NEW DELHI — Twenty months ago, a teenager and five adult men fatally gang-raped a young student in a moving bus in New Delhi, a horrific incident that stunned Indians, sparked unprecedented national anger and dramatically changed the public debate on women’s safety in India.
Now, the teenager spends quiet hours painting in his room in the New Delhi correctional facility where a juvenile justice court sentenced him to three years.
His most recent painting shows a crowned young woman in a flowing, regal yellow and blue robe, looking into an ornate mirror on the wall. The painting is called “The Princess.”
In another painting, the teenager depicts a group of village women wearing saris and dancing together in a pastoral setting. Others include renderings of camels, bird-nests and parks. The paintings now hang in his art classroom.
“This month, his paintings won a prize at a competition in the city,” said Rajiv Lakra, superintendent at the juvenile correction home. “He was quite anxious but also hopeful the day he went to receive the prize. If he changes, the world is ready to accept him. We are working toward that goal.”
The art is part of a slow and quiet rehabilitation the juvenile offender is undergoing, away from public glare. He also attends cooking, sewing, basic arithmetic and etiquette classes, and plays volleyball.
There is “no trace of anger” in him, says psychologist Shuchi Goel, who works with him and has conducted an art-based therapy session. “He is certainly putting an extra effort to become acceptable to others,”she said. “He takes a lot of pride in his paintings.”
But outside the correction home, the teenager is arguably the most reviled of the group of men who brutally assaulted the woman on Dec. 16, 2012. Indians protested on the streets and demanded that he not be treated leniently because of his age.
Under Indian law, the maximum sentence for juvenile offenders 18 or younger is three years in a correctional facility. The teenager was just six months shy of 18 when the rape occurred. Five days after the crime, he was arrested at a bus terminal while trying to flee the city. He was tried separately from the other men.
His case led India’s new government to introduce a bill in Parliament in August that seeks to try juveniles charged with violent crimes such as rape and murder as adults.
Last year, juveniles were accused in 1,884 rapes, up from 1,175 in 2012, according to the government. In New Delhi, the number increased from 63 to 163 during the same period.
Initially, the teen was isolated from other inmates who might have targeted him because of the nature and the brutality of his crime, an official said in an interview last year. After several months, he began to mingle with other prisoners. But the teen is still housed in a separate room.
“We have told the other boys not to call him ‘the 16 December boy.’ We tell them to treat him like a friend, like a brother,” Lakra said.
The young inmate recently fasted during a religious festival. He prefers to watch movies, songs and soap operas on TV. He appears to be fond of the pigeons that fly into the courtyard and is able to recognize some of them. He also is learning to speak short sentences in English like “This is my painting” and “I cooked something new today.”
Officials say he is a “quick learner” and “smart” and that he “operates with his head, not heart.”
The teenager has received opportunities inside the juvenile facility that he never got on the outside, officials say. He dropped out of his village school in northern India and left his impoverished family eight years ago with a relative who promised him work as a child laborer in New Delhi. He worked at a street-side eatery and did odd jobs cleaning buses and lived mostly by himself. For a short time, he sent money back home to his family. But when he stopped, his family assumed he had died.
The night of the rape, the teenager joined five older men for a drunken joy-ride, police said. He even enticed the victim to board the bus in a sing-song voice.
In the city, “he got exposed to an adult world quite early,” Goel said.
The six men beat the young woman mercilessly and took turns raping her. She died of internal injuries from being assaulted with a metal rod. When the attackers were done, they dumped her on the road in the wintry night and left her to die.
Despite his apparent progress toward rehabilitation, the teen has never admitted to the rape.
“He avoids talking about the incident. Maybe he is still in denial mode,” Goel said. “He never accepted his guilt during the sessions. So he has not expressed remorse either.”
His mother visited him twice at the facility, but he discourages her. The bus driver who was one of the rapists hanged himself in prison. The others have been sentenced to death by a city court but have appealed.
“This teenage boy will be free soon,” said Saumya Gupta, director in the city’s women and child department. “Unless we heal him, he will continue to be a danger to the other citizens in the city. It is the mandate of our department to ensure that the young boys who get mainstreamed after their stint in the observations homes are equipped to handle life afresh.”
Meanwhile, he seems to be charming officials with his conduct and cuisine.
“Some days, he gets excited and tells us, ‘Sir, I am going to cook you something special today. You will like it,’ ” said Lov Kumar Dhawan, a welfare officer.