First Person | Innocence at a Loss

Juvenile delinquents need a State that can adopt and mould them, not punish them

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

I must confess that I had never before thought about juvenile justice, nor applied myself to the concept of juvenile offenders. The first time I really thought about this issue was after the December 16 brutal gang-rape in Delhi leading to the subsequent death of the victim. Of course, my thoughts were not ameliorative, driven by rage as they were, but I did think about juvenile punishment a lot then, not really justice. Because justice has to be for the girl who died, not for the boy (a few months shy of adulthood) who engineered her death. Yes, vengeful thoughts, these were. But it didn’t matter because I had no intentions of doing anything about these thoughts.

However, the situation changed when I happened to visit Kashmir’s only juvenile home in March and made a few startling discoveries. One, Kashmir didn’t have a place, let alone a juvenile home, for children accused of criminal activities to stay until two years ago. The juvenile home came into existence courtesy home minister P. Chidambaram, who in 2010 was aghast to see police stations teeming with teenagers accused of participating in stone-pelting activities. He instructed the state government to immediately build a juvenile home. Fortunately, the state government had a sprawling building ready on the outskirts of Srinagar, built originally to house an orphanage and an old age home. Post-haste it was converted into a home for underage offenders.

Two, having so designated the building and deputing one official from the department of social welfare, Ghulam Ahmed Mapnoo, as superintendent, the government forgot about it completely. Today, Mapnoo quadruples up as superintendent, counsellor, psychologist and doctor, though he is not trained for any of these jobs. It is sheer providence that Mapnoo is a God-fearing man and believes that if he does a good turn to the detained boys, God would return the favour by being kind to his children.

Three, the government has absolutely no concept of or interest in the juvenile home. Not a single senior government functionary has ever visited the juvenile home, including the divisional commissioner who mentioned it in the passing during an interaction with FORCE. Later, he didn’t have a problem in my visiting the home, because he believed it was a very good facility. “Though I have never been there,” he admitted. “But I have been told that it has come up really well. We are imparting vocational training to the children.” The meagre funding that the home gets from the department is just about enough to provide for food for the children.

Four, so oblivious or insensitive is the state government that it has no clue what facilities are required for girl offenders. Last year, a young girl, accused of theft, was brought in by the police. Mapnoo refused to admit her. “How could I? There is no lady superintendent or guards here. Though we have plenty of space, there are no facilities for girls.”

Building facilities for girls is a bit too fancy, considering that it does not have even the most rudimentary things in place. No doctor, no counsellor, no teacher and no psychologist. In terms of activities, the boys read Quran, offer namaz five times a day and play cricket. There is a study with some text-books where they can read if they want to. There is another room with a television set. Days are not structured because Mapnoo does not have the resources to do so. Employing his own ingenuity, he has requested one religiously-inclined police constable on guard duty to lead prayers and sit the children down for reading Quran at least for an hour every day. “This is what I believe in,” justified Mapnoo. “The more time you spend remembering God, less time you will have for thinking evil thoughts.”

The children brought to the home are detainees pending bail. In most cases the bail is given to the children within a few days. On an average nobody spends more than a week in the home. According to Mapnoo, the courts in Kashmir have yet not sentenced any juvenile; hence there have not been an instance of a teenager serving a sentence at the juvenile home. In any case, the home does not have the infrastructure for that. “At best, this is a temporary arrangement,” said Mapnoo. “Instead of staying in the police station, children stay here. I don’t know what we will do if somebody has to serve a sentence here. How do we make them serve a sentence? I am not a jailor”.

In the two years that Mapnoo has been at the juvenile home he has mostly seen children accused of minor offences like stone-pelting or theft. But now, for the first time, there are two boys — 13 and 14 (oldest among the current lot) — who are accused of terrorism and drug-trafficking respectively. The boy accused of terrorism has apparently admitted to killing a member of his Panchayat at the instigation of an older boy whom he considered his mentor; and who used to strut around his lane brandishing a gun.

“I was completely shocked when he was brought in,” Mapnoo said. “A mere 13-year-old for murder? I spent a lot of time talking to him to understand why he did this. Though he comes from a very poor family, he did not kill for money. He killed because it seemed like a macho thing to do. He thought other children will look upon him in awe as he looked upon the boy who gave him the gun and rudimentary training in the orchard.”

Ghulam Ahmed Mapnoo outside the juvenile home

Apart from these two cases of serious crime, there are three boys between 9 and 12 who have been coming to the juvenile home every few months on charges of theft. In the two years, since the juvenile home came into being, the boys have spent over six months here. Their parents have given up on them and don’t even come to visit them. Mapnoo and the police do not know what to do with them. This time Mapnoo cannot even release them despite bail because he doesn’t know where the boys will go.

“I have tried so many times to contact the parents, but they say that the boys only mean trouble for them. They have put their responsibility on my head, saying you do whatever you want to do with them. What can I do? These boys should be put in a school. Or maybe they need counselling so that they are cured of thievery,” said Mapnoo.

Could the boys be kleptomaniac? Mapnoo doesn’t understand the term or the disease it refers to. He also doesn’t understand what influence the boy accused of murder will have on the others considering they all live, sleep and play together. If he is already indoctrinated, wouldn’t he try to influence others? Mapnoo does not even think about all this, because there is nothing he can do. All he knows is that God has assigned this job to him and he must do whatever he can to ensure that the boys are brought back from the path of sin.

I don’t know about the conditions of juvenile homes in other parts of India. I have not seen any of those. But the one in Kashmir is criminally appalling; especially because everyone, right from the chief minister to the police constable, right from the university vice chancellor to the street vendor insist that harnessing the youth in Kashmir is the biggest challenge today. Like most states of India, Kashmir is also experiencing a youth bulge, with almost 60 per cent of the state’s population being under-30. Yet, both the government and the civil society remains completely disinterested about catching the attention of this young population, addressing the reasons for their rage or ensuring that they do not fall into an exploitative trap.

A Delhi-based lawyer who works with juvenile delinquents in Delhi told me that the majority of delinquents fall in the age group of 14-17. The reason is that they are old enough to carry out instructions but young enough to escape serious punishment. Over 90 per cent of these children are used as pawns by criminal gangs. This is in Delhi. In Kashmir, the children are being used not only by the terrorist but other vested groups also. These children do not need a benevolent state which does not punish them. They need a state that can adopt them and shape their lives and future; a state that gives them security, comfort and confidence.

Perhaps, Kashmir needs juvenile home-cum-residential schools in every district, so that poor and impoverished children grow up and study in a balanced, supervised environment. This can be done in collaboration with their parents and non-government organisations. After all, which parent would not want its child to get free education and food? Let’s face it, Kashmir is a conflict zone and like all conflict zones, its children are the most vulnerable section of the society. If the government does not take control, somebody else will.


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