The Children of Shaheen Bagh

“I clearly remember when I handed that child to his mother,” said Afsana Khatooon, a nurse, while talking about the recent death of a four-month-old at Shaheen Bagh and the subsequent debate over brining children to protest sites.

“I used to work at Batla clinic four months back when he was born. I told Nazia that she gave birth to a beautiful boy. Take care of him, I said. He was a healthy child. Lekin Allah ko yehi manzoor tha. Khair, desh ke naam par hi gaya. (But this is what God wanted. Anyway, he died for the sake of country).”

Afsana Khatoon near the protest site.

On the night of January 30, four-month-old Mohammed Jahaan allegedly died due to exposure to the cold. As his mother Nazia, told The Print: “I had returned from Shaheen Bagh at around 1 am. After putting him and other kids to sleep, even I went to sleep. In the morning, I suddenly found him motionless. He was gone in his sleep.”

Nazia, who is married to Mohammed Arif, had been bringing Jahaan to the protests at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Milia Islamia almost every day since they were sparked by the Citizenship Amendment Act and the campus violence that followed.

Following this, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance on the matter to “stop involvement of children and infants in demonstrations”.  The court has issued notices to the Centre and the Delhi government seeking their responses on the issue.

Earlier, a 12-year-old National Bravery Award winner had also written a letter to the Chief Justice of India seeking directions to prevent children from participating in demonstrations as it “amounts to cruelty”.

Nazia has returned to the protest. Khatoon, the nurse, has also coming at Shaheen Bagh for the past 47 days, along with her children and a four-year-old niece. But on the day I met her, she had also brought her 89-year-old mother with her. Saira Khatoon had insisted her children take her along after seeing the news.

Parso rone lag gayi thi (She was crying a day before. She told us she wants to take part in the protest),” said Afsana.

Saira Khatoon with her grand daughter. The banner at the back was gifted to her by a teacher at Jamia, when she took part in the Republic Day celebration there.

Responding to a question as to why she had brought her children along considering the recent Supreme Court order, she said: “Fine then, we won’t bring them. Just take the law back… How can they think we don’t care about our small children? They say we are killing them. They forced us to come here and protest. Now how can we leave our children alone? Even if we go to jail, we have to take our children with us.”

While feeding her mother boiled eggs handed out by volunteers, she continued, “If the government would have not brought these laws, we would have not come here and let our children suffer in cold.”

Many BJP leaders have lined up to offer criticism over children being brought to protest sites, going as far as to call it cruel. On February 3, BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted an article published on OpIndia regarding the child’s death. “This unfortunate development raises various questions over using children as props for furthering agenda through protests,” he wrote.

Among his many tweets expressing similar concerns, Malviya also shared a video that went viral. In it, a girl can be seen saying that if they don’t protest, they will be sent to detention centres where they won’t be provided any clothes or food.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has written a letter to the district magistrate of South East Delhi taking note of complaints of similar videos, the Times of India reported. NCPCR has asked the DM to direct the concerned authorities to identify these children and arrange for counselling. It has also asked for a report within 10 days.

The letter reads, “It appears that these children might be brought under influence of rumours/ miscommunication and as a result of which, they may suffer from mental trauma.”

Also read: Love Letters for Shaheen Bagh From Around the World

However, a team of psychologists and academics have dismissed these claims. Professors Poonam Batra, Jyoti Dalal, Monica Gupta, psychologist and psychotherapist Shobna Sonpar and research scholar Chetan Anand visited the protest site at Shaheen Bagh on January 26 to assess the claims of NCPCR –  a government body set up in 2007.

“We did not see any signs of distress, normally associated with ‘trauma’ such as fearfulness, withdrawal or dysfunctionality. In fact, the children’s proximity with their mothers, whether sitting with them or engaged in activities in a separate space, acts as a buffer to any kind of external or internal stress,” the team said in a statement released after the visit.

Children being involved in different activities by volunteers at Shaheen Bagh.

Some women at Shaheen Bagh talked to us about the concerns of mental trauma of their children on the condition of anonymity.

