Too Young for Punishment

…and too hard to reform
Crime
NO SIGN OF REFORM  A young inmate of a government-run juvenile remand home in Mumbai for children who have committed petty crimes (Photo: ARKO DATTA/REUTERS)

Sanju is not his real name. He is infamous, though, as ‘Sanju chor’ among the police—for more than 1,500 cases of theft and about a hundred of arson in the government colonies of Sarojini Nagar, Laxmi Bai Nagar and RK Puram in Delhi. He was arrested by the Delhi Police the day he turned 18 two years ago, and is now in Tihar Jail. His gang has disbanded, but some members are still operational.

One of Sanju’s gang, who once escaped with him from a ‘care centre’ for juvenile delinquents in Delhi and now runs a tea stall near AIIMS, calls Sanju a “genius and a brave man”; “He was always willing to take up a challenge,” he says, sounding proud of his association with him, “Nothing is really impossible for him.”

Sanju had been in and out of juvenile homes since he was seven and had escaped at least half a dozen times. “No one could stop him,” says the tea-stall boy, “He would announce his escape and run away with other inmates who he’d later induct in his gang. He would challenge the superintendent [of the home], saying he’d run away [the next day], and he would do just that.” His method was to create a ruckus in the juvenile home to distract the guards, and then make an exit.

Each time he was nabbed, he’d boast that his detention would not be for long. With Sanju as an inmate at a juvenile home, recalls the tea-stall boy, there would always be a regular supply of alcohol organised by his flunkies; sometimes, they would even get high on thinner. Out on their own, they would often sleep on rooftops and eat out together. Sanju’s father was an alcoholic; his mother died when he was young.

Of his own family, the tea-stall boy has no memory. An orphan, he claims he is 17 years old and has a dragon tattoo that crawls up his forearm with a woman’s name inked in Hindi. This is his mother’s name, as he was told by someone who claimed to know his parents back in Aligarh, which is where he is from. “I say ‘no’ to nothing that is an opportunity to earn money,” he says of his survival strategy. Not even crime? He claims he has never killed anyone for money and that he has given up crime. Since he has never had a family of his own, he says, he would like to start one. He has a girlfriend who is in college. He wants to marry her. She is not sure. They often meet in his one-room house in a nearby slum. The house has posters of Salman Khan in police uniform and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator gear. There is an old TV, a disc player and radio set. The air is stale, as the only door to the windowless room is always kept shut. “It feels good to live the life of an adult,” he says, “Alcohol, girls, drugs, tattoos, designer clothes… some of us even had cars. I will take my girlfriend to Goa.”

Sanju had many girlfriends, he says, who he would shower with gifts. Theft kept the gang rolling in cash, which they had to spend quickly. They often spent nights at a local red-light district. “Sanju has a huge hidden pile of money stashed away somewhere. No one knows where,” he says, “He will use it to start a new life once he is out of prison.”

At one time, according to a police sub-inspector who has been tracking Sanju, he led 10 different gangs, and had over 100 juveniles—some as young as 10—under his wing. He called them his ‘crew’. They would burgle houses for jewellery, electronics (even air-conditioners) and other valuables, and then set the place on fire. Arson was his signature style. “He believes fire is auspicious as there is one burning in his belly,” says the tea-stall boy. “He had issued an open threat to burn down the house of journalists who wrote about him,” he adds with a mischievous smile.

As a devotee of Shani Dev, Sanju liked to operate under the auspices of Saturn. However, it was during a mundane burglary that his luck ran out. He robbed and burnt the house of an official of the Home Ministry. That is when it all went wrong for him.

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Delhi has several gangs that use children, some of them as young as eight, to carry out petty thefts. One such, the so-called Kabari Gang, is active in Old Seemapuri and most of its members are drug peddlers. Another group, the Thak Thak Gang, operates by laying tyre-puncture traps for cars whose occupants they relieve of valuables once they stop to switch tyres. They also work at traffic signals, distracting drivers by saying their fuel tank is leaking and then scampering off with a bag, phone or laptop once they get out to take a look.

