NEW DELHI — Two days after the juvenile convicted of participating in the fatal gang rape of a young woman in 2012 was released, Indian Parliament on Tuesday passed a controversial new law that will now try juveniles as adults if they are accused of committing brutal crimes like rape and murder.
The new law, however, will not apply retroactively and will not affect the youth who was released on Sunday after spending three years at a correction facility. Since then, protesters have demonstrated in the capital and questioned if India’s juvenile law had let him get away too easily. But critics say that the new law is a knee-jerk reaction to public anger on the streets.
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The debate and passage of the new Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill in Parliament occurred in the presence of the parents of the young woman who was fatally gang raped in 2012 in a moving bus in New Delhi.
The gruesome incident set off nationwide protests against rising sexual assaults on women in India, which led the nation to pass a tough anti-rape law just a few months later.
One of the six men who gang raped the young paramedical student in December 2012 was a teen, who was just a few months short of 18, the legal age of adulthood. He has since become a polarizing figure in India and has generated an angry debate and demands for urgent changes in the law. Many argued that the old law, which emphasized the merits of reformation, did not prove to be a strong deterrent.
The most contentious clause in the new law is that it will allow those between 16 and 18 to be tried as adults if they are accused of committing heinous crimes like rape, murder and acid attacks.
Under the new law, if a court sends juveniles to an adult court, they will be housed in an institution meant for adolescent offenders until they turn 21. After that, their behavior will be evaluated and the sentence can be reduced if there is evidence of reform.
The law also mandates that each district in India will set up juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees. Today, only six states have set up these boards.
The lower house of Parliament had passed the bill during its last session in May. Later it was stuck in the upper house, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government lacks a majority.
But in a rare display of nonpartisan politics, lawmakers came together on Tuesday to pass what has come to be one of the most bitterly contested legal changes since the gang rape incident.
Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said in Parliament that the juvenile offenders today know that “nothing will happen to them, except a three-year stint in a reform school.”
“When they finish this, they will get money from the state to start their life properly,” Gandhi said. “And what do the victims get? Nothing. Remember, India is watching us."
Badrinath Singh, the father of the gang rape victim, told reporters outside Parliament: "My heart is satisfied. Even if my daughter did not get justice, this new law will be good for many women in the future."
Some child rights activists say the new law is draconian and that lawmakers had been coerced by the parents’ anguish.
They said that the new changes puts all children at risk and said that teens younger than 18 are often at a loss to understand the full implications of their actions.
“The discussion about the law should have taken place in a more informed and calm manner. But anger and grief seems to be the mood in the upper house,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, a child rights lawyer.
“A child is going to be at risk of being sent to an adult criminal justice system merely on the basis of an allegation,” Asthana added. “The very premise of this new law seems to be to cause maximum hardships to children in conflict with law. It is a law that seeks revenge on children.”
The government informed Parliament last week that there has been a jump of over 50 percent in crimes committed by juveniles between 2005 and 2014. But child rights activists said the rate of juvenile offence as a proportion of adult crime has been going down in recent years.
The victim’s parents had said that the release of the man, now 20, endangers the safety of all women in India. Last-ditch efforts to prevent the youth’s release from the correction facility were rejected by both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court.
[Court approves release of youngest attacker in fatal 2012 New Delhi rape]
But on Sunday, he did not walk free. Authorities have shifted him to an undisclosed nonprofit group where he will be assisted in rehabilitation and also kept under a watch for some time.
As the parents of the gang rape victim sat in the galleries listening to the five-hour debate in Parliament, lawmakers tried to balance their emotions.
“Is this a good bill? Is this a very good bill? Or is it an ideal bill? We would rather not wait indefinitely for an ideal bill,” said Derek O’Brien, a lawmaker with the Trinamool Congress. “This is a good enough bill for today.”