Adults like to exclude three kinds of reality from their idea of childhood: sex, labour and crime. Children are supposed to be naturally innocent, asexual, and going to school rather than working for a living. But the law cannot confine itself to ideas; it needs definitions. And according to its definition of childhood, a child can be anything from a newborn baby to a strapping lad of a little less than eighteen. In a country like India, real life brooks no idealism and begins early for children, especially if they happen to be poor and/or female. Together with hard physical labour and violent sex (often of the married kind), brutal crime becomes part of the everyday lives of many “children”, who can be both victims and perpetrators. Hence, perhaps, the Juvenile Justice Act’s use of the word, child, for minors in need of “care and protection”, and juvenile for young offenders. So, when the Supreme Court asks the Centre to reconsider the question of juvenile immunity — should exceptionally heinous offenders below 18 years of age be punished like adults? — it is time for everybody concerned to think through what they want out of their idea of childhood. Is it possible to think about juvenile immunity without also thinking about, say, the age of consent? Sparked off by a series of violent sexual crimes committed by boys just below 18, this debate is rooted in perceptions of the sexuality of underprivileged teenage males. How would the law react if the offender were to be a female “child” of another class?
An amendment like this needs dispassionate, almost abstract, moral and ethical thinking, on the one hand, as well as contextualized particularity, on the other. It might be good to start with taking a hard look at the correctional institutions to which juvenile offenders are sent — the principles on which they are founded, and the way they are actually run. Perhaps the whole approach to rehabilitation, which the current law insists on, needs to be thought through rigorously, and then implemented with wisdom and scruple. It is also crucial to look beyond mere legality. Can the Centre afford to rethink juvenile immunity without also rethinking its stance on sex education or the criminalization of sodomy? A shift in the management of sexual violence in the young cannot happen with any degree of humanity if larger attitudes to desire are left unexamined.