On August 5, in Tamil Nadu, at least five Dalit children under the age of 12 were charged with allegedly sexually assaulting a group of children belonging to the Thevar community, which is considered to be a higher caste.

According to The Hindu, a scuffle between two groups of children outside a Dalit school in M Kallupatti, a village near Madurai, led to the Dalit children being charged under different sections of the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act after parents of the Thevar children lodged a complaint.

Several details of the altercation between the two groups of children are unclear.

According to The New Indian Express, police officials said that the First Information Report mentions that “the accused touched the body parts of the victims before pouring cow dung mixture on them and also attacked them with stones. Two girls sustained injuries.”

The Times of India reported that six Thevar children were hospitalised after being molested.

But the accused children reportedly denied touching the Thevar children or pouring anything on them.

In presence of their parents, they told The New Indian Express that they were verbally abused by the Thevar children who called them by their caste name, after which the children threw stones at each other.

Even the number of children involved in the incident, and their ages, is uncertain. The Times of India reported that six Dalit boys between the ages of 10 and 12 attacked four girls and two boys of the Thevar community. The New Indian Express reported that there were five Dalit children, including one girl and that four of them were aged nine and one was six.

Despite this lack of clarity, the incident caught nationwide attention because of the strong element of caste in this case that involved children.

In an interview to Scroll.in, Dr K Shanmugavelayutham, the convener of the Legal Resource Centre for Child Rights in Chennai, said that the incident has been used to further caste conflict in the area, and that the integration of Dalit students into mainstream education could prevent such incidents from happening again.

Children have been charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, in addition to other sections under the Indian Penal Code. Are these legitimate charges?
Usually, the children classified as Child in Conflict with Law are not charged with any crime if they are under seven years of age, even under the Indian Penal Code. Now there is category for 7 to 12 years, 12 to 16 years, and 16 to 18 years.

For the special category between 7 to 12 years, the liability depends on the capacity of understanding of the child. But in this situation, it is usual for children to fight and verbally abuse each other. This is all a part of a child’s life.

Although this is a scuffle between children, caste does play a role in this case. It has been reported that two communities became involved in a fight between children.
Yes, it is not yet clear if sexual violence, abuse or harassment is there in this case. But it is clear that this fight between these Dalit children and Thevar children has been used by caste Hindus. This should be discussed first. It is not correct to slap such a charge on children unnecessarily. Even though legally speaking, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act can be used, considering that the children will be subject to stigma in the future, it should be avoided.

Actually, not all the complaints under this Act are taken into consideration. FIRs are not filed for all incidents. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, an FIR is filed for only one-tenth of cases of child sexual abuse. I feel that in this case caste Hindus have used the POCSO Act against Dalit children for a certain reason.

Usually Dalits file petitions against the caste Hindus under the Protection of Civil Rights Act. That is a very severe charge. For example Dalit boys say that caste Hindus have abused them by calling them with their caste name, or they have ill-treated them, [and] the caste Hindus are booked under the Protection of Civil Rights Act. Now this is the first time the caste Hindus are using the POCSO Act against Dalit children. It could be a form of retaliation. That is why this will set a bad precedent. Now many people may start using it. The POCSO Act is a very powerful act, because the burden of proof is with the offender not the accused.

According to reports, the police said that they had no choice but to file the First Information Report.
One aspect of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act is that if anyone has complained to the police, it is the duty of the police to file the FIR. There is mandatory reporting and filing of an FIR. This is also a grey area.

For example, if I know something has happened or is going to happen, I have to report to the police. If I do not, I will be punished. This is also part of the POCSO Act – mandatory reporting, mandatory filing.

The POCSO Act also has a broad concept of sexual violence and sexual abuse. Showing naked pictures, singing or playing a film song, making sexual gestures – all come under the Act. It is a good thing in many cases, but interpretation and execution is problematic.

Have there been other such cases where such young children have been charged under this Act? How are these cases dealt with?
Not that I know of. There have been several cases filed against older children, around 14 or 15 years of age, for sexual harassment and teasing. They have been charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, and then usually let off with a warning.

The children are not punished because this comes under the Juvenile Justice Act. The children are given advice and are admonished. They are asked to write that they will not repeat their action. Under the Juvenile Justice Act, it is only as the last resort that children are sent to special schools, that too for only three years.

This will be the case in this incident too. But once all these charges are filed against the children, they will be stigmatised. This is the first time I am seeing so many young children being targeted. Usually it is just one or two.

How hard is it for children from such socio-political and socio-economic backgrounds to access the justice system?
Many times, the police are in collusion with the caste Hindus. If it is an area dominated by powerful caste Hindus, the police cannot say no to their demands. In this matter, the district superintendent of police should intervene, and they should ask [the Thevar families] to withdraw the FIR, and amicably hold talks, and both parties should withdraw. The school authorities also should aim to mould the children into better people. It becomes difficult here if the school authorities also hold casteist feelings.

Some reports say that the quarrel began because the children were fighting over whose school was better. The Dalit children go to a separate school here. Doesn’t this heighten caste tensions?
In Usilampatti and surrounding areas, there are caste-wise schools. Originally, in order to reform the de-notified communities that were regarded as criminal communities, these schools were started. Till now, the same type of school is functioning. We should not have these categories of schools anymore, especially for de-notified communities. The community is no longer involved in crime. There are so many Adi-Dravidar [a Scheduled Caste] schools that are of a very poor standard. Their infrastructure and facilities are far below government schools. It is high time they got included in general schools, only then can we keep away such conflicts.