“Do you think what these leaders are blabbering on television will not affect our children?” said another woman. “They get to know about these things somehow or the other. They ask us questions. They saw the news of a man who shot bullets in Shaheen Bagh. How can we isolate them entirely?”

Two days after the Jamia Milia Islamia shooting incident, another gunman fired a bullet at Shaheen Bagh. The crowd panicked. A few climbed a staircase near the stage leading to a narrow open corridor.

On a pavement nearby, in front of several closed shops, books, papers, crayons, pencils and sketch pens lie about. The walls and shutters are covered with colourful posters and letters made by children.

Children at ‘Fatima Shaikh Savitribai Phule Library’ at Shaheen Bagh protest site.

The children present at that corridor were calmed down and were made to do their regular work by a group of university students. This space at the Shaheen Bagh protest site is being used to engage children in several creative activities. A number of women coming to the protest leave their children with a team of volunteers who teach them how to draw and write, read stories to them, or simply have a conversation.

“It is like a happy, constructive distraction for them,” said Vasundhara Gautam, one of the four students who came up with this initiative. “We help them to creatively express whatever they are feeling and then try to engage in a dialogue. A boy once made an objectionable poster, we explained to him that you can’t counter hate with hate. We are trying to help them look at things logically,” she added.

Children being involved in different activities by volunteers at Shaheen Bagh.

Poonam Batra, professor of education at Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi, believes the same. While speaking to us, she said that we may not be able to sanitise children’s environment, but the important thing is to engage with them and discuss what they see and observe. Batra was also a member of a team which dismissed the claims made by the NCPCR.

New avenues of learning

Apart from this space, a lot of children can be seen everywhere around the protest site. This is mainly because it is a woman-led protest. Just opposite to where some children are making posters, nine-year-old Uzair stands under a famous poster with ‘Nahi hatenge (We won’t move)’ written on it. Uzair paints the tricolour on faces and hands of protestors. When asked why he does that, he simply said, “Mazaa aata hai (I enjoy it).”

Uzair comes at the protest site with his family to paint tricolor, after he completes his school and homework.

A few metres away, five-year-old Asif and eight-year-old Sameer have started raising slogans. They have become instant favourites of many because of their their style of oratory and sloganeering. Soon after, a large crowd gathers around them and slowly everyone starts recording the recital on their phones.

Sameer assured us that he knows the meaning of each and every slogan, and just why the protests are taking place. In fact, he claims that he has come up with some of them on his own.

“We have learnt it by coming here, listening and asking about their meaning,” he said. He said that he is protesting here because of what they did in Jamia, to save our constitution and also because of laws which are “dividing on the basis of religion”.

People gathering around five year old Asif as he starts sloganeering.

Children like Sameer could be exceptions, but the question remains whether children should be allowed to take part in protests when they don’t fully understand them.

Batra believes that while it may be difficult for children that young to understand the abstract concepts of our constitution, it is important to immerse children in processes of free expression and respect for diverse opinions.

Vasundhara Gautam, on the other hand, along with other volunteers, organised a session where the children were explained every word of the Preamble of Indian Constitution.

Many people have also argued that the friendship and compassion towards fellow protestors at the protest site can largely impact children’s behaviour.

Professor and political commentator Apoorvanand, who was present at Shaheen Bagh to deliver a lecture, said that the children can be affected both positively and negatively on the basis of what they are witnessing. “We need to think whether they are witnessing civility and friendship or is it turning them against someone. This is like a school for learning,” he said.

Telling the story of eighty-year-old Saira Khatoon, ensconced at the protest with her four-year-old granddaughter, her daughter spoke about how her mother had been very little when the Partition took place. “She still remembers some incidents. That’s why she is afraid even after having all the documents,” Khatoon said.

On the topic of children at protest sites, Saira Khatoon kept her stare fixed at a distance and said, “They must understand everything. They must know why this is happening. After all, this entire fight is for their future, not mine.”

Imaad ul Hasan is a Journalism Student at Jamia Milia Islamia’s AJK MCRC, New Delhi.

All the images have been provided by the author