All locked up and nowhere to play
September 28, 2008

We all like to believe that we live in a world where at least some things work right: our children go to school, compete in sports, watch TV, play video games, hangout with their friends... But there is another world that reveals itself momentarily at traffic signals, railway stations, crowded markets, under bridges, and next to nallahs -- the rules here are different from the ones we are used to.

Here, young boys -- caught for committing crimes ranging from petty theft to rape -- are branded criminals (the official term is 'juvenile delinquent') though the law itself makes such a distinction only after a person is 18. The boys are tried in a Juvenile Justice Board (JJB), not a court; and they are kept in judicial custody in observation homes, not prisons. The reality, however, is far from ideal, reveals Ruzbeh Bharucha in My God Is A Juvenile Delinquent. According to Bharucha, a documentary filmmaker, the judiciary and police end up reinforcing a criminal identity, instead of providing counselling that could wean the child off bad company and bad habits.

The book is not an analysis of the situation, nor does it directly raise questions; it is chiefly an account of Bharucha's experience at Delhi's JJB. Bharucha, who has authored books such as Shadow In Cages and Mother And Child In Indian Prisons, teams up with an NGO, Haq, to interact with boys waiting to be tried by the JJB.

Bharucha's account exposes the reader to the world in which these children live -- locked up in cells, without an outlet for their energies, and uncared for. Will such kids grow up to be law-abiding citizens? There are, of course, many reasons why these children are in custody: plotting thefts, taking drugs, committing murder. Bharucha grapples with the idea of whether it is appropriate to judge that a child has indeed committed the crime. But regardless of whether the child is guilty or not, there are pressing problems that need to be addressed: finding competent lawyers, contacting relatives who sometimes live in far-off villages and are too poor to afford a train ticket (in fact, many children remain in observation homes only because there is no relative willing to take charge), keeping the children productively occupied inside the observation homes, and finally, counselling them to ensure they don't turn to crime once they are released.

Bharucha is given to bouts of frustration: "I felt useless and I felt my entire endeavour, of writing this book shallow and artificial. Would something good come about for the poor and the children and their families from this book?... A book wasn't enough."

A few such passages, which you'd otherwise expect will break the flow of the narrative work well, because it gives voice to our own frustration when we come across such incidents. But will there be a change in the system to give these children another chance to live honest lives? The fact that Bharucha was allowed to interact with these children shows that things are changing (a fact that he acknowledges). One can only hope that the change happens sooner than later. Many bright futures are dependent on it.

R Krishna

Copyright 2014 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.