Earlier this year, a Delhi Police team under Assistant Commissioner of Police Kulwant Singh made three arrests that led to the recovery of Rs 1 crore worth of jewellery. They were members of the Madarsi Gang, which is operational in Madangiri; well-dressed children would gatecrash wedding receptions, distract guests by spilling gravy on someone’s clothes and then pinch their ornaments with a practised hand.

Another gang brings children from Bihar’s Sahibganj district to Delhi on the promise of employment and then pushes them—often with a wink from poverty-stricken parents—into grim lives of theft and drug peddling. The children are trained not to utter a word if they are caught in the act. All they may say, if they must, is that they are hungry and want food. In the rare case that someone comes to their rescue, it is usually a woman posing as an apologetic mother who promises that it will never happen again and pleads that the child be let off.

Many juvenile offenders do get turned over to the police, of course, and there are lawyers who represent them in children’s courts that operate under the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection of Children Act of 2000. By the principles of justice, minors cannot be considered fully responsible for their actions and this law lays down how errant children are to be dealt with.

Underage crime is a broader malaise than many think. In 2010, Delhi’s Juvenile Justice Board under Principal Magistrate Anuradha Shukla took note of a worrisome pattern. The Board observed that ragpickers—usually homeless children without families or from dysfunctional homes—were getting hooked to drugs and being pushed into crime to pay for their addiction. They were being prodded to break the law by gangs that gave them shelter only to take advantage of them.

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Children in conflict with the law, as they are called, may be placed in two informal categories. One: first-timers who are usually under 14 years of age; and two: repeat offenders who are typically 15 and above. The law makes no distinction between them, sending them all to the same reform homes. However, there is enough evidence to argue that contact with older offenders tends to have an ill effect on younger ones.

There is a critical difference in behaviour between the two. While the young ones appear shaken and vulnerable, delinquents who are above 15 appear to be proud of what they do. Fearless, they appear to take their rights as minors as a shield of impunity. Sixteen-year-olds “look at [juvenile law] as a two-year licence to indulge in criminal activities for money,” says Vishal Bhatnagar, who runs the Delhi-based Shubhakshika Educational Society, which educates and rehabilitates delinquents.

The observations of the tea-stall boy confirm this. According to him, Sanju would recruit most of his ‘crew’ from juvenile homes, older teenagers under 18 who knew they could get away lightly if caught. Under the Act, the harshest punishment that a minor may be awarded is a sentence of three years, and that too, only in exceptional cases (like that of the minor held guilty of the Delhi gangrape).

With all delinquents housed together, the young inmates of a juvenile home are exposed to the attitudes of the older ones. According to Anant Kumar Asthana, a child rights lawyer, this can corrupt those who could otherwise be reformed.

What worsens matters is the lack of clarity on the ages of arrested youth. Many minors end up in adult lock-ups. It is only once families protest, presenting proof-of-age or asking for ossification tests to determine their age, that they are transferred to juvenile homes (in 2011, for example, as many as 115 juveniles were identified as minors and shifted from Tihar to various homes). By then, several have already been hardened and take their jail-acquired narcotic and sexual habits along with them.

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Conversations with minor delinquents reveal them as hardened and naïve to varying degrees. Consider the case of this 14-year-old boy lodged in a Delhi juvenile home for the rape of his 4-year-old cousin. Due for release in about six months, he denies the crime flatly, his bulging eyes turned to the sky as he speaks. He says he is the victim of a conspiracy hatched by his relatives to take control of ancestral property. He alleges that the same relatives accused another of his cousins of raping the same girl five years ago. But the girl in question was only four years old, I remind him. “I have not done it,” he says.

