The Supreme Court has issued notice to the Centre and Delhi governments on the presence of children in protests, taking suo motu cognizance based on a letter it received.
The enduring image of Mahatma Gandhi being led by a stick by his grandson has always remained with us, as is the image of Rani Lakshmi Bai on a horse with her son tied to her back, sword in hand charging into battle. These are children who accompanied adults into protests and battles.
I myself have taken my children to protests from an early age, to begin with, because I could not leave them home by themselves and later because I sincerely believed that it was a good way to initiate ideals of citizenship and tenets of democracy. Like me, I know that many of my friends have done the same. Yes, our children may have been injured in case there was a stampede or a lathi charge. But these are risks that can arise in any crowded place. Today, I and my colleagues may have been subjected to charges of child rights violation and enquiry from the government.
The women in Shaheen Bagh and other protest sites across the country are doing just the same. They too have nowhere else to leave their young children. Should having children disqualify them from their right to protest and express their citizenship rights?
Then there are children themselves who choose to ‘protest and dissent’, to be heard. We bow our heads to the young and brave Bhagat Singh: We forget he was only 12 years old when he went to Jalianwala Bagh, when bodies shot down by General Dyer were still strewn around. We applaud Greta Thunberg for leading the protest against climate change, inspiring thousands of children across the world to take to the streets, marching, shouting slogans and seeking accountability. Malala Yousufzai was a celebrated child icon. Remember, she was promoted and supported by her father and other adults around her. She inspired children and youth to protest and demand rights.
Ironically, it is in response to a letter from a 12-year-old, Zen Gunaratan Sadavarte, regarding the death of an infant in Shaheen Bagh and the presence of children in protests, that the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the matter. In her letter, Sadavarte said that minors must be barred from participating in any type of protest and agitation, seeking an investigation into the death of Mohammed Jahaan, who was taken by his mother every day to sit at Shaheen bagh for the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protest. Sadavarte and her mother have asked that she be allowed to speak in court in this matter. She wants to assert her right to be heard. She was also found speaking to media outside the Supreme Court of India. Looks like it’s perfectly alright for Zen’s mother to want her daughter’s voice to be heard.
There are two different matters before the Supreme Court that have got conflated.
One, children are accompanying parents to protest sites, as was the case of 4-month-old Mohammed Jahaan. Unfortunately, it was cold and he fell ill. His parents, who are poor, were not able to provide medical attention and he passed away. Was this a case of deliberate maltreatment and neglect that attracts legal action? In that case, all women labourers who take their children to worksites, sometimes working on road dividers in the middle of busy traffic, would all have to be charged with deliberate neglect and maltreatment, instead of recognition of their desperate situation.
As has been pointed out by a lawyer in Supreme Court on Monday, “These women live in slums and have no option but to take their children along to the protest site”. Yet another lawyer submitted, “Political is personal for them (the women who are protesting in Shaheen Bagh)… Our lives are not sanitised, the protest site is where children are dealing with/understanding their lives and realities.”
The second case is of children who themselves are protesting or participating as active protesters. Here, we see two completely different reactions. Children who march to support CAA receive support and approbation. Indeed, this is applauded as an informed choice made by children. They are not labelled as ‘used’ and ‘influenced’ by adults.
At the same time, we also see a completely different reaction in the case of children participating in protests against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The state has chosen to treat them harshly. Arrests, detentions have been accompanied by allegations of at least 41 minors being subjected to rampant physical and psychological torture while in police custody in many districts of Uttar Pradesh. In another instance, school children in Bidar were interrogated several times for participating in an anti-CAA play and were even threatened with sedition charges. But the Supreme Court of India, although concerned about them participating in protests, has not taken suo motu cognizance of these arbitrary and illegal actions of the state.
Like the Supreme Court, even the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also did not take cognizance of the violations meted out to children. It instead wrote a letter to director generals of police, asking them to take action against persons who are ‘misusing’ children in protests.
The detention and arrests of children breach the Constitution of India, with the Supreme Court’s constitutional bench holding so in the Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar case. It is also in contravention of domestic laws (such as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act) and International Conventions that India has ratified which provide for a system that seeks to engage even with an offending child in a non-punitive manner. Its guiding principles stress on non-discrimination, best interests of the child and dignity – all of which have been violated by the police when taking action against minors protesting the CAA.
Indeed, the rights of children to express themselves and be heard in all matters concerning them are also enshrined in the Constitution of India as a fundamental right. This is complemented by the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as the National Policy for Children.
We need the Supreme Court and statutory institutions such as the NCPCR to act to protect children and their rights. But it really is a matter of deep concern when we see different strokes for different children, something based not on child-specific needs but instead guided by ‘public perception’ and ‘popular mandate’. It is the duty of these institutions to protect children, even from the state if it is violating their rights. They have to uphold the values of non-discrimination, best interest and children’s right to be heard. The remedy lies in creating just conditions, where children are treated with love and respect. In creating an atmosphere of safety and security, making children feel secure and empowered to participate and be heard in matters that concern them and even participate in protests.
Today, as we watch the dark history of India unfold, my mother, a protester herself, who taught me to protest as a child, watched me write this article and started to recite Rabindranath Tagore in which he invokes people to rise. My mother is 89. She is a #DadiOfShaheenBagh.
Hey mor chitto punyo tirthe jaago re dhire
Ei bhaaroter mahamanober saagorotire.
Hethay dnaaraye du bahu baaraye nomi narodebotare –
Udaar chhande paromanande bandan kori tnaare.
Dhyanogombhir ei je bhudhar, nodi japomaala-dhrito praantar,
Hethay nityo hero pobitro dhoritrire –
Ei bhaaroter mahamanober saagorotire
O my spirit, in sacred pilgrimage
Awake slowly and calmly,
around this shore of India’s great people.
Where I stand, my two hands stretched,
bowing before this great human god
in heartful joy, in unbounded rhythm
I invoke this human god.
O this land of meditating mountains
Plains bound by a rosary of rivers
Awake where I stand
Around this shore of India’s great people.
Tagore’s poem translated into English by the author.
Enakshi Ganguly is a human rights activist.