Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

India needs meaningful change to its justice system

India's Juvenile Justice Bill is a step in the right direction but a shift in societal practices is still critical, writes Priya Virmani
Indian lawmakers acted swiftly to change the law for juvenile offenders after the release of an underaged rapist this month. (Mustafa Quraishi / AP)
Indian lawmakers acted swiftly to change the law for juvenile offenders after the release of an underaged rapist this month. (Mustafa Quraishi / AP)

On December 16, 2012, the gang rape of a medical student aboard a bus in Delhi caught the attention of the international media. Young Indians took to the streets to protest, demanding justice for the victim, who succumbed to her injuries. Three years later, little has changed and this month the youngest of those convicted was released.

The rapist in question was just shy of his 18th birthday when he colluded in the crime. Despite the brutality of his actions, his age gave him refuge. Until last week, the Indian legal system allowed juveniles immunity irrespective of the nature of their crime. Perpetrators under the age of 18 were tried by a special juvenile court. If convicted, the maximum sentence was three years in a reform institution.

This is precisely what happened with this man and he was released on December 20. But fear of being lynched by mobs saw him seeking refuge in a shelter. His identity remains protected.

Besides the aforementioned process protecting the convict at the cost of putting society at peril, there has been no evidence of any great rehabilitation while he was serving his sentence. In fact, there have been reports that he is “completely unremorseful”.

Post 2012, India has been high on outcry but painfully and tragically slow on delivery.

In a country where 0.4 per cent of GDP is spent on the judicial system, a committee of distinguished legal names was hastily set up to offer recommendations on changes to rape laws in India.

The Justice Verma Committee spryly produced a comprehensive 630-page report. However, save for the passing of a Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, its recommendations were scarcely put into effect. No meaningful change was registered.

The government rhetoric was shrill but changes to the law and policy were initially marked by tokenism and then absolute lethargy. Mindsets have remained sclerotic and archaic since. Gang rape after horrific gang rape has occurred across the country, each one defying any human conscience. In a 2014 incident in Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest state – the naked corpse of a victim was tied to a tree for the public to see, with no hint of fear or shame on the part of the perpetrators.

With the release of the offender involved in the Delhi gang rape, the Indian public was reminded of the horror of 2012. And the Indian parliament was once again nudged from its reverie.

In record time – two days after the release of the convict – the parliament passed the Juvenile Justice Bill to usher in reform to the trial of young offenders convicted of heinous crimes.

The rule for juveniles between 16 and 18 years old has now been changed from blanket to conditional immunity. Conditional immunity is dependent on contextual factors of the crime, allowing each case to be reviewed individually. This follows the precedent of western countries. However, it is important to note that this law will not be applied retrospectively. This means that the Delhi rapist is permitted by law to continue to roam free and anonymous. Most Indians, rejoicing at the passing of the Bill, are yet to realise this law will not apply to the released convict. As the victim’s parents put it: “Crime has won. We have lost.”

The Juvenile Justice Bill is a step in the right direction but most crucially, a shift in societal practices is critical.

In contemporary India, and especially in the towns and rural areas, women are often still seen as inferior. The “othering” of women begins from childhood, when a male child is privileged over a girl and the genders are segregated even in schools.

Miscarriages of justice originate in the mindset that regards women as inferior. One of the Delhi rapists chillingly explained in the documentary, India’s Daughter, that they injured her in such a beastly fashion because she dared to be out at night, because she dared to be with a male friend who tried to protect her and because she dared to resist them.

There is no greater shame than the capital of the world’s largest democracy harbouring citizens with such belief systems in the 21st century. There is no greater urgency for measurable and meaningful change.

Priya Virmani is a commentator on politics and economics based in London

Updated: December 28, 2015 04:00 AM

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