In the first week of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, I was a part of a crowd at the India Gate in New Delhi. The atmosphere was electric.
The crowd was mixed but most of the voices that led the chanting and singing were those of students from the Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, along with an All India Students Association (AISA) troupe beating out a rhythm on a daphli – students who would be accused of living off subsidies but whose minds and hearts are clearly making very good use of those.
After a few hours, as I was walking out with friends, on one of the roads leading out of India Gate, some young people stopped us and asked if we would join them in singing Hum honge kaamyaab (We shall overcome).
They were fashionably-dressed South Delhi students and their passionate plea was endearing. Of course, we agreed.
We gathered in a circle and began to sing. After the first two lines, I found the voices petering out a bit and realised that they didn’t actually know all the words. So, despite, my tunelessness, I raised my voice and sang out the lines just as they pulled the words up on their mobile phones.
We sang the rest of the song out loud. It was heart-warming and I left that evening with a hopefulness that has only grown in the following weeks.
But, I was also left with a question – why didn’t these young people know the words to the song they wanted to sing when I, at 50, could remember the words I must have learnt in school?
Presence of Children at Protests Discomforting to Many
In the last few weeks, as the protests have grown and drawn in people from all walks of life, regions and social strata, the presence of children has also been noted. For many, there is a discomfort with children being part of the protests.
We have seen the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issuing an advisory against the ‘misuse’ of children in the anti-CAA protests, and comments on social media from across a spectrum have also expressed unease with what they call ‘indoctrination’ of children.
Children, it seems, should be kept in a separate space where politics is not allowed to filter in.
Many of these, of course, come from declared right-wing supporters who look for any way of discrediting the anti-CAA protests, like the Times Now report that seemed to think that a child who lives near a university whose students were brutally attacked by the police and goes on to tell his mother that he needs a gun to protect himself from the said police, is a sign of radicalisation.
But apart from these hearts that break over a slogan like Jo Hitler ki chaal chalega, woh Hitler ki maut marega (People who follow Hitler, will die like him), even some well-meaning people who see themselves as being on the side of the protesters, see children reciting lines from Rahat Indori’s poems as crossing the line.
I do wonder what these people think of a feel-good film like Sarafina that celebrates the Soweto uprising led by black school children. Or of the school children who joined the picket lines against the British during the freedom struggle. I wonder if those make them just as uncomfortable.
‘Hum Kya Chahte... Azaadi’
In this last month of protests, I have seen children running in Shaheen Bagh, calling out ‘Hum kya chahte… Azaadi! (What do we want?...Freedom)’. Slogans sail out from school buses that go past Jamia’s Gate No 7 in the afternoon, children run around the protest sites carrying flags that billow in the wind, babies have the tricolour painted on their cheeks.
A friend shared a video of a group of children, about 10 years old, on a metro chanting slogans, and kids in Shaheen Bagh took to the stage to do their version of Halla Bol.
I met a girl from Class 8, who had come to Shaheen Bagh to contribute to the street art, and several others come regularly to the Read for Revolution protest site outside the Jamia library.
The children are enjoying themselves – running, shouting, eating biryani and biscuits, waving flags.
The Feeling of Togetherness & Its Exhilarating Effect
There is a sense of it all being like a party, and to the serious-minded, perhaps, this is not right, not solemn enough.
But, really, isn’t it an out-of-the-ordinary moment, a moment charged with hope, strength and good feelings, a moment where everyone participating feels safe in a crowd? Surely, children can sense that.
This upsurge of popular protest is imbued with a feeling of togetherness. People are drawing strength from simply gathering together, and that is producing a kind of exhilaration. Something seems to have been freed in diverse groups of people who have felt constrained in the last few years in different ways.
When I walked through the street art at Shaheen Bagh, lit by candles and surrounded by a soundscape of Awaaz do hum ek hain (Raise you voice, we are one), I felt my heart soar. It was a visceral feeling, a response to the colour, light, form and space.
Children Imbibing the Idea of India as Home
The children present are responding in a similar way – excited, curious, joyful. While this does not necessarily mean that they understand the politics behind CAA and NRC, they do understand the idea of India as home – a home made up of people from Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere that expresses itself in art, song, anger, laughter, resilience, persistence.
Childhood is not another country, a separate compound. And even if you imagine it to be one, in truth, to which children have you been able to provide that separate compound?
Have you been able to provide it to the school children in Gujarat who were asked to write postcards in support of CAA? Have you been able to provide it to the children who bully their classmates by using the same slurs that right-wing trolls use?
By simply labeling these acts unacceptable, you also mark them as aberrations when they are actually the stuff of everyday life. Of course, the stuff of everyday life is enabled by larger structures that we sometimes accept, sometimes fight and sometimes celebrate.
The Need to Go Beyond Textbooks
Sometimes this can be the state that can force schools to get children to write postcards or listen to a prime minister’s radio broadcast. And at other time, it can be society – a people’s protest – that is much too inviting to not belong to. Isn’t that how that other structure, the market, draws children in?
Children are a part of our everyday world – good, bad, complicated. That is why the market makes use of children. That is why there is such a strong presence of children in ad campaigns.
And when children recite jingles and ad lines, it rarely makes people uncomfortable. It arouses a smile, perhaps a laugh, and the word ‘indoctrination’ seldom comes up.
Children understand the world and their place in it by being present. The last few decades have shown us that by teaching children ‘unity in diversity’ only in textbooks but keeping their world homogenous and sanitised, we only breed a community of people for whom it is easy to say Muslims should go to Pakistan if they don’t like it here or poor people are lazy.
To understand the complexity of the world, what is needed is for the children to be present in as many diverse contexts as possible. Children growing up in gated communities and schools segregated by high fees have just as circumscribed a world as children who are unable to travel on vacations or read English-language story books.
To be able to see any fight for equality as a valid one, children have to grow up knowing differences and knowing that voices can be raised against injustice.
A Lesson for Life
The young people on the streets today have shown us possibility, hope and a new light, and these children growing up with the sounds of inquilaab will hopefully go on to build on that.
For children from Shaheen Bagh who have seen the sarva dharma sabha (inter-faith meeting), it will not be easy to reject inclusiveness. They will know the pleasure of participating in a havan, a Lohri celebration and a Christmas gathering.
For the children from other parts of Delhi, who are fortunate enough to have parents who bring them to Shaheen Bagh, it will not be easy to dehumanise those they have eaten biryani with or shared a story with.
The children who chant the slogans or Rahat Indori’s poems may not understand what they mean today, but they will carry a memory of it just like a memory of Wordsworth’s Daffodils that so many schoolchildren are made to learn by rote.
And then one day in the not-so-distant future, just as some children will encounter something that makes their heart dance with the daffodils and understand what Wordsworth meant, these children will be faced with a choice and the one they make will reveal to them that they have experienced what it means to say “Sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil iski mitti main” (Everybody’s blood is present in the soil).
They will see that when people come together, they create hope and possibility. They will learn to question injustice. They will know that voices can be raised not just to express anger but to create change.
They will know the words to the songs they want to sing.
(Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker, writer and teacher based in New Delhi, with a special interest in media for and about children, and in the ways that the arts can be included in education. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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