How to deal with child offenders?

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 14, 2017 18:41 hrs
Pradyuman Thakur

The murder of 7-year-old Pradyuman Thakur at Ryan International School has raised several questions about the police’s investigation.

The school’s bus conductor Ashok Kumar was arrested, and police announced that he was involved in child sexual abuse. But it turned out he had been framed.

Soon, it emerged that the prime suspect was a student of Class 11, who was seen on CCTV to have been calling Pradyuman to the washroom. Police were accused of planting evidence on the bus conductor and forcing a confession.

Now, the Class 11 student has confessed to killing the child in order to have the school exams postponed, and subsequently retracted the confession.

As the accused waits for his next court hearing in an observation home, we need to examine the provisions in law for juvenile offenders, if it is indeed this boy – reportedly with an accomplice – who killed Pradyuman.

We have traditionally seen children as harmless and largely well-intentioned. When one of them perpetrates an act of cruelty, even one far less serious than murder, we assume he or she was misguided or influenced by an adult. We are quick to blame video games and violent films.

But should we not look at the possibility of children being sociopaths and psychopaths who cannot be corrected? What provisions does the law have to try them as adults, or to protect the society from them?

Though the Class 11 student’s accounts have been changing, the most reported one is chilling – that he wanted exams postponed at any cost, and so bought a knife from a shop near the school, looked for a child who would trust him relatively easily, and zeroed in on Pradyuman, who happened to attend piano classes with him.

The story is not unique.

There have been an alarming number of cases of children abusing, and even killing, younger children.

Across the world, in some of the most exclusive boarding schools in each country, children are ragged and sexually abused to the extent of rape by their older peers.

Bullying in schools, across ages, is so common it is largely overlooked. But bullying is a symptom of the drive that is responsible for nearly all crime – a hunger for power, a need to feel superior and dominant, pleasure at having someone weaker at one’s mercy.

There have been particularly gruesome incidents, such as the killing of the Liverpool-based toddler Jamie Bulger, whose murder in 1993 by two 10-year-old boys shook the world. Jamie, then two years old, was seen being led away by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, moments after his mother noticed he was missing and began searching for him. His mutilated body was found on the railways tracks two days later. His murderers, the youngest convicts for such a crime in England, were sentenced to eight years in custody, after which they were released with new identities.

The case was not the first of its kind in England. In 1968, 11-year-old Mary Bell was convicted of having killed two boys – 3-year-old Brian Howe and 4-year-old Martin Brown – the previous year. She was released 12 years later, anonymously, and won a court case to have her identity protected for life.

Jamie Bulger had had paint poured into his left eye, batteries inserted into his mouth – police said they may have been inserted into his anus too – and ten skull fractures from being hit repeatedly with a heavy iron bar. His underclothes had been removed and his foreskin had been forcibly retracted. A pathologist said it was not clear which of his 42 injuries had been the fatal one. Venables and Thompson left him on the railway tracks, hoping a train would run him over and hide all evidence of the torture.

The two were tried as adults, but not punished as adults. In the eight years they spent in custody, they were allowed to meet their parents regularly, taught to hide their crime, received an education, and were issued new passports, national insurance numbers, qualification certificates and medical records on release. Within ten years of their release, Venables was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. He received a two-year-sentence and was out in 2013.

Several psychiatrists said Thompson had shown no remorse for their actions.

In the case of Pradyuman Thakur, if the killer is indeed the Class 11 student, it is horrifying that he could devise such a plot to get his exams postponed – that rather than feign illness, or come up with another ruse, he decided to kill a schoolmate.

Such a predatory instinct, in hunting out a child weaker than oneself for prey, is evidence of a proclivity which is unlikely to subside.

The Juvenile Justice Act 2016 lowered the age for trial as adults to 16. But in a case such as Jamie Bulger’s, the perpetrators were just over half that age. We cannot deny that sociopaths exist, and that sociopathic tendencies manifest in childhood.

What mechanisms do we have in place, legally and logistically, to handle this? How can society be protected from them? Can they be counselled into non-violence? And what about those who cannot?

Schools can do safety audits of their staff. But who will audit the children?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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