NEW DELHI – The gang rape in India of a young woman and her resulting death last month sparked a national outcry and calls for harsh punishment of the five people charged with the crime.
Now the case of one of those suspects, a 17-year-old, is generating a divisive new debate about whether the nation’s juvenile crime laws should apply to particularly brutal offenses.
Police have charged five adults and the teenage boy — who investigators say participated in the rape and wielded the metal rod that caused the young woman’s fatal internal injuries — with rape, murder, abduction and robbery.
Yet although police have said they will seek the death penalty for the adults, the teenager faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison under India’s juvenile crime statutes. He was six months shy of his 18th birthday when the assault occurred.
Those differences have made his case the source of intense controversy.
The prevailing public mood against rape and anger over poor public safety for women have reignited qualms about a law passed in 2000 that raised the age at which teenagers are charged as adults from 16 to 18. At a conference of India’s police chiefs and top bureaucrats in New Delhi this month, participants unanimously called for a reversal of that law.
But child rights activists, who campaigned for the age change more than 12 years ago, say that will do little to help troubled youths who turn to crime. They argue that the teenage suspect’s biography — a sad but not uncommon history as a trafficked child laborer — proves their point.
According to police, the suspect dropped out of his village school in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and was taken six years ago by a relative to New Delhi to work as a child laborer in a street-side restaurant. For a time, he sent money to his family. But the payments stopped, and police said his mother assumed he might have died in the city.
He later found work as a helper and cleaner for the bus on which the 23-year-old woman was gang-raped in December. It was the teenager’s job to attract passengers by calling out to them in a singsong voice — a tone police said he used to beckon the woman, whom he called “sister.”
“This case has exposed our failure as a society in protecting our children and women,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a child rights activist. “First a boy is trafficked and exploited — later he turns to crime to change the power equation by finding a weaker person to dominate and control. We must stop this vicious cycle.”
But workers at the New Delhi juvenile observation home where the teenager is being detained say they have little sympathy for him, nor do other youths held there.
“Here is the boy that the whole country hates, I feel guilty that I am even looking after him,” said a senior official at the home who was not authorized to speak publicly. The official, who said he had participated in antirape street protests last month, added: “He had crossed all the limits of humanity. The staff feels deeply conflicted here. Our blood boils when we think of what he did.”
A welfare officer at the juvenile home said the teen is frail and rarely speaks. He is being kept in a separate room for his safety.
“All the other inmates in the home watch television news daily and they know about the gang-rape case and its horror,” the welfare officer said. “They keep begging me to just hand the accused over to them for a few minutes. They will finish him, they are so angry.”