A 5-year-old boy has been in a coma in a Vellore hospital for almost a month. He was transferred to Vellore from Idukki where he had been brought to a local hospital in a coma, beaten so badly, doctors there said, that nearly every bone in his body was fractured.
The perpetrator was his own father. Across the country, we wake each day to new horror stories of rape, mutilation, assault and murder, each seemingly more brutal than the next. In those cases that attract media attention, politicians, journalists and commentators of every stripe offer opinions, analysis, advice and outrage.
As we have now come to expect, many of these reactions advocate summary and severe punishment as the solution. Hanging or castration alone will deter these brutes we are told – a perfectly understandable reflection of citizens’ fear and frustration at the mounting reports of ever more audacious crimes and low conviction rates. A leading daily ran an advertisement seeking votes from the public on appropriate punishment for alleged rapists listing ‘bobbitisation’, chemical castration, life imprisonment and the death penalty among the options. The clamour for more severe punishment for juvenile offenders gains momentum each day.
There are many reasons offered for the sharp increase in reports of rape, sexual assault, juvenile crime and crimes against women and children that we are witnessing – greater awareness, increased reporting, stronger laws, the fraying of our social fabric, declining ethics, increased inequality, clashing cultural paradigms, the commoditisation of life, even climate change. Key among them, and too little spoken of, is the sharp increase in violence of all forms across our society.
At CHILDLINE we rescued almost 18,000 children last year who were victims of violence and abuse. We dealt with perpetrators of violence who are parents, neighbours, teachers, friends, employers, traffickers and police personnel as well as staff in shelters, homes and orphanages among others. Beyond the cases of murder, rape and assault that receive media attention is a rising tide of verbal, physical, emotional and sexual violence of horrific proportions.
Parents are beating their children so severely they end up battered, bruised, comatose or dead. Teachers are humiliating students or subjecting them to punishment so cruel as to push children to committing suicide. Employers are using brute force to reprimand child labourers leaving them physically and psychologically impaired for life. Children on the street are being routinely sworn at, cuffed, thrashed or worse. We are witnessing a wave of violence, especially against children, of truly horrifying proportions.
While the media focus on the sensational details of a few cases, drumming up a lynch mob reaction from a nervous and shocked public, it is important to look more closely at both, the veracity of the data being presented and systemic solutions that go beyond vengeance. Much has been made, for instance, of the data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) suggesting a 143% increase in rapes committed by juveniles.
As Anant Kumar Asthana of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) has pointed out, these statistics are less than reliable. His analysis of some 4000 cases handled by the Juvenile Legal Aid Cell of the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) in Delhi between 2008 and 2012 found 176 cases of rape. Of these 80% involved children in romantic relationships or guilty of nothing more than adolescent sexual exploration.
Further, the numbers the NCRB reports do not include those children who were charged, prosecuted or imprisoned as adults. An RTI query by NGO HAQ revealed 114 children languishing in Tihar Jail alone between October 2010 and August 2011. They are disproportionately made up of the poor, the marginalised and those unable to leverage social connections or financial muscle to evade punishment, presenting an altogether distorted picture of juvenile crime. Lowering the age of criminal culpability for children will only increase the numbers who are tricked or coerced by police into exaggerating their ages.
Public outrage and fear are more easily assuaged by rapid arrests, speedy trials and harsh sentences than by policy change, police reform and issues of governance. Sacrificing due process to appease public anger erodes protections for all our children and exacerbates lawlessness among the police.
Hard won freedoms and protections are threatened when we seek to change laws, especially those that protect our youngest citizens, in the emotionally fraught mood that follows a heinous crime. Anyone pointing this out is subjected to a chorus of violence online and offline, intimidating into silence those who urge a longer term, evidence-based view that seeks to find a balance between justice for victims and basic human rights. Forgotten amidst the clamour for harsh, visible action is the global body of evidence that it is certainty and swiftness of punishment, not severity, which provides effective deterrence.
Also ignored is the steady escalation of violence in our society. In schools, homes, workspaces, public places, mass media and online fora we are acting and reacting with increased impatience, acrimony, hostility, intolerance and sheer nastiness, creating ever escalating cycles of violence. Shilpa Anand wrote recently of the violence pervading our language. Children watch and learn as family members, teachers, politicians, journalists, celebrities and other ‘responsible’ adults set standards in language, tone and deed that endorse the legitimacy, indeed desirability, of crassness, cruelty, even outright criminality. In a verbal equivalent of Gresham’s Law, civility is being driven out of our private and public spheres by tawdry, crass, belligerent and inhumane speech and behaviour.
If we are indeed to curb the levels of crime and violence in our society we would be well served to start by minding our own language, tone and behaviour. This is especially applicable to those among us who command the loudest megaphones. And especially relevant in our interactions with those over whom we enjoy power. We need also to call out violence in thought, speech and action whenever it happens regardless of who is committing it. And to oppose it as vehemently when it is committed by the guardians of the law as we do with those who break the law.
We need too a coherent national debate on how we as a society propose to protect all our children. Parents need to inform themselves of the child protection policies and protocols that schools and other institutions must implement. Citizens need to demand that the Integrated Child Protection Scheme – that serves children suffering neglect, abuse and exploitation as well as those in conflict with the law – is adequately funded, staffed and monitored. We need to debate whether we wish to see children in conflict with the law treated as feral beasts to be put down or caged or as vulnerable individuals who, given conducive environments and attention, can be good citizens.
And, beyond all these, ask why - across India, in slums and high-rises, schools and hospitals, on the streets and on social networks, in our offices and our legislatures – violence is the increasingly prevalent norm and examine our own contribution to the trend.
(Ingrid Srinath is Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation - the 24/7, free, emergency helpline for children in need of care and protection in India. Report a child in distress by calling 1098. Follow CHILDLINE on Twitter @CHILDLINE1098 and Ingrid @ingridsrinath)