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Killer kids

By INDIA TODAY Correspondent Labonita Ghosh in Calcutta.

Fourteen-year-old Asha Barui was walking on a deserted road in Raidighi, near Calcutta, when four boys (three of them Class X students) accosted her. The boys dragged her to a nearby paddy field and raped her. Two of them were later arrested. Asha, now in hospital, is in serious condition.

That was on March 1. Three weeks earlier eight-year-old Parul Sarkar (name changed) was so engrossed in watching the dancing figures on the monitor at Calcutta's Subhas Mela she didn't notice the little boy, just a year older and from the same neighbourhood, sidling up to her. "There's a nice place behind the fairground. Come with me." The unsuspecting child went along. An hour later, Parul was seen wandering about naked and bleeding.

Nine-year-old Nakul Halder had coaxed her to accompany him to a secluded spot, forced her to strip and watched as two slightly older boys'aged 12 and 14'raped her. Nakul was picked up, but the other two are still absconding.

What is happening to Calcutta's children? A string of gruesome shockers in the last few years point to a dangerous trend of killer children young mischief-makers moving away from previously petty crimes to more serious offences like dacoity, rape and murder. Homicide among children, experts say, is twice as common today as it was in the 1980s. And there's no one reason why children kill. Fuelled by textbook causes; neglect by family, alienation, peer pressure, lack of role models and a media-stirred consumerism that sharpens economic disparities and driven by rage, children are known to go on the rampage almost everywhere. But the Parul Sarkar incident showed up another dangerous trend: that Calcutta is getting completely desensitised to it.

That wasn't the case in 1993, when Sajal Barui, 16, stage-managed the murder of his parents and older stepbrother Kajal. He hired four of his friends, all around 17 years old, to bind and gag his folks before strangling and stabbing them to death. To throw the police off the scent, he got himself bound to a chair, so that it would look like he was spared. But the police was on to him when they couldn't find any injuries on his person. A year earlier, 17-year-old Sudipa Pal made headlines when she poisoned her family by poisoning their dinner. The reason was her mother had found out about Sudipa's affair. "She tried to cover up one wrong by doing many more", says criminologist Kamal Mukherjee, who adds that minor offenders don't realise the consequences of their act.

Over the years, there have been many more cases, many as grisly. But in Calcutta, outrage has now turned to a detached concern. That's scary especially since psychologists say a peculiar bio-psychosocial makeup pre-disposes or at least allows opportunity for crime among Calcutta's children. "In Calcutta, the rich and poor are constantly thrown together," says psychologist Nilanjana Sanyal. "Whether it's bad urban planning that lets slums dot even the most posh localities, or free-for-all modes of transport like the metro rail. Or even annual events like the Book Fair or Durga Puja. In a city with one of the highest dropout rates, children gravitate to the ubiquitous para club and take pride in idling the day away. With so much free time, they start looking for excitement that often comes in the form of crime," says Sanyal.

If crime begins at home, then the typical middle-class Bengali household with its adjunct of (often meddlesome) relatives and friends is a perfect refuge. Not much of a businessman, the Bengali still measures success by the yardstick of academic achievement. There's tremendous pressure on children to perform at school. Take the case of latchkey child Bhutto, 10. His working parents routinely scolded him for falling grades and compared him to his classmate Sumit, a better student. One day when the needling got too much, Bhutto took Sumit to a brick kiln, pushed him into a pond and held his head down till he drowned. Till that point, we could call it anger. What followed clearly points to an inbred killer instinct. Bhutto tied Sumit's body to a pile of bricks so it would stay submerged. A few days later, when a worker found the body, Bhutto was taken in.

Calcutta's law enforcers and welfare department officials are surprisingly under-informed, and arguably lenient when it comes to juveniles. Those who seek their help, often come up empty handed. Consider these pitfalls:

- In West Bengal the Juvenile Justice Administration draws its guidelines from an act of the same name, implemented in 1986 by the Centre. This act assumes anyone between seven and 12 years can do no wrong. Thus, minors brought before the court usually get bail. "The court is supposed to judge the seriousness of the offence," says an official. "But in most cases, we just let the child go." Adult criminals bank on this leniency. "It helps them make use of children," says psychiatrist Basudev Mukherjee, who works with youngsters at Calcutta's Alipore Central Jail. "They start the children out on odd jobs, then draw them into hardcore crime."

- A juvenile out on bail, is put under the supervision of a probation officer. Although the Juvenile Justice Act provides for a probation officer in every district of Bengal, there are actually only about 50 of them, and less than 10 for Calcutta.

- The biggest anomaly lies in the judicial procedure. According to the Act, a minor's trial should be wrapped up in three months. But thanks to an unwieldy system, cases drag for years, often much after the juveniles have grown up.

In a case where both minors and adults are implicated, the act insists on a split trial. But instead of simultaneous hearings, the judiciary first dispenses with the adults, since they are perceived to be more dangerous, and only then begins the child's trial. Chances are the child will grow up and if convicted the harshest punishment he gets is a few years at a reformatory.

The situation in remand homes is no better. Firstly, there are too few of them. Calcutta's male delinquents either end up in Alipore Central Jail's -Boys File- a separate dorm or at the Berhampore reformatory, while the girls are sent to a home in Liluah. Then the homes are too crowded. Dhrubashram, the observation home for undertrial boys on Calcutta's outskirts once had 280 inmates though its capacity is only 50. "We need proper reformatory homes," says Partha Bhattacharya, DIG, CID. Should the homes be made more strict? "One must deal sympathetically with the children," says Basudev Mukherjee. But that opens up a whole set of moral questions. Leniency with first-time offenders is fine. Can one possibly be sympathetic towards a cold-blooded killer, even if he is a child?

Like Calcutta's notorious boy-killer, Gutkhe, 14, who has three murders, Arms Act charges and robberies to his name. How does one separate the natural born killers from the one-timers? Says criminologist R. Deb, "Our remand homes and jail wards need more psychiatrists to study the offender. All delinquents can't be clubbed together." Just as there's no one reason children kill, there's no one remedy. What responsible adults need to do is look out for the danger, watch for when their children might snap. "Even talking can pull a child back from the brink," says Sanyal. No kidding.



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