. "Changing from 16 to 18 and 18 to 16 is not the solution. Why don't you just do 12-13," she said.
Speaking in favour of passing the Bill, Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party's Derek O'Brien, said, "It is a good bill, let's not wait for perfect."
"If it was my daughter, then would I have hired the best lawyers or taken out the gun and shot the culprits?" he said.
CPI(M)'s Ritabrata Banerjee asked how the Juvenile Justice Board would determine whether a child was thinking like an adult or a child. "If a juvenile of 15 years, 11 months commits a crime then will you change the law again," he said. "It is retrogressive in nature."
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