A teenage boy has horrified the nation recently with his brutality. He has compelled the State, law, civil society and his own closest kin to ask difficult questions about childhood. A child is a child in the eyes of the law until it is 18 years old. But cruelty, sexuality and labour are the three inevitabilities of adulthood that the cherished ideals of childhood must exclude. So, when someone who is technically a child embodies a combination of the first two, and in an extreme form, the horror of it becomes unaccommodable within the existing cultural and legal systems of civilized societies. And it is the last few years of childhood, when secondary sexual characteristics begin to show up, though differently, in male and female children, and when they appear to be outgrowing their physical vulnerability, their capacity to arouse affection and pity, that the notion of the law providing them natural “protection” becomes especially difficult to imagine. Hence, the fierce debate about how to deal — legally, in terms of existing definitions of “juvenile justice” — with one of the rapists in the recent Delhi gangrape, claiming to be a minor still — but strong enough, and old enough, to have indulged, allegedly, in unimaginable sexual brutality.
Yet, consider the case of another teenage boy, also tall, strong and sporty, being blown to bits when forced by security forces to handle a booby-trapped dead body. What kind of protection would such a child need from law and society, and what is the nature of his vulnerability? The incident happened recently in the forests near Ranchi, the body was that of a jawan, and the boy was a Class VIII student from one of the poor tribal villages nearby. His village was used to this sort of dangerous coercion by the security forces, apart from having to deal with regular displacement owing to Maoist terror and counter-terror. In a different context, runaway children, most of them not even in their teens, who live in railway stations and work “illegally” in trains, are often forced by the Railway Protection Force to move bodies from the tracks to the morgue after an accident. With minors, vulnerability is not always (or only) a matter of the state of their bodies, but is a consequence of their social and economic disempowerment, especially in their interactions with the State’s law-keepers. Any public debate on juvenile vulnerability, or its opposite, will have to keep such ubiquitous forms of powerlessness well in mind.