Behind the legal definition of how a girl or boy below the age of 18 should be protected or punished lies a certain idea of childhood that is not just legal. It is, in the broadest sense, cultural. Adult institutions — the family, school, courtroom, prison, media — are deeply invested in this notion of childhood, which has a history that goes back not only to indigenous religious attitudes and mythologies but also, in the the case of post-colonial societies like India, to Romantic and Victorian notions of innocence and potential. So, questions of how much work a child may be allowed to do, or from what age it may be trusted to know what is sexually right or wrong, are informed by these received, and more or less sacrosanct, preconceptions regarding childhood. Everybody likes to believe that a child is a child. Yet, when a child does something cruel and shocking it suddenly becomes difficult to deal with the situation, socially and legally, without taking recourse to fudging the problem by calling the offender a ‘minor’ or ‘juvenile’ instead of a child. The technical criteria, and the systems of thought and feeling they are founded on, then become radically uncertain and difficult to implement.
Perhaps what the Indian State, legal system and civil society are experiencing in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape is a necessary and fundamental shift in the notion of childhood itself. The combination of extreme aggression and sexual abusiveness in one of the alleged rapists, who happens to be legally a minor, has forced adult Indians as well as the Supreme Court to do some hard thinking about the specific problem of how to deal with criminal offenders in their late teens, who challenge accepted notions of what minors are capable of doing, and, therefore, of what society may do to them in response. In practical as well as conceptual terms, it will not — and should not — be easy to resolve this issue.