Women who have joined the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh are facing difficult questions from their children as the public discourse around the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests touches a new low with each passing day.
“Gaddar kaun hote hai? (Who are traitors?)”, Shabana’s daughter had asked her. The 10-year-old, she said, had picked up the hate slogan, “Desh ke in gaddaron ko… (Traitors of this country…)”, raised by BJP leader Anurag Thakur at an election rally, while watching news on television and kept repeating it. When she wanted to know the meaning of the word, Shabana asked her not to repeat it.
Shabana said something to the effect that when some people “grew up” their thoughts tuned bad. But the next question her daughter posed was even tougher: “Mamma, you had said people get wiser when they grow up.”
Shabana had no answer.
Last month, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) wrote to the district magistrate of south-east Delhi to investigate claims of children, who were at the Shaheen Bagh protests, that they were being misled about CAA and suffering from “mental trauma”.
But the women of Shaheen Bagh had a different question. How should they prevent their children from being traumatised by statements of people such as Anurag Thakur.
Shabana said she takes her children to the protest because she doesn’t have anyone to leave them with at home. “Also, we want them to have a good upbringing They are our future,” she said and went on to blame news television.
“I fear turning on news channels these days. Who knows what statement might be running,” said Zehra Siddiqui, mother of a six-year-old taking part in the protests.
“Mere bacche ne pichli baar mujhse sawaal kiya ki Shaheen Bagh me kisko current lagega (My daughter asked me who would get electrocuted at Shaheen Bagh,” she said, referring to Amit Shah’s observation at a poll rally Babarpur in north-east Delhi that they should “press the (voting) button with such anger that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh.”
Zehra said she did not have an answer. “I told her that it is just a phrase,” she said.
Kahkashan Riyaz, a mother of nine-year-old twins, has been faced with similar dilemmas. One day, her son asked her if they could no longer chant their usual prayer.
“Amma, kya humko Allahu akbar ka naara nahi lagana chahiye?”
“Tell me how should I answer that?” said Kahkashan.
Later, Kahkashan explained to her son that in India, people belonged to various religions and prayed to different gods. And that if he wanted to say, Allahu akbar, he could say it while offering namaz or at their home.
The NCPCR’s directive was based on videos of children participating in protest against CAA, expressing fears that they would be sent to detention camps.
In its letter to the magistrate, the child rights body claimed that the “children might be brought under the influence of rumours/miscommunication” and may suffer mental trauma because of that.
Shantha Sinha, former chairperson of NCPCR, said children in Shaheen Bagh needed to be heard before any conclusion is made.
“It seems that in the Shaheen Bagh protests, children are talking about their vulnerability. We have to get into the details of where this vulnerability comes from and do everything possible to see that they do not feel so vulnerable,” Sinha said at a discussion in Jamia Nagar titled, “Bringing up Children in Times of Protests”.
Kahkashan, however, said that they were making all efforts to ensure that those speaking on stage at Shaheen Bagh did not come out with provocative statements.
On Saturday, there was chaos at Shaheen Bagh. A miscreant had fired a gun barely 100 metres from a tent housing women. The incident rattled everyone. The slogans being shouted were against Delhi police for failing to prevent the man from crossing the barricade.
The crowd swelled up with most blaming BJP leaders for spewing vitriol and encouraging such violent acts.
In this charged atmosphere, Kahkashan, in a green niqab covering half her face, spoke into the mic, appealing to those present to refrain from saying anything that could malign the protest.
The mother of two is an MA student at Jamia Millia Islamia. After dropping her children to school every day, she comes to Shaheen Bagh, joining volunteers backstage to help coordinate speakers and make announcements.
“Our responsibility is to make sure that speakers don’t say anything that can hurt anyone’s feelings. A lot of speakers come and we don’t know everyone, so we have to keep a check,” said Kahkashan.
Kahkashan said her nine-year-olds had a lot of questions. She can make out they are scared and anxious. Everyday, her son runs up to her and gives her a hug when she returns home.
“Ki amma aa gayi. Shayad uske mann me kahin yeh hoga ki meri amma wapas aayengi ya nahi. Aur yeh mahaul kahan se dekha hai, Jamia se dekha hai (Amma has returned. Perhaps he has been worried whether his mother would return or not. And these apprehension has been fuelled by the events at Jamia),” she said, referring to the incidents of December 13, the first day of the Jamia protests.
Kahkashan was going to meet her father at the Jamia gate along with her children. She turned back when she heard about the lathicharge. Her old father, however, received a few blows.
“Initially, my children used to stop me from coming here (Shaheen Bagh). They’d tell me, ‘amma, mat jao kyunki wahan police lathi barsati hai. Police kuch bhi kar sakti hai (Amma, don’t go there. Police will beat you. Police can do anything)’,” she said.
Adolescent psychiatrist Amit Sen said children understand what’s going on. They pick up clues from the surroundings. “The news is all over. How can we assume that if we lock up our children they'll not get traumatised,” he asked.
At Shaheen Bagh, the day starts with a singing of the National Anthem after which there are slogans of amity, said Kahkashan. “Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, Aapas me sab Bhai Bhai” or “Hum ek hain)”.
There is talk of the Constitution as well.
“Samvidhan, jo Babasaheb Ambedkar ne banaya hai, yehi sab toh hai.. khane peene ki azadi, rehne ki azadi, bolne ki azadi, ghoomne phirne se azaadi, har cheez ki azaadi (The Constitution that Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote is about freedoms… freedom to eat and drink, freedom to live, freedom to speak, freedom to roam freely, freedom for everything),” said Kahkashan.
Shaheen Bagh, she added, was teaching the children a lesson of a lifetime.