Home > News > Columnists > Kanchan Gupta
Why treat kids as criminals?
December 20, 2004
In a recent survey on sexual health awareness among school children in India, a leading news magazine, Outlook, came up with revealing statistics. Asked if they have had any sexual experience, 39 per cent boys and girls in Delhi, nine per cent in Chennai, 24 per cent in Kolkata and 18 per cent in Mumbai replied in the affirmative.
Nearly half of them said they had shared their experience with multiple partners; for more than half of them, the experience included intercourse. In each category, Delhi's boys and girls were ahead of school students in the other cities.
Some argue this is a dubious distinction. Others attribute the differential to the meltdown of conservative values that once defined India's urban middle class, more so in Delhi which till recently was a city of government babus.
Sociologists peg the revelation on a cocktail of factors, ranging from double-income parents chasing career and money while sparing little time for their children to Delhi rapidly transforming itself into a city of fixers and wheeler-dealers where more money is made than can be spent sensibly; from aggressive social-climbing by the nouveau riche to an overwhelmingly couldn't-give-a-damn attitude towards the colour of money.
Everybody agrees that the media has played a significant role in promoting a lifestyle that draws no distinction between adolescence and adulthood. Consumerism-driven advertising has contributed its own share by not so subtly promoting hedonism as the right choice and equating licentiousness with liberalism.
Therefore, it makes little sense to pillory two teenaged students -- a boy and a girl -- of a much sought after fashionable Delhi school who have been in the news for a momentary lapse of discretion. The boy is a promising cricketer, the girl a 'super achiever.' The teenagers indulged in some clumsy sex, which the boy recorded on his 'cam-phone' and then sold the video to his chums. Soon, the video was being flashed as an MMS across India.
The boy's caddish behaviour and his enterprising effort to make a quick buck are of a piece with Delhi's all-consuming cash-and-carry culture and its cynical contempt for scruples, morals and values. Authorities who run Delhi's public schools should know this since they are fiercely enterprising in fleecing parents seeking admission for their children. Delhi's parents who excel in grabbing money at any cost should feign no surprise.
In civil societies around the world, juvenile delinquency is tackled through professional counselling. No so in India. The errant boy and girl were expelled from their school, the moral integrity and rectitude of whose authorities few are willing to vouch for. The episode should have ended there, but our law-enforcing agencies have decided to don the moral mantle.
The police has arrested the boy on the strength of a non-bailable warrant, thus denying him the opportunity to seek anticipatory bail, a protection that is routinely accorded with due diligence to India's most hardened criminals, including corrupt politicians. The police has asserted that they are looking at ways and means of questioning the girl who, unable to handle the trauma of public humiliation, has fled to a foreign country.
Overnight, a delinquent act has been converted into a criminal offence. A 17-year-old boy now has a police record that he will never be able to erase from his life: he is scarred forever. The errant girl will probably have to spend the next few years in hiding, far from family and friends: she has been, to use a quaint expression, stigmatised for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, the CEO of baazee.com, an EBay company and one of the most successful dotcom ventures in India, has been arrested and sent to jail because a post-graduate student at IIT, Kharagpur, tried to auction CDs of the Delhi schoolboy's 'cam-phone' video through this portal. The law-enforcing agencies have threatened this portal with closure for violating Section 67 of the Information Technology Act (transmission of obscene material through electronic media). All this despite baazee.com pulling out the offending item as soon as it was noticed and helping the police to track down the offender who, too, has been picked up.
Perhaps the police would also have the gumption of arresting the CEOs of all cellular phone companies in India because their mobile service facilitated the transmission of the MMS and are, therefore, going by the weird logic of the law-enforcing agencies, equally if not more guilty, as are all newspapers and television channels for publicising the 'cam-phone' video but for which it would not have topped the charts at Delhi's porn den, Palika Bazar, or made the MMS a saleable item on baazee.com.
The law, as the proverb goes, has shown itself to be an ass. Sexual delinquency among juveniles cannot be tackled with police action. Nor can it be dealt with effectively so long as our antiquated legal codes remain in place. The current clampdown is similar to the manner in which antediluvian theocracies deal with social problems. It is at total variance with how modern democracies tackle similar issues.
Experts agree that information on sexual health, otherwise known as 'sex education,' is the best way to prevent sexual delinquency among teenagers. But few are willing to educate children on sexual matters because they fear the law. The Indian Penal Code, through Sections 292, 293 and 394, disallows the exhibition of any material that can be construed as sexually explicit. A teacher could be carted off to jail for drawing a diagram or showing a condom.
These are strange times that we live in. The Government of India embraces terrorists as its 'brothers and sisters,' while the Delhi police, which reports to the Union home ministry, hounds two hapless teenagers for sexual delinquency, something that is common among 23 per cent boys and girls in India's cities. No less strange is the fact that not a whimper of protest has been heard from civil society across the length and breadth of India.