J stood in front of a room of about 15 other boys, his throat blooming in song. He sang four different melodies to the boys sitting cross-legged on a carpet in front of him as the music teacher tapped a beat on his drum. Some of the others tried to join in.

When the music lesson ended, the boys filed out of the room, and walked towards the lunch hall. It was 1pm on a Monday. The first block of time at a boys’ observation home in Delhi had just ended.

J had no qualms in speaking about what brought him to the home. This 13-year-old singer of Sufi songs said he had helped plan the murder of another boy in his neighbourhood three months ago. J and three others took their victim to a secluded spot, where they stabbed him. He said he felt bad about it but the boy had been an inveterate bully, beating some of the others, and harassing them. “We couldn’t take it any more,” said J. “He was awful.”

Another 16-year-old, who was involved in the same crime, said he often thought about what happened. “I do feel bad,” he said. Both said they had been intoxicated at the time and were not in full control of their senses. They did not specify what substance they were high on.

Different motives

Why do children commit crimes? Neuroscience tells us it is because their brains aren’t completely developed, and their impulse control mechanisms are not fully in place. Other studies point to economic and social deprivation, poverty, peer pressure or substance abuse. But what, according to children, drives them to crime?

Sitting on a bench nearby, crafting paper flowers, X raised his hand to speak. Like J, he too had participated in a murder. His victim too had been a bully and a loudmouth, he said. X was 16 at the time.

For J and X – whose cases are still pending before the juvenile justice board – it was bullying that seemed to have broken them, transforming them into “children in conflict with the law”. P, another boy in the home for attempted murder, said “need” drove him to crime. The boy, about 14 at the time of the incident, said he and his friend used a knife to threaten people on the road into giving them money. “I needed the money, so I did it,” he said. When a prospective victim refused and attacked his friend, P attacked the victim-turned-aggressor. “I did it as an act of defence,” he said. “I really kept hoping that he had survived.”

Debating juvenile justice

The crafts room in the home is colourfully decorated with children’s artwork and imitation Madhubani paintings. Sitting with P were two other boys sewing embroidery. They had been caught after petty thefts. While one had broken into a store with a group of friends to steal mobile phones, another had gone with his friends to steal from a factory. He managed to steal a laptop but was apprehended before he could sell it.

“When I am alone,” said F, one of the boys sewing, “I don’t feel like doing this. This happens because of other friends.” He said he was sleeping at home when his friends persuaded him to accompany them on their expedition. He continued, “Now when I leave this place, I hope to do something meaningful.”

So how do the children feel about punishment? “If you commit a crime, you must pay,” said one boy. “I don’t want to do this [theft] again.” The other boys nodded.

Asked for their opinion on the new Juvenile Justice law effective from January (that could potentially try 16 to 18 year olds as adults if they commit heinous crimes such as rape and murder), two inmates, who were out on bail but were visiting that day, seemed to have been swayed by public opinion. “In the papers and on television they say more juveniles are committing crimes, so maybe they should be punished as adults then,” said one.

X, the boy in for murder, agreed with this. But asked if he should be tried for murder as an adult he thought about it again. Then both X and J, also in for murder, let loose a diatribe against children who commit rape. “Can you believe,” asked J, “that a young boy can rape a girl?” They said that they had beaten up another boy who had been apprehended for rape and sent to the home. He continued, “They should be really punished.”