Law · Politics

Safe and Sound?

Childhood. The age of innocence and unstressed happy times, for most of us. School is literally the second home for a child. It is supposed to signify a warm and joyous atmosphere. But recent times have had a detrimental effect on the fundamental idea of school being a safe place for children.

The recent incident of the rape of a six year old in an elite urban private school during school hours in Bangalore, Karnataka has outraged thousands across the country. It is beyond shameful. The child was locked in a dark room by her teacher, after which a security guard and skating instructor allegedly raped her. Investigation by the police led to the arrest of the accused, who was charged under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (Punishment for rape) and under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO). Later, the chairman of the school was also arrested and charged under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, the POCSO Act 2012 and Section 201 of the IPC (causing disappearance of evidence of offence or giving false information to screen offender). Four of the other school staff have also been arrested.

The highlight of this incident was the reaction it received from thousands of parents and students across the country. This was primarily because the school refused to take any responsibility of the situation, even though many of their staff were directly involved. A protest that was held outside the school attracted an angry crowd of thousands. An interesting aspect to note here is the fact that the accused had been thrown out of a previous school due to a similar incident three years ago. But no background check was done while hiring him. It is extremely shocking to know that the accused worked for more than two years at the same school. It cannot be determined if this was his first act of such a sort.

So can one hold the management of the school negligent for not conducting a proper screening test while employing him? During the investigation, the police also found child pornography on his mobile and laptop. That in itself is another offence. But speaks volumes on the physiological state of the accused.

All forms of media highlighted and reflected this issue. Anguished parents took to the social media. People from all over the country have signed a Change.org petition that was started by the mother of the 6 year old to make schools safer. The incident has gathered a lot of assistance from the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Human Rights and the Karnataka Education Minister. The Karnataka Government has also written to the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination Board (ICSE) to derecognise the school. But the question of the hour is that will this create any impact of any sort? Won’t the shutting down of the school do more harm than good, especially with regard to students?

This is one of those incidents where the government authorities take relatively quick action only due to the pressure of the people through the scrutiny of media. These kinds of incidents are not new at all. But why is it that cases which are portrayed heavily in the media only get some kind of police assistance? There have been many other similar instances in private schools in Bangalore, but no action was taken in any of them. Is sensationalizing a critical issue the only thing that will bring the government authorities to their feet? Is the definition of justice only image management for the police?

As it so often happens in India, this incident took a political twist. The BJP party members staged protests against the ruling Congress party in the state for failing to protect the rights of women and children. Members of the Akhil Bharathi Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) also staged a protest that was met with lathi charge by the police. The protesters also claimed that the protest was a peaceful one but the police manhandled women who were protesting and that there were no women police staff present. The incident have a lot of politicians to give their opinions on the same. The CPI(M) leader, Brinda Karat, said that these horrible acts are growing as criminals get political protection.

But the most preposterous reaction to this incident was by the Karnataka Chief Minister himself. He was seen dozing off during a debate regarding this issue in the State Assembly. Further, when he was asked about this issue by the media, he replied, “Except that, don’t you have any other issue? Is this the only news you have?” He also went ahead and accused the BJP of politicising the issue. The mind-set that our government heads have regarding such issues truly reflect upon their governance with regards to the same.

There were many incidents involving sexual offences against children that have been gruesome before this issue was highlighted. In May 2014, in a village in North India, two teenage girls from a marginalized community were allegedly gang raped, murdered and hung on trees. In the same month, children in a residential shelter in western India were raped, forced to watch and enact scenes from pornographic films and forced to eat feces. In April 2013, a five year old girl was kidnapped by her neighbors and raped and tortured for two days in Delhi. But what is the legal perspective for sexual offences against children?

The law is very specific when it comes to this offence. Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, all forms of child sexual abuse are for the first time specific criminal offenses. The Act defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years and provides protection to all children under the age of 18 years from the offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography. The attempt to commit an offence under the Act has also been made liable for punishment for up to half the punishment prescribed for the commission of the offence. The Act also provides for punishment for abetment of the offence, which is the same as for the commission of the offence. This would cover trafficking of children for sexual purposes. For heinous offences such as this, the burden of proof is on the accused. The law also establishes important guidelines for the police and courts to deal with victims sensitively and provides for creating special courts to handle these cases.

These provisions have contributed to increased reporting of child rape cases across the country. But the law has yet to be effectively implemented. In this case, the parents of the victim filed a police complaint in early July 2014. However, delays in an investigation as a result of alleged police inaction, and public suspicions that the management of the prominent school was trying to keep the case quiet to cover up negligence, led thousands of parents to protest. Also, the Law Ministry of India approved the Juvenile Justice Act amendment draft, which if passed by the government, will treat a minor above the age of 16 as an adult for crimes like rape and equally heinous crimes.

Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show saddening figures from 2013. Only 15.3% of all cases relating to sexual offences against children completed trials, with a conviction rate as low as 31.5%. 84.5% of child rape cases are still pending. There are 757 child rape cases in Delhi, making it account for 14% of all crimes against children in the country. The laws that exist specifically for this are good, but it is in the implementation of this law that diminishes its practical value. The law must always ensure that intricacies that are prevalent in ground reality are included by the policy makers.

One of the main legal barriers in this case is that there exists no concrete set of common standardized legal measures and guidelines that must be followed and implemented by all schools. Guidelines like conducting thorough background checks of all employees, installation of CCTV cameras, formation of sexual harassment committees, employing psychologists and spreading awareness among children are few to name. The law can only gain force in the prevention of such crimes when it adapts to the situation. It is rendered powerless if it is improperly executed. Stronger enforcement of laws, regular inspections, an impartial and independent investigation and trial will give power to existing laws. Because at the end of the day, it is the law that decides the fate of a young innocent child.

About the Author:

SoloPictureRamya Katti

A ferocious dreamer, a confident speaker, a propagandist of rational thought, a determined debater, an incandescent poet and a voracious reader; she is a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She takes keen interest in International Law and Human Rights and wishes to pursue the same in the future. She hopes that her intricate eye for detail and innate ability to analyse will enable her in getting more out of new experiences in life. She also enjoys sarcasm, political humor, convoluted characters in novels, good music and a cup of hot black coffee during rains.

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