One day in December 2014, Mr X got a call. He was out on a trip in Maharashtra’s Satara district. He picked up the phone. There was a policeman on the other line. He hadn’t dealt with policemen for some years now, all that stuff was long in the past. And yet, there was one calling to speak to him.
You have to come back home and surrender, the policeman said. You will be facing a fresh enquiry for murder.
On this December day, Mr X was 32 years old. He had a wife and child back home, old parents and a three-acre farm in one of Maharashtra’s interior districts, where they grew soya, cotton, dal and other crops. For 14 years, he had thought nothing of events of the previous century. For all he knew, all that was over and done with.
Until the phone call. That phone call was like a sentencing back in time. X went back home, arranged his affairs and presented himself, as required, before the juvenile justice board. In January 2015, the board sentenced him to two years – in a juvenile home.
Tossed into another world
For more than a decade, X had led an adult life, reintegrated as an adult member of society. Now, suddenly, the vagaries of the justice system had wrenched him and tossed him back into another world, a world in which he was technically treated as a child. This is also why, according to the law, his identity cannot be revealed.
“Suddenly one day,” said X, when I met him in court, “the call came. I was completely jolted, what else do you expect?”
It all started in 1998. Sometime in August that year, X got involved in an attack that turned out to be fatal. A friend of his approached a girl he liked, but when he was spurned, the prosecution said, X instigated his friend to attack the girl. The girl died on the spot, the court order noted, and the friend committed suicide. The statement of the victim’s brother, who was also present at the scene, was marshalled, along with the physical evidence, as part of the prosecution case.
He was booked under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for participating in the murder of a young woman. X was 16 years old and four months at the time, studying in Class 10, and he claims, on his way to school.
But, under the law of the time – the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986 was in force then – boys above 16 could be tried as adults for any kind of offence. This is why, just months before the new Act of 2000 – which raised the age of adult culpability to 18 years – X was tried by an adult court. In December 1999 he was convicted and sentenced to life.
Months shy of his 18th birthday, X was sent to an adult prison in another district. Lodged in a separate cell for three months, the young man felt the full blast of the criminal justice system. The older prisoners bullied him, his family was too poor to travel to visit him. But then his appeal was filed before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, and his sentence suspended while the appeal was pending, allowing him to come back out and try to make a life.
Gradually things limped back to normal. Though he didn’t finish school, he got married, had a child and settled into a cosy existence, forgetting about the pending appeal process. “I didn’t think about it at all in those years,” said X.
Irony of his circumstances
In August 2014, the Bombay High Court ordered, 14 years after the appeal was lodged and 16 years after the incident, that X’s matter be forwarded to the juvenile justice board. Although the incident took place when 16-year-old boys could be tried and punished as adults, the 2000 Act allowed pending cases to enjoy the benefit of the new Act in retrospect. The court, in its order, found the crime to have been “pre-meditated” given that the boys were carrying an axe, but said it could not pass a sentence given the circumstances. “Police authorities shall thereafter produce him before the Juvenile Justice Board for finding out the further course of action,” the bench said.
Sometime after that was when the call came, unmooring X from everything he had come to know. He showed up alone and surrendered before the magistrate who heads the juvenile justice board, to the befuddlement of the board members. They had not been apprised of the latest developments in the matter, they didn’t quite know what to do with him. They told him he would have to first go to the police station to surrender formally and come with an official escort before they could proceed with the inquiry.
The board found X to have been, as the technical term goes, “in conflict with the law”. In an order passed on January 2, 2015, X was sentenced to two years in a special home. On January 7, 2015, X officially entered the special home in Mumbai – one of two in the state. He was two months shy of his 33rd birthday, balding, ageing and distinctly un-childlike.
The irony was lost on no one, not least X himself. “There is possibly no case as peculiar as mine,” he said, smiling, almost proudly. “How strange is it that as a child I was sent to an adult prison but as a grown man I am sent to a children’s home.”
Arriving at the children’s home – where boys below the age of 18 are housed – X was an incongruity from the start. He slept alongside the children at night, and in the day time was treated as a de facto member of the staff, given office tasks and asked to help with managing the juveniles.
X calls it a tolerable life. The staff treated him well, the children listened to him, the food was fine. It was not a confined space like jail had been, the routine less restrictive. X was just finishing one fourth of his term, all he had to do was eke out another year and a half.
Then one night in May, all that changed.
What was gained and lost?
As the police tell the story, this is what happened: five boys tried to make a break from the home premises at night, two escaped, three were caught and brought back. There was some sort of altercation or assault following the recapture, and one of the boys later died. In his dying declaration he named X as the one of those who had beaten him. The police charged X for murder besides charging other juveniles, and in June sent X to Arthur Road Jail where he has been awaiting trial since.
As X tells the story, he wasn’t even present at the home when the alleged beating took place, and he is being implicated for other reasons. Nonetheless, he will be standing trial. His bail appeal was rejected in the lower court, and the court has now begun the trial in the case.
One of the questions to be asked here is whether sentencing him to a juvenile home when he was long past 30 served any purpose? Some said instead of being sent to a home, it would have been more prudent to impose some other punishment, like community service for instance. The aim of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation rather than retribution, to ensure that young people are returned to society reformed and well-adjusted. X had settled into a normal, crime-free existence, appearing to have thus achieved what the system intended. So what was gained by sending him back into the same system?
A person who was privy to the proceedings of the three-member board said they had little choice but to send him to a special home, given that the High Court had not questioned his participation in the 1998 offence itself. Given that he had served three months already, and the maximum possible term that could be imposed under the system was three years, they thought they were taking the kinder route by sending him to the home for two years.
The possibility of change
Having seen both kinds of institutions, X is well placed to respond to the question: what do you think of the much-debated new legal provision that in some cases could allow 16- to 18-year-olds to be tried as adults? The new Act became effective from January 15, 2016.
“I feel this is wrong,” he said. “Children are capable of change and reform. I have seen it myself.” At the home, children can learn skills or continue to study. “They want to, and they can change themselves,” he continued. “I have seen boys transform.”
For now, X is adjusting back to life in an adult prison: a space he last experienced as a 17-year-old. Life in Arthur Road is expectedly crowded, and nothing like the more salubrious atmosphere of the children’s home. His family is unaware of his whereabouts, his parents struggling in his absence. Now there is nothing to do but wait for the trial to begin.
None of the previous proceedings will of course have any impact on the new case set to unfold in court. The records of juvenile offenders are supposed to be destroyed and a juvenile offence cannot, like an adult offence, be considered a part of a person’s criminal record.
X fought back tears as he spoke during a meeting at court. His life had suddenly gone from utterly banal to almost absurd.
“If I had to be punished for what happened in 1998, why now?” he asked, referring to his fresh sentencing by the board in 2015. “If it had to happen, I should’ve faced this a long time ago.”