Six years ago, in the woods near Moti Bagh in south Delhi, somewhere near the Nanakpura Gurudwara, a gang of five teenage boys—all high on ganja—pinned another boy down and killed him in the middle of the night.
“Whatever happened that night happened because we were high,” Dinesh Chauhan*, one of the teenagers convicted for the crime, told me. I met him this past January, when we sat on a park bench not too far from the spot, in the diplomatic area of Chanakyapuri. Chauhan, now a tall, lean 21-year-old, explained that the victim “was abusing me. It annoyed me.” As he narrated his story, he stammered a bit, using rhyming words to flesh out his thoughts: “daaru waaru”, “ganja wanja.”
That night, the teens had ganged up against the victim and Chauhan stabbed him. He remembers how he “turned the knife in his stomach.” They watched the boy die, then fled to a rented room in Munirka, where they used to sleep after spending the day stealing cash, robbing houses and brokering deals with small time drug dealers near Nizamuddin.
The next morning, the police picked them up from their Munirka adda.
Chauhan went in to a reform home for juveniles in conflict with the law for the eleventh time. To some extent, these stays have blurred together for him and—since Juvenile Justice Boards (JJBs) are not authorised to share documents related to juvenile offenders—it is hard to corroborate exactly how often Chauhan was in reform homes, or for which crimes. But his case is a reflection of the challenges and inadequacies of India’s complex juvenile justice system.
In 2016, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau report, 44,171 juveniles were apprehended across 19 Indian cities: Delhi accounted for 7 percent of these cases. Juvenile crime has been rising consistently over the last 10 years, though recidivism (juveniles committing repeat offences) actually came from 9.5 percent of all juvenile convictions in 2013 to 5.2 percent in 2016.
As often reported, detention centers around the country struggle with rehabilitation. Sexual exploitation, violence, and access to drugs are commonly reported, and the facilities for skill development or further education are limited. Drug de-addiction programmes have helped, but they aren’t equipped to serve everyone.
I asked Chauhan how life inside Delhi’s reform homes shaped him as a young man. And why he took refuge in drugs and his old gangs each time he got out.
The first time he was apprehended by police, Chauhan was 11 years old. He had broken into a house with another boy to steal money for drugs. Chauhan remembered that it was an army officer’s house in Moti Bagh. “There was a photo of an army officer on the wall.” By the time the boys were about to leave, the police arrived and apprehended them.
Chauhan, a school dropout, was already hooked on smack, alcohol and ganja—everyone in his neighbourhood was using them, he said—and was terrified when he saw the police. “I thought they would beat me up very badly. That they would kill me.”
His crying and screaming had no effect; Chauhan was taken to the police station, where he begged the officers not to beat him. He claimed they did anyway, though the 2014 Juvenile Justice Act has provisions for “child friendly” treatment by law enforcement. “They wouldn’t leave us. They hit us in the thana—slapped us.”
He would stuff a corner of a blanket in his mouth at night so no one could hear him cry.
The JJB sent Chauhan to Prayas, an observation home for juveniles in conflict with the law. Chauhan said he felt terrorised from the beginning. On his very first day, he said, he was bullied and beaten up by older boys. He remembers crying in a corner until the staff at the home intervened.
Inside the home, Chauhan’s thoughts revolved around his survival. When he saw other boys there, he felt stranded. He recalled the nauseating, internal monologue of those initial few months: “I can’t go out and hang out with my friends, nor can I go back to my home. I’m stuck inside these four walls.” He would stuff a corner of a blanket in his mouth at night so no one could hear him cry.
When his father, a cook, came to meet him, he begged to be taken home. While his father made arrangement to pay his bail, Chauhan started sitting in on the classes, where he started taking an interest in making jewellery and sewing clothes. This helped him stay away from the bullies.
After two months, Chauhan’s parents took him home on bail. After four or five days, “I started feeling restless,” he said. He ran away, looking for drugs.
