Here’s a poem I wrote some years back on how retribution, penal populism and moral outrage are the prime features of our juvenile justice policy.
This is largely inspired from a series of encounters with many of these children, during my stint as a Magistrate.
Nobody taught me to speak-therefore, I can’t mince words,
I also have to tell, rather quickly my tale,
for time doesn’t stop and the guillotine doesn’t fail;
I can hear the shouts of the crowd, people who’ve gathered about, The civilised society is baying for my blood; my young scarlet blood; upper-middle class children would be made to drink from it, I am told-it lulls the demons inside.
That’s what the priests say : “it kills juvenility”; really, that’s what they say, but let me not get ahead of myself, and begin where it all began:
The setting is a one room house-in a slum in north Delhi,
where I was conceived, in Dickensian poverty
I was at peace with not-living, I was free,
before a young couple decided to have me;
people call them my mother and father; none, of course, took my consent,
and thus, I began the journey of life, unwilling, reluctant and angry;
No wonder – I caused my mother much pain, first, because of my desire not to be born,
second- since there was never any food inside of her,
I kicked & gnawed at her insides, she wailed in vain, just for her not to have me, but she didn’t budge.
I caused her to to nearly die, while she gave birth to me,
You see, that was an act of protest, against introduction into this world,
this inhospitable sphere of exploitation and injustice;
I was raised on my impoverished mother’s thin milk- the toxic gruel of poverty, exploitation, desperation & disease.
For my parents- My introduction into this world –
was an act of triumph of unmitigated hope, or callous thoughtlessness to the
consequences of their action; This lack of control of impulse,
would go on to be the defining feature of my life, legal battles, television debates would be fought and lost over it, my dear friends – it would have a bearing –
on the course my life would take –
and the choices I would make.
I was raised on staple diet of violence, abuse and hunger- no wonder, I never knew control,
I’d flung myself to the first sight of bread crumbs, leftover rice, or on a good day, sour curd; the lack of control would come back to haunt me, as we would see later.
I was abused by countless men, multiple times, don’t ask when and how; to the point, that I started valorising my own violators.
I stopped fighting back, in this resignation was a realisation that I deserve it, and all those, who are weaker, those who’ve lost the ovarian lottery, and have had poor mothers for fate.
I never knew mercy, compassion-
a hungry child is incapable of empathy; incapacitated for emotional telepathy,
the exercise of placing one in someone else’s shoes? you must be kidding; he never knew any shoes,
and can hardly see the world for himself, for what runs in his system is not blood, he is nourished with envy running through the course of his being, at the injustice of this world,
at its monstrous inequities.
No wonder I never knew, the finer aspects of living, of civilisation;
of the rules set by men, who had either abused, or watch me being abused, while they fed, clothed their children with a nourishing touch, a benign sort of love.
No wonder when I found somebody even weaker, I couldn’t resist, being on the winning side of the power equation, for the first time – the abused turned an abuser.
Now, they are gunning for my head, they’d like me to die a judicial death; but they don’t know – children like me exist on the penumbra of life as you know it, banished from civilisation.
They don’t care much. Rules matter to those who have a chance to win. They don’t know – I never wanted to be born and I am quite indifferent to living. And I have one thing to say to them :-
Since I never had a childhood – don’t treat me as a child – Punish me, make me free !!
True, this is fictionalised a great deal; but a fiction, as someone wise said, is a lie that says a whole lot of truth. It’s a true story of something that never happened (Stephen Fry). This poem was (and is) an endeavour to use this account of a juvenile, who having committed a rape, finds himself in the throes of the adult criminal justice system, as a springboard to critique the 2015 amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection) Act; according to which, a child between the ages of 16 to 18 can be tried as an adult in case of certain heinous offences, after conducting an enquiry as to his mental and physical capacity to commit such offence, ability to understand the consequences of the offence and the circumstances in which he committed the offence. Instead of providing care and protection to vulnerable children, this new act seeks to deem children as adults and punish them, while completely overlooking the welfare aspect of the legislation.
I have argued that these amendments would expose children to the vagaries of a regular trial under the adult criminal justice process. I had endeavoured to highlight that retribution, penal populism and mob hysteria are undesirable initiators of legislative policy. I’ve argued that the gravity of a particularly brutal crime ought not to blur our sense of judgment and make us demonise all our children and lead to dilution of much needed safeguards & protections in their favour. How this amendment betrays a poor understanding of recent developments in neuroscience that show : children are developmentally different from adults and faculties of their mind relating to impulse control, emotion and reflexes are not fully developed till mid 20s. It also overlooks the fundamental objective of a humane juvenile system, premised on parens-patriae principle, which seeks to care, protect and rehabilitate a child, rather than to punish. It seeks to argue, that a society which has robbed a child of his childhood has no moral basis for punishing a child for ‘literally not being child-like’ in his acts. A village is required to raise a child, and a village is needed to ruin one. Why be such a village.
PS: The poem begins like one, but quickly turns into a scream. I plead indignation as a defence.
Picture courtesy : Portrait Of A Poor Boy. is a painting by Ilir Pojani which was uploaded on October 4th, 2010. (https://fineartamerica.com/featured/portrait-of-a-poor-boy-ipalbus-art.html)