Following the death of a four-month-old after returning from the protests at Shaheen Bagh, the apex court has taken suo moto cognizance of the issue. A letter to the Chief Justice by 12 year old national bravery award winner Zen Gunratan Sadavarte appeals for a ban on participation of minors in protests and agitations. The court has scheduled a hearing.
Right to be heard
Zen cannot be denied her right to raise an issue and be heard. While she is exercising her right, there are certain deeper issues which also need to be taken into consideration. One, Zen herself has won the award for saving several lives during a fire at an apartment in Mumbai in 2018. She was a minor then, and is still a minor now. Her life was also at risk when she engaged in this courageous act. But can we say that children must not be allowed to remain in the vicinity of a burning place? Protesting children also engage in acts of bravery by standing up against the state, just as Zen did. How is Zen’s action courageous and award-winning, but that of some other Muslim child seditious? The protesting child is also trying to save the lives and future of her people. This is not to belittle Zen’s extraordinary courage. The argument being put across is that valour must not be viewed differently across caste, class, and religious lines.
Right to protest
The second issue is that the women of Shaheen Bagh are protesting because it is them and their children who are more likely to be rendered stateless once NRC/NPR/CAA is/are implemented. They do not have an option other than carrying their children along to the protest sites. They are too poor to be able to afford a private day care facility. The fault also lies in the nature of our public infrastructure where there are no affordable facilities for childcare as well as healthcare. The crisis is structural and women or parents are not to be blamed alone. Also, the sexual division of labour in the family is such that the onus of taking care of children is entirely upon women. Men need not take children anywhere along. If children are not allowed on protest sites, it would relegate women to the household. It would mean that women cannot go out at all! It infringes upon their rights to equality and protest.
Celebrated child icons
Greta Thunberg became a global environmental activist at the age of 17. Malala Yousafzai was a child icon who fought for girls’ right to education. There have been several children who have risen up to fight for a cause – young climate activists like the eight-year-old Licypriya or eleven-year-old Ridhima Pandey. How do education and climate change become more legitimate issues for which children can stand up? Moreover, who decides what is fit for children and what not? Why the class bias in the selection of issues? Why is statelessness, a major existential crisis, not worthy enough for children to talk about?
State brutality against children
What does the court have to say about the police brutalities on protesting children in UP? Is there a message being sent out that if children come out to protest, they will be abused and tortured in detention? If anything, courts must take suo moto cognizance of such abominable behaviour by police and take action against them. Under no circumstances can the state become so repressive. The police has not shown an iota of mercy or shame in torturing minors. Why does that not become a serious issue?
For women from the marginalized sections, there is little choice but to take to the streets with their children accompanying them. Rani of Jhansi went to the battlefield with her child; the women of Shaheen Bagh are also fighting a battle for their own existence against a repressive state. While care must be taken not to indoctrinate children with extremist ideas and hatred, there is no harm in informing them of what lies ahead for them as well as their families. It is the moral responsibility of parents not to make them engage in violence and yet strongly make their point because their futures are also at stake. In any case, debarring children from protest sites is also.