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Beg their pardon

No society neglects its children so much and basks in its economic glory as we do. Lalita Panicker elaborates.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2009 12:23 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times

Perhaps the most heart-rending image of the recent Gaza crisis was that of a man kneeling beside the bodies of his three small children. They lay like broken dolls on the floor of the mortuary as the father, half-crazed with grief, begged them to get up. He needed them, he pleaded. Clearly, in the great offensive that was meant to change the rules of the game with Hamas, Israel thought nothing of shelling homes irrespective of whether children would be hit. This is not to say that Hamas is any greater respecter of child rights. It too has thought nothing of sending in so-called jihadi cowards to attack schoolchildren in Israel.

The disturbing element in all this is that children no longer seem off limits to those ostensibly engaged in conflict.

Instead, they are seen as a legitimate currency of war. As the International Court of Justice opens its hearings, we are told horrific tales of how rebel Congolese leader Thomas Lubanga recruited children to pillage, rape and kill in that benighted land. Long ago and far away, there was some honour among thieves. Even the most venal would not deliberately attack children and women.

If you look through a website on Iraqi children in this war and the glorious one fought by George Bush Sr, it is likely that you will not be able to sleep for many nights. The effects of depleted uranium from shelling has led to such horrendous birth defects that it is clear that the affected children will not live to even reach their teens. The same shelling and killing goes on now. The aggressors do not differentiate between legitimate combatants and innocent children.

If the verbally challenged former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld felt that ‘stuff happens’ in conflict situations,
the frightening Madeleine Albright justified killing Iraqi children as just ‘collateral damage.’

Closer home, as the Sri Lankan army closes in on the psychopath V. Prabhakaran, the one legacy of his that we will remember is his use of child soldiers to further his warped dream of some greater homeland. But why go so far afield? What about our own dismal record on preserving child rights? Now while the Indian state might not deliberately target children, it doesn’t do much to protect them. As a society, we seem to have become immune to the suffering of children and to the fact that they have special needs. We are very big on setting up a National Commission for Children and ratifying every convention possible on child rights. Oh yes, and we just had National Girl Child Day last week. It is meant to discourage gender bias.

Most effective, we are sure. It’s just that not too many people seem to be taking notice of this.

We pretend to be among the most family-minded people in the world, our culture values apparently automatically protect children. The truth is very far from it. Most child abuse, which incidentally is not recognised as a crime in the Indian Penal Code 1860, takes place at home at the hands of a trusted relative, even parent. Not too many of us quail at employing underage children in our homes. And as for children begging at street corners, well, it makes for lovely seminar conversation but who’s got the time to push to make laws protecting children work.

Now Amitabh Bachchan may have a thing or two to say about this. But Danny Boyle was spot on when he showed in his now famous Slumdog Millionaire how deep the exploitation of children runs in Indian society. They are sold to organised beggar gangs, girl children sold into prostitution and trafficked. But how often have these issues figured in Parliament? How often have our political worthies actually debated how to counter this? Do they approach this subject with anything near the passion they feel about caste-class alliances? Why are we asking these questions when the answer is staring us in the face?

But let us rejoice in our growing economy, in the way we have marketed Incredible India. Sure, the tourists may be coming in droves, Mumbai or no Mumbai. But alongside comes the sinister tourist who is not here to take in the attractions of God’s own country or the Taj. He is here to prey on defenceless children. Children from poor families being given as ‘guides’ to aging paedophiles for the duration of their stay. Once they have abused the children, they escape to the safety of their countries in the knowledge that India is not going to try to catch up with them.

Now you may think it’s a long stretch to compare war crimes against children to the apathy towards children in India. The net result is the same. The child is traumatised, robbed of his or her childhood. The child soldiers in Congo and other parts of the world — there are 250,000 at present — are forced into a brutal adult world they do not understand. Their toys are lethal weapons and their tender minds brainwashed to accept violence. As the poor man in Gaza weeping over his lost children, we too have been guilty of not protecting our children from the perils of a nasty brutish adult world. Or perhaps the aam admi — the State is so committed to protecting — does not include children. Or maybe it’s that they don’t have votes and, therefore, matter that much less.

It’s a pity that the self-appointed custodians of our morals see so much wrong in dancing in bars or wearing minimal clothing. We wonder if the doughty activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have ever thought of the plight of the millions of children who live in Mumbai’s slums, the daily abuse that many face, the deprivation that they suffer. No, we needed Danny Boyle to show us all that.

No society that neglects its children so much has any right to bask in its economic glory as we do. Sorry to end on such a negative note, but at the end of the tunnel, there seems to be another tunnel as far as children are concerned.

First Published: Jan 30, 2009 09:46 IST