The sun was beginning to set and it was getting colder in the park. Chauhan, who was wearing a thin cardigan, scrunched his shoulders to stay warm. He told me that each time he was released from a juvenile home—Prayas, or the Adharshila Observation Homes at Sewa Kutir and Majnu Ka Tila—the same cycle started again.
His parents were angry with him. They pleaded with him. His father beat him. They told him “Why do you steal? You’ve dragged us down with you. Our honour in the mohalla is at stake.” He couldn’t stop craving drugs. Each time he came come, he’d think “I haven’t had smack, ganja in some time, so it will be more enjoyable.”
Rajesh Kumar, the director of the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM)—a de-addiction center at Mukherjee Nagar, who has worked with Chauhan and other juveniles in conflict with the law told me that his patients “often fall back on their old behaviour patterns” when society fails to accept them. Rejected by their families, Kumar said, “these troubled boys and girls seek acceptance in groups that are like them.”
After awhile, nothing deterred Chauhan—not the police, not the fear of being sent to the observation homes, not his parents’ admonishments. “When you’re notorious for something, you think you might as well keep doing it,” he told me.
Even the things he saw happen inside the observation homes wasn’t a deterrent. He told me he’d seen boys “doing wrong things”, by which he meant sexual assault or exploitation. One night he went to the bathroom, where he said he saw a few boys raping another one. He didn’t tell anyone what he’d seen for fear of reprisal.
The world outside was just as violent. Once, during the course of a phone-snatching, Chauhan’s friend stabbed someone—they were both charged with attempt to murder and sent to a home.
During one of his stays at Sewa Kutir, in north Delhi, he met his old friends—eight boys from his neighbourhood. This gave him courage. They had been there for sometime and knew the rules of the home. They told him not to worry. “They told me if anyone says anything to you, we’ll beat him up. We’re on your side.”
Chauhan soon turned into a bully himself. ˆ Maze aate the, madam,” he told me, while describing beating up first-timers—it was fun.
When Chauhan was sent to the observation home at Majnu Ka Tila, after the 2012 murder, he realised he had to make alliances and be part of something bigger. He identified Sonu*, who the other boys called “Harami”.
“He once beat a judge with a chair,” Chauhan said. “He wouldn’t spare anyone.” Chauhan approached him. “You’re like my brother,” he said. “I’ve heard your name and I want to hang with you.”
The boys used kitchen utensils to beat security and staff.
Sonu had a gang, which planned to escape the home. Breakouts from juvenile homes are a fairly common occurrence, with the bigger ones making national headlines. They discussed what time to escape, who the weakest links in the staff were, and what they could use as weapons. The staff and security steered clear of the conflicts between the inmates, letting them fight even if they witnessed it. They’d likely be able to stir up a riot and get away.
One day, when Sonu returned from a date at the JJB, he had procured some Nitrazepam tablets (colloquially called “Number 10”). He distributed these among his gang. Chauhan took one—”My head started buzzing,” he said. He described how the boys used kitchen utensils to beat security and staff and then escape.
Chauhan ran home, but it wasn’t home anymore. Families in his neighbourhood told their daughters to stay away from him. He was called names behind his back. He became a pariah.
Within three months of his escape, Chauhan was doing drugs and committing theft again. “I had turned to stone,” he told me.
The first time I met Chauhan was at the SPYM drug-de-addiction center in November 2017. He had been treated there, and had started working for centre as part of their rehabilitation efforts. When I met him, he had worked there for four years, earning Rs 8,000 per month.
A few months later, when I met him in Chanakyapuri, Chauhan had lost his job and eloped with his girlfriend. We walked to the park from his tiny, crammed two-room home in Sanjay Colony, where he lives with his parents and his young wife. There’s a communal toilet for the entire neighbourhood, and no direct water supply. A tanker arrives twice a day and women stand in queues to get their share.
Chauhan told me he was bored and watched TV most of the time. He wanted to work but didn’t know what to do. He spent most of his time on Whatsapp and Facebook.
Chauhan fished out his phone and showed me a game he loves playing: Vegas Crime City. The game is about a gangster who is on run from the cops.
*Names changed to protect sources who were minors when they were convicted of crimes.
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