Another teenager booked just a few days ago for murder seems quite at ease with his crime. Originally from Uttarakhand, he says he is 15 years and ten months old. The son of a bus driver, he has been working as a bus ticketer since he was ten. He narrates his story with childlike enthusiasm. There is a slash mark across his forehead—a childhood injury, he says, and not one acquired when he stabbed a man in his mid-forties to death. It all began when he met a lady and her daughter on the bus he was selling tickets. Since they were nice to him, he gave them concessional tickets. The mother took his mobile number. They would regularly talk, even meet every other week. He liked the 14-year-old daughter, and the mother encouraged the budding relationship. Within three months of knowing him, the mother made an offer: he could marry her daughter if he rid them of a big hurdle in the shape of the girl’s father. “Kill my husband,” she told him, he says, “It’s a small price to pay to marry my daughter.” After taking a couple of weeks to think it over, he says, he accepted the deal. He climbed their West Delhi home’s terrace one night where the father was asleep, and spent some time in contemplation before he planted a knife in his chest. “There were three stab injuries,” he says, “I stabbed him only once; the other two would be by the mother of the girl.”

After the deed, the bus ticketer says he had sex with the mother. Later, he ran away with the daughter to Uttarakhand, where they were nabbed by the police. The daughter did not know of the murder plot. “Love is blind,” he says, convinced that the girl still loves him, even though she knows of his guilt now. “Do you realise what you have done?” I ask, “You have killed someone.” His reply betrays no emotion: “I will never kill anyone again for any reason.”

Then there is the case of a 17-year-old held guilty of killing a contractor with a single blow of a rod to his head after the man assaulted his parents. He did it in a fit of rage. His eyes have a focused glare as he talks about starting life afresh, finding a job and learning English. “To kill is easy,” he says, “and to convince someone to kill is not difficult either.” He is referring to agents who offer ready cash of Rs 35,000 for murder. He has been offered this sum several times, but says he rejects it since he is not a murderer. He knows how it works, however. The agents provide a description and photograph of the target along with details of when and where to find him/her.

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Most delinquents are teenagers who have had no care during a crucial phase of their lives, their adolescence. In a country teeming with ill-fed street children who face the rough realities of survival long before they attain the maturity to make big decisions, the problem of delinquency is unlikely to ebb anytime soon.

Statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau show the obvious that adverse socio-economic conditions contribute in no small measure to juvenile delinquency in India. Close to 57 per cent of all underage criminals have had extreme poverty as a circumstance of life; 55 per cent of them are either illiterate or have just had primary education.

These are minors who are out on the streets trying to fend for themselves. Such lives demand that they overcome their fears and this shapes their approach to the risks of crime. While juvenile homes aim to reform them so that they can lead responsible lives as adults, there is enough to suggest that the task remains a challenge largely unmet.

On 6 July this year, 33 juveniles went on a rampage at a home called Seva Kutir near Kingsway Camp in north Delhi, a facility that houses delinquents who are mostly in the 16-18 age group. They vandalised the premises for eight hours that night before they escaped. They exploded gas cylinders to destroy the superintendent’s office, medical room and entry gates, and then pelted stones at the security personnel as they made a break for it. Not all inmates fled, though; 72 of the 128 were escorted out of their dormitories and they sat in a park nearby, watching the mayhem.

The attack left the remedial home in complete chaos. There was no cooking gas to make any food for the minors left, no medicines and no support services. All the records had gone up in flames and the computers and CCTV cameras had been rendered dysfunctional. But no lives were lost. The juvenile rioters wanted to escape and not kill anyone.

Yet, staffers at Seva Kutir were left in a state of shock. According to them, this was the act of hard criminals, especially the ‘grownups’, by which they mean those above 16. Many are allegedly in touch with criminal gangs outside. One of them, a 17-year-old repeat offender, was found to have taken a contract worth Rs 1 lakh to kill a caretaker, alleges a staffer.

Officials at Seva Kutir acknowledge that such a home is neither remedial nor caring. Drugs and alcohol are all pervasive. Young inmates are not only ragged, but often assaulted in unspeakable ways. The police have reports of at least three cases of sodomy from Seva Kutir, but none of the victims has had the courage to press charges. Sexual exploitation is rampant and the younger inmates are its usual targets.

“How can you contain children behind four walls and [say] it is not a jail?” asks Anil Kumar, superintendent of Seva Kutir. Still reeling from the horror of the rampage that night, he was pulled up by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights for letting the media visit the site. “The Juvenile Justice Act should be amended to declare [those] 16 years and above as ‘adults’ in the eyes of the law,” he believes, “They are hardened criminals and we don’t have the facilities to deal with them.”