Juvenile delinquents: The processing of the negative

The near certainty of the award of death penalty to the four adult accused in the case throws into sharp contrast the fact that the juvenile in the Nirbhaya case could only be punished with a maximum of three years of detention. The headline pertaining to the release of another juvenile Vishal (name changed) who had raped and murdered a child: “‘Juvenile’ killer freed, threatens victim’s sister”, is indicative of the likely scenario which may unfold after the release of the Nirbhaya juvenile. These seem to be the stark ground realities of the working of the separate legal regimen set up for juvenile offenders – the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (JJ Act) with its objectives of catering to “their developmental needs, for child-friendly adjudication and disposition of matters in the best interest of children and for their ultimate rehabilitation”.

The juvenile in the Nirbhaya case is presently lodged in the reformatory at Majnu- ka- tila in Delhi. The juvenile inmates of this state-run home recently held the authorities hostage for 15 hours in a dramatic protest, locked out staff, set blankets and furniture on fire while holding onto the barbed wire that segregates them from the outside world. They threw bricks outside and harassed the resident Tibetan community, passing lewd comments and making obscene gestures at the women. The incident precipitated a joint inspection by the National Commission for Protection Child Rights and the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The report bemoans the ‘deplorable state’ of the three homes located in the complex and points out that the institution does not offer regular counseling, a mental health care plan or vocational training to the inmates.
The extremes of brutalization in the Nirbhaya case are indicative of the fury and anger raging in the psyche of the perpetrator juvenile. The demons seething in the cauldron of the unconscious driving the delinquent to such viciousness and violence can at best be speculated upon in the absence of psycho-therapeutic access. In the complex area of the psyche – fear can make an individual timid, and on the other hand, it can make a person aggressive. Violence and timidity can spring from the same root of fear and anxiety. The extreme of brutality exhibited in inserting an iron rod in the vagina of the victim and pulling out her insides may stem from deep primal fears of annihilation, reflected in the phantasy of the Vagina Dentita: the fear of a vagina with teeth devouring the male.
An individual delinquent could be stuck at a stage of primary infantile narcissism, the self love which we have as infants, where we split off the bad parts which cause distress and project on to the other – ‘the doll is bad’. The process of acknowledging the good and bad parts of ourselves, learning to tolerate distress and frustration could get frozen mid-stream. This may lead the individual to a failure to co-relate consequences to behavior and to taking responsibility for one’s actions. Concomitant feelings of persecution and blaming the other may block the process of learning from mistakes and growing up. The lack of reality check can lead to the predominance of the grandiose self with notions of impunity and being able to get away with anything leading to lack of restraint. In addition severe narcissistic traits could lead to total lack of empathy and of seeing the ‘other’ as a mere screen for one’s own projections rather than as a person.
It can be safely postulated that intense and intolerable buried feelings of rage, anger, self-loathing, self-disgust, guilt, fear, aggression, pity, persecution, depression, loneliness and emptiness may be some of the emotions at play to varying degrees in the psyche of juveniles driven to uncontrollable destructive and self-destructive behaviour. Psychotherapeutic interventions to bring the buried distressful feelings to the fore, a processing of the deep fears and rages, initiating the acknowledgement and taking back of one’s bad parts, equipping the individual to tolerate frustrations and distress are integral to the schema of the JJ Act visualizing rehabilitation and re-integration of the juvenile offender into society. The rationale of differential treatment of and setting up of a separate process for juveniles is treatment and guidance rather than punishment. The law takes on board factors like teens are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and it is worthwhile to give children who have committed offences a second chance at life. It is also premised in the belief that changing the social environment in which juveniles live is a more effective way to reduce juvenile violence rather than pushing them into the adult criminal court system and prisons.
The Nirbhaya juvenile has been incarcerated in law at a euphemistically termed ‘Place of Safety’ and been actually lodged in the Majnu-ka-tila home indicted by the child commissions. Meanwhile after the protest ten inmates of this home were shifted to Sewa Kutir at Kingsway Camp in Delhi to avert trouble, from where five of them escaped. According to the senior officials the escape is an expression of deep seated frustration with the juvenile justice system and the lack of reformative activities to mainstream juveniles. The five boys who escaped were known to have an addiction problem but were yet to get any special medical treatment.
Steps to provide counseling/psychotherapeutic services, catering to developmental needs of the child, conceptualizing a mental health care plan for each juvenile, changing the social environment, continuing therapy services after the release form the bulwark of the approach of the JJ Act. In the absence of such measures the entire purpose of the legislation gets lost and reduced to lock up the juvenile in unhygienic deplorable conditions, throw away the key for the duration and then release him in society, possibly more embittered, angry, vengeful and prone to violence and self-destruction. We helplessly await the next crime he may commit on release and then hopefully we can lock him away for good as an adult!
Rakesh Shukla is a Delhi based lawyer and psychotherapist

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