The idea of childhood is crucial to adult political thought. And the limits to what adults can publicly imagine children as capable of have just undergone a major shift in India. The juvenile justice bill cleared by the Union cabinet recently accepts that older children are capable of conscious, premeditated and heinous criminal behaviour, which, in the rarest of rare cases, may be tried in a regular court. This asks for a radical rethinking of the notion of agency in the understanding of childhood, and should be taken beyond the pale of criminality towards an expanded vision of young adulthood. If the State grants 16 to 18 year olds an evolving capacity for volition and self-awareness in certain kinds of brutality, then the obverse of this logic — its un-dark side, as it were — does not have to be punitive at all. It might grant children a degree of autonomy and critical intelligence that Indian society still finds difficult to allow. If children can be tried and punished almost on a par with adults, then it should be possible to extend that ‘equality’ in a positive direction as well. This could have a far-reaching effect on perceptions of the position of children in the family, in educational institutions, and in their places of work. The possibility of such changes in perception is envisaged in the amendments — in its recognition of corporal punishment and ragging, for instance, as forms of the abuse of power. This, in turn, asks for a wider understanding of what constitutes the ‘political’. If the State manages to think of children as political subjects, then public discourse on ‘politics’ has to outgrow its blinkered obsession with vote-banks, parties and coalitions, and come of age in a nuanced capacity for empathy, thought and expression, especially critique and debate.
At the core of this shift is sexuality, of course. The State has to do something about children’s growing bodies, and with adult anxieties about these bodies — easier to address through control and punishment than through self-examination and compassion. The State cannot acknowledge and regulate extreme acts of desire in growing children without also taking cognizance of, and humanely thinking through, the healthier and more salutary expressions of desire in their variously difficult and modern lives. When it comes to the sexuality of children, it might prove easier to punish cruelty than to respect tenderness.