The concept of ‘fun’ is changing. It is not just a teenager’s elation in inflicting unspeakable agony and sexual torture on a woman in the company of older men that is evidence of this, but the larger facts are also inescapable. Rapes by juvenile offenders have increased fivefold since 2000 and, among minor offenders of all kinds, 64 per cent fell in the 16-18 age group in 2011. Youth is obviously no longer what it was; youngsters’ knowledge and construction of the world are also different. Perhaps the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, more than anything else, delineate the deep sickness in society; the allegedly youthful rapist and murderer in the bus has merely given it its due prominence.
Since minor offenders, that is, those under the age of 18, are treated differently from adult criminals in India — they can be imprisoned for a maximum of three years — the question now is, how are criminals like the boy in the bus to be dealt with? Not only is he just a little short of 18 years — which is a pragmatic argument — but he was also aware of what he was doing and to what end, apart from having joined the adults voluntarily. He is an extreme example among many similar young criminals whose actual ages range from 12 to 18, and very often from 16 to 18. No legislator in the world is mad enough to believe that maturity switches on — sexual, criminal, conjugal, religious or of whatever kind — on a child’s 18th birthday, but the law needs a firm bottomline. Some Western countries have evolved slightly more flexible systems to deal with the grey areas presented by teenage criminals. These judge young offenders in special or even adult courts if the crimes are particularly grave or have been committed with adults. That may be one option in India, as would be lowering the age limit, maybe to 16. But both could invite arbitrariness through the back door. The principle here is the belief that young offenders can and should be reformed. But even that would entail hard thinking: 22 per cent of ‘reformed’ youth offenders repeat crimes while still ‘juvenile’. Can rape, and some other sexual and premeditated crimes including murder, be considered ‘juvenile’ crimes at all? At the very least there is a need to think of penalties and intensive reform programmes in proportion to the gravity of the crime. Age should not be the inflexible determining factor, the action should count as well.