By Shiv Visvanathan
Majoritarian regimes, with middle class pretensions, have a predictable way of delegitimising protest. The first objection would be that the protest violates the rules of the game, that it is a threat to law and order. If there is a sense of scale, the protest threatens the security of the regime. If the crowd is small but the protest effective, the demonstration is seen as a law and order problem.
If narratives around the alleged stability of the regime do not work, it ap peals to value frames. A protest like Shaheen Bagh is seen as threatening the very being of childhood. In modernist terms, it raises visions of a “backward” community exploiting children as “child labour”, even if that labour is an act of politics. Such a critique invokes a vision of a progressive society getting hysterical over the use of innocent children. But the hysteria is more hypocrisy, as child labour and child abuse run rampant. Of course, this critique invokes a primordial historical fear, originating in the act of children being used as chimney sweeps in the early days of the industrial revolution. The archives, in fact, claim that families exchanged children to perform hazardous jobs.
The regime objecting to children gathering around a protest organised by mothers is desperate to show that these demonstrations are unlawful. There is a fear that the presence of children in a protest organised by Muslim women would give it the colour of a children’s crusade. Such narratives, I must confess, will give the BJP few points with the UNICEF or any children’s organisation.
In fact, this question of childhood and child labour assumes that all labour is industrial, that adults perform work and children go to school. But such a norm hardly works in a craft system where children learn the craft by assisting their parents. The learning process is informal and the child absorbs the values and competence of a craft. Such an example emphasises that craft societies are a different form of life, and as Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich and others have pointed out, the school with its panopticonizing fantasies may be part of the enclosure movements of industrialism. The idea of child labour laws is important, but they need to be applied sensibly and sensitively. The current objections to the protest at Shaheen Bagh show no evidence of that.
Yet the question of exploiting childhood goes beyond labour. The use of children for political purposes has to be confronted. It violates a code of values when protesters use children as a cover, where they become cannon fodder. Such use of children is both exploitative and mercenary. This can arise out of desperation as protesters feel vulnerable and helpless before an all-powerful regime. One must emphasise that exploiting children in this manner evokes little sense of sacrifice and martyrdom.
In fact, a dualism becomes obvious between the use of violence on children by terrorists and ideological groups and the role of children in community pro – tests. In the former, politics is conducted by cadres, which are professionally organised groups. The use of children here is violative of basic values. The decision can be read across two oppositions, mercenary terror versus martyrdom, and organization versus community.
Anthropologist JPS Uberoi said that terror is on the side of death. The mercenary and the terrorist are not bothered about who dies or how many die. Such groups are literally necrophilic. But a martyr in his sacrifice is on the side of life and is life-affirming. He does not want to die but is ready to sacrifice himself to affirm life and life-giving values.
The second dualism is equally critical. Cadres as organisation are trained professional groups where children are used for war or protest. That’s when a sense of the macabre enters. One destroys childhood and worse, one can brutalise them permanently. One saw it with children’s armies in South Africa which could not return to the normalcy of peace. Violence became the way of life for these children and they developed a certain hardness. Even the Truth Commission under Bishop Desmond Tutu was unable to persuade these children that the war was over. They preferred to retain a state of war because peace offered little that was attractive beyond the mundanity of the routine.
Shaheen Bagh, in that sense, was a community protest with all the anarchy of one, allowing a few domestic rhythms into public spaces. A protesting community operates differently from a cadre. A cadre is a formal organisation with clear boundaries separating private from public. There is little that is domestic about cadres. In fact, they often frown on family life as distracting. One can witness this attitude both in RSS shakhas and in communist party cadres. Community lives are ambiguous. They have to combine the domestic and the public in an act of protest. Protesting women encamped all night at a protest site cannot leave their children in crèches. It is their concern for children, that sense of caring that keeps mothers and children together. In a caring community practising the transparency of protest, there is little exploitation visible.
I must confess that my visits to Shaheen Bagh gave a deep sense of exhilaration. One sensed hope as one saw a peaceful group of women protesting, invoking the Constitution as a sacrament, insisting on citizenship even for the most vulnerable and demanding a responsibility to and for the Constitution. The Preamble and the Constitution provide a double sense of sacredness. But more than that, what one witnessed was not a mere protest univocal in its slogans but a protest of a community which was a festival, a carnival and a demonstration reminding the regime that vulnerable marginal communities regard citizenship as precious.
Even the joint rhythms of voting and the continuity of protest during the Delhi elections were an important exercise in political pedagogy. The protesters were reminding our policy-makers that citizenship, as membership, evokes community, not the rules of certification. In protesting against the regime, they were celebrating citizenship, arguing that pro t est is one of the rituals of citizenship and a community needs to emphasise. No family, no caring community wants to see a child die.
Unfortunately, protest as a rite of passage is not conducted in five-star comfort. It demands facing the cold winters of Delhi, it demands abandoning the ease of domestic rhythms. But when women care, they are caring for their children’s future. Maybe a whole folklore of storytelling and protest will grow around Shaheen Bagh. It is a moving sight and encourages similar acts of support elsewhere. In fact, it is this poetic sense of Shaheen Bagh, its epidemic quality of democracy and dissent that is frightening the regime and its cohorts into knee-jerk changes against the mothers there. But the public understands the moral economy of this community of protest. It is assuring the women that the mothers of Shaheen Bagh are as precious as the mothers of Argentina protesting against an authoritarian regime.
—The writer is a member of the Compost Heap, a commons of ideas exploring alternative imaginations