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Juvenile Law: A Bloodthirsty Media is Dangerous for Democracy

NEW DELHIHer family wants the young girl raped so brutally in a moving bus in Delhi to be known by her name Jyoti Singh. But we in the media are stuck on Nirbhaya, for reasons best known to no one. Her family, very understandably, wants the juvenile who had joined the adults in raping Jyoti on a moving bus to be served the punishment of an adult. But here instead of cautioning restraint, we in the media have started a cacophony, insisting that the Juvenile Laws be amended and this particular 17 year old be tried as an adult.

Articles sounding alarm bells are not being carried by some. And voices seeking to point out the dangers of this ‘mob mentality’ being encouraged by television anchors are either drowned out, or just not invited for the heated discussions that are being engineered to create ‘public pressure’. The mother’s agony is being flashed across television to heighten pressure, and while all mothers can understand and feel the pain, laws cannot be made or amended under emotions being brought into every home by an almost hysterical television media.

The purpose of law is to punish, to act as a deterrent so that crimes are not committed again. Not just by the individual concerned but by others who might have been tempted to break the laws as well. The purpose of law is also to reform first offenders—in an ideal situation that of course does not exist to reform all offenders—and to ensure those below 18 years as in India are given a chance to undergo counselling, and reform. And are thereby able to overcome mental deficiencies, see life as it should be, and work to eke out an honest living with a new mind.

Reforms in jurisprudence play a major role, all over the world. It is this spirit that makes the difference between a law that is short lived in its utility, and a law that has a far reaching impact where human beings—regardless of the crime—are given a space to change course if they so wish and are able to. Rape, murder, heinous offences all fall into this category so this righteous indignation and anger voiced by actor/anchors on television every night really falls out of the pale of comprehension.

The separate category for juveniles in law has a long history behind it that scribes, reporting on the issue, should have read up on. However, leaving that aside the driving factor of juvenile law is the understanding that under 18 years young people are influenced by more factors, than just the desire to commit the crime, and should be allowed a second chance in life. It cannot, and should not be anyone’s case, that an eye for an eye alone can be the law, and Gandhi was right when he said that an eye for an eye will make the entire world blind.

Is that what we in the media want? To take one case, no matter how heinous, and use it to place a section of teenagers outside the scope of reform? Is that justice? Is that compassion without which justice is meaningless, and often dangerous? Is India a dictatorship or a democracy? :Laws are made, and implemented, with the wisdom of the lawmakers and the judiciary respectively behind it—a collective wisdom that cannot be directed by an individual’s grief no matter how deep and intense, or a media generated cacophony that seeks now not to report the news but to make the news.

Just as every convict is entitled to a lawyer and has the right to appeal, so also every first time juvenile offender has the right to reform. The media seems to have become a mob where the counter view is screamed at, and denounced as ‘anti-national’, ‘pro-rapist’, ‘pro-murderer’ or whatever be the case that has taken its fancy at that moment. Are we today the judge and the jury, who determine the crime and the punishment all in one breath. And when the punishment is not the way we pre-determine it, we shout for the laws to be changed, to a point where those in their late teens are taken as adults!

By changing this law, and treating the rapist as an adult, will it bring justice to Jyoti Singh? No, she is dead. It might assuage her family but what about the hundreds of juveniles who will as a result be turned into hard nosed criminals without the opportunity to reform. The emphasis instead should have been on Reform, and the poor sub-standard quality of counselling offered by the Indian state to its juveniles. This writer as a crime reporter had covered the juvenile homes (not called prisons by the way) where such persons were housed after breaking the law. They were sodomised, beaten by the jailors, kept in conditions worse than their slums with no effort whatsoever to counsel them in a manner that would aid, rather than further feed into their frustrations and anger. As it is established that the last two emotions motivate the juveniles to commit crime, of varying seriousness.

The focus should have been thus, to bring in true reforms in the Juvenile houses, monitored by impartial agencies. And as is the practice in many countries, introduce the use of regular psychological evaluations to gauge the progress—or otherwise—being made in each case. And releasing a juvenile only when and if he cleared the evaluation. This would then have been a very welcome addition/amendment to the law, ensuring that those who remained disturbed were not set free even as the others who responded well were given a chance to pick up life as more adjusted persons.

This shouting for ‘blood’ has become ugly, vulgar and goes against the spirit of democracy. Bloodthirsty television channels follow each other, raising the pitch and with it ratings and advertisements, forgetting that news is there to be reported, and not created. That we reporters are not the news much as our ego’s desire it, but there to bring information to the people without stirring the cauldron until it boils over. Television has amazing power, and hence the future of independent and honest journalism lies in its ability to distinguish between ‘use’ and ‘misuse’. The first strengthens democracy, the second cripples and damages the foundations, sometimes beyond repair.

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