New Delhi, May 7: The Lok Sabha today passed a controversial bill that allows children aged 16 to 18 to be tried as adults if charged with heinous crimes, bypassing objections and calls for more discussions from many Opposition members.
The government has till May 13 to pass the Juvenile Justice Bill, 2014, in the Rajya Sabha before the upper House adjourns for this session.
Under current law, the maximum punishment for juvenile offenders is three years' detention at a juvenile centre, whatever the gravity of the offence. The previous UPA government had drafted the amendment bill after one of the accused in the brutal 2012 bus gang rape turned out to be a minor.
Even after the bill becomes law, all those accused of committing heinous crimes like rape and murder between the ages of 16 and 18 will not automatically be tried as adults, though.
It's the Juvenile Justice Board that will decide in every individual case whether the accused should be tried as an adult after a two-month "preliminary inquiry", involving counselling, into his mind.
All this will apply, however, only if the accused is caught before the age of 21. If he has crossed 21, he will be treated as a juvenile.
An earlier provision in the bill said that anyone above 21 accused of a heinous crime committed when he was aged 16 to 18 would be straightaway tried as an adult (without counselling).
Following protests, this clause was axed today when 42 government amendments were adopted. Two other significant amendments were:
* Increasing the period of "preliminary inquiry" from one to two months;
* Increasing the reconsideration period for parents who surrender their children for adoption from one month to two months.
A House standing committee had opposed the provision of trying juveniles as adults in a report in February, as had many MPs during House discussions yesterday and today. Many rights activists and NGOs had condemned the bill.
Nationalist Congress Party member Supriya Sule said she was confused about the issue.
"From 16 to 18 years is a very small and tender gap. Kids sometimes do not do things because they want to but because they are under pressure," she told the House yesterday.
"Even in the Nirbhaya (December 2012) case, I'm not defending the boy who did it and who (was) 17... but he was on the streets of Delhi at the age of 11."
She said most of these children were orphans or came from broken homes: "That is something we need to look at the larger picture."
Today, Sule told The Telegraph she was still not sure that the bill had been adequately debated although she acknowledged that women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi, who had moved the bill, had addressed some of her concerns.
"I'm worried that children will be ill-treated. I would have preferred a longer and detailed discussion," she said.
Maneka had said in her reply she had tried to be "pro-child" and made efforts to strike a "fine balance" between justice to the victims and the rights of children.
Rejecting allegations that she loved only animals and not children, she had said the new law was intended to be a "deterrent" to juveniles.
Congress member Shashi Tharoor was among the most vocal opponents of the provision to treat children as adults.
He said justice could not be served by the state exercising "its punitive powers in order to be revengeful to extract an eye for an eye".
Instead, the focus of justice should be to "wean people from error and to rehabilitate the young".
"A lot of people are saying things like if he is old enough to rape, he is old enough to hang.... It (the bill) treats children as adults, which is simply wrong morally, legally, constitutionally, ethically and emotionally," he said in Parliament.
Tharoor appeared to imply that the UPA had had second thoughts about the bill, drafted under then women and child development minister Krishna Tirath, and therefore not introduced it.
"During the immediate aftermath of the Nirbhaya tragedy, the UPA government undertook extensive consultations over several months, which confirmed that the arguments for doing this were based on fair moral outrage, misinformation and ignorance. This is why we did not succumb despite popular demand for a change," Tharoor said.
The Congress had ignored a recommendation from the Justice Verma Committee, formed after the 2012 gang rape to tighten sex crime laws, to maintain the age ceiling of 18 for child offenders.
Today, soon after the bill was passed, Tharoor tweeted: "Attempts 2 inject humanity into Juvenile Justice Bill crushed by Government's brute majority in Lok Sabha. To kids, suit-boot sarkar=brute-jhoot sarkar."