The Indian parliament passed the controversial Juvenile Justice Bill on Tuesday which allows juveniles between the ages of 16-18 to be tried as adults for "heinous offenses."
The hurried passage of the bill — which was first introduced in August 2014 — comes in the wake of national outrage and public pressure following the release of the juvenile convicted in the notorious 2012 Delhi gang rape that shook India and the world.
The youngest of the six men convicted in the rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh — who was known as Nirbhaya (fearless) before being publicly identified by her parents — was released on Dec. 20, after serving his three-year sentence in a remand home as he was a few months short of 18 at the time of the crime. The Supreme Court of India on Monday refused to block his release noting the current law. Of the remaining five who were accused, four were sentenced to death by hanging while the fifth died in prison.
On Dec. 16, 2012, Singh, a medical student, and her male friend were attacked by the six men on a bus. Singh was repeatedly raped and sustained severe injuries after being penetrated with a metal rod. She died two days after the attack that sparked huge protests across the country.
Singh's parents were at the forefront of protests demanding a change in the juvenile law after their daughter's youngest rapist was freed. The bill will not affect his release.
"I am satisfied, but sad that my daughter couldn't get justice," Singh's mother, who was present during the debate in the upper house of India's parliament, told reporters after the bill was passed. Singh's father said the bill was "a tribute to our daughter."
The bill was passed after a heated debate in the parliament with some political parties staging a walkout during proceedings, The Indian Express reported. Those who opposed its passage argued for the bill to be further examined by a select committee.
"Today you are demanding the juvenile age to be reduced from 18 to 16," said Sitaram Yechury, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). "What if tomorrow a 15-year old commits a horrendous crime?"
Defending the bill, one politician said, "Those who want to satisfy their sexual urge should get married. No place for rapists."
Maneka Gandhi, the women and child development minister, who first introduced the bill in 2014, said it was "compassionate, nuanced and comprehensive," The Times of India reported. "We may not be able to do anything about the juvenile convict in the Nirbhaya case but we can deter many other boys," Gandhi said.
The long-awaited bill's rushed passage by Indian lawmakers under mounting public pressure is reminiscent of the government's scramble to pass India's stringent anti-rape law in 2013 in the wake of widespread outrage over the 2012 gang rape. The law provided for tougher sentences to rapists and death sentences to repeat offenders. However, it was criticized for failing to recognize all rape victims, regardless of gender.
Now, women and child rights' advocates and lawyers are criticizing the Juvenile Justice Bill for letting public sentiment and a need for "vengeance" win over concerns about juvenile rehabilitation and for pitting women's rights against children's rights.
Experts have argued that the law could also be misused by families or police looking to accuse teenagers who indulge in consensual sex.
Others said that it was important for juveniles to be rehabilitated and reformed to avoid becoming repeat offenders.
Some pointed out that 16-year-olds who can't vote, get married or consent to sex, will be tried as adults.
However, several others, including public figures, tweeted their support for the bill.