In My God is a Juvenile Delinquent, author and documentary filmmaker Ruzbeh N Bharucha examines the plight of incarcerated children in India — their personal stories, the inability to locate justice, the loss of their childhood. As the tone of Bharucha’s responses to JAI ARJUN SINGH’s questions shows, he feels very strongly about the subject.
How did your interest in the subject of juvenile delinquents begin?
After my book on mothers and children in Indian prisons, Shadows in Cages, I directed a documentary on one of the biggest slum demolitions in India, called Yamuna Gently Weeps. While researching for these, I realised that though we as a country claim to be very sensitive about the well-being of our children, the reality is that we don’t care a damn about children who are poor and underprivileged.
I wanted to learn more about the lives of those children: are they really on the wrong path, and if they are, what made them gravitate towards crime and how we as society treated and handled them. I was sure we were responsible for screwing their psyche. I wasn’t wrong.
How did you begin your research?
I am involved with two NGOs, Navjyoti and India Vision Foundation, founded by Dr Kiran Bedi, and through these organisations and through my own research on children, I got in touch with HAQ, Centre for Child Rights, a social organisation doing excellent work in children welfare. I volunteered as a social worker as I had learnt that HAQ had been given access to visit children who were in “conflict with law” and interact with these children at the Juvenile Justice Board.
So, twice a week, I would spend time with these children in a cell that resembled a cage; slowly, they opened their hearts to us and after every meeting I would go home and write down our conversations.
What are the major issues when it comes to the detention of young children in jails? How fair and transparent is the justice system towards them?
Our justice system is as fair and transparent as the backside of a sun-burnt crow. The problem with all our institutions is the lack of transparency. It is easier to back-pat the prime minister of the country than get access to these institutions. The reason for the secrecy is beyond me.
The major issues regarding juvenile delinquents are many.
First, we keep them in holes called observation homes. These are really detention homes, prisons for children. The only bloody “observation” that goes on is ruining their childhood. Thus kids are kept in these so-called homes for years, being taught nothing, and they begin to rot and when they come out they are frustrated and bitter with society.
Second, the police officials have a quota to fulfill. Thus, kids are often booked for no fault. I have met a number of kids who were seething with anger and frustration, as they had been living an honest life but were booked because of a mistake they had committed a long time earlier. These kids are kept in prisons for adults. They are sodomised and victimised. You really think they are going to walk the straight path?
Third, often the rich kids get bail as their parents can afford it. Thus they can get away with anything and everything. If you are poor you are screwed and if you are rich you will have a way out.
Do you focus on the emotional and psychological issues or the legal issues?
The book is about meeting the kids: their viewpoint, humour, sadness, highs and low. It isn’t about section so-and-so and section this-and-that. It’s about life.
What steps will improve the lot of young children in prisons?
Greater transparency and responsibility is needed in law, governance and management. The cops need to get their act together. There should be somebody who polices the police. NGOs and well-meaning, qualified members of society should have access to the observation homes. Kids should have better facilities to occupy their time. They should be involved in studies and vocational occupation and not just be rotting in these observation homes.
Also, the age limit of kids should be 18 and not 14.
How many children did you meet? Were there any incidents that had a particularly strong impact on you?
I spent more than a year, met many kids. Read the book for details.
Do you plan to make a film about juvenile delinquents?
They won’t allow me inside, forget allowing me with a camera!