How does children’s participation in protests offer an opportunity to reflect upon children as political actors? I think back to the children at Shaheen Bagh, accompanying their mothers at the indefinite sit-in demonstration by women which came to represent one of the major voices of the recent anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)/National Register of Citizens (NRC) movement. Indeed, it would be apt to call those children protestors in their own right. Children as young as 8 to 10 years of age took part enthusiastically during the sloganeering, leading the calls for ‘azaadi’, and frequently took to the dais to deliver spirited speeches alluding to concepts of secularism, freedom and equality.
This involvement of children received a fair bit of attention, and was not without contention. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued an order asking that the children at the protest site be sent for counselling in light of what it deemed as misinformation and rumours by adults leading to mental trauma for children. This claim was dismissed by a team of academics and psychologists, who brought focus instead to the constructive and creative ways in which organized activities such as storytelling, discussions and artwork were helping children engage with anxieties around a complex issue, and providing for an experience of joyful learning.
While cognizant of the need to centre the language of constructive learning when up against a state ready to clamp down at the slightest provocation, I wonder more broadly whether these conversations limit public discourse around how we may conceptualize children as political agents. In other words, that children are impressionable was used as an argument both for and against their participation in protests. While in one case it is the ‘bad’ influence of misled adults, in the other it is adult intervention of a kind widely accepted as productive: creative, organized activity. Fully aware that the two are qualitatively different in their understanding of how we may engage children, it is nonetheless a common process of adult-driven socialization that underlies them. Does this insistence on raising children ‘properly’, or of acknowledging their voices only insofar as it allows us to mould them, obscure our imagination of children as political actors in their own right? The point here isn’t to debate how well-developed children’s political consciousness is (is it ever, for adults?), or claim that children’s lives will remain un-mediated by adults. Rather, this is a consideration of how we may overcome our protectionist impulse to make space for political expression that takes on less familiar forms, not always legible to an adult vocabulary of the same.
Another question to be asked here is what gets classified as children’s politicization in the first place - or why this particular instance of children at protests received such widespread attention. The answer to the latter lies of course in the fact that since the women-led anti-CAA/NRC protests marked a historic moment in India’s political trajectory, every aspect of it, including questions of children’s politicization through this process, were brought under the scanner. Children’s politicization, then, was seen to happen through their involvement in ‘adult’ politics, with a major concern being whether children should be present at protests at all, and if yes, then in what forms. A similar Twitter-debate took place over the participation of children at the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., with one view terming this as a loss of innocence and a normal childhood.
At the outset, the idea of children in politics appears to find mention in public discourse only in relation to a perceived fallout of ‘adult’ politics. So in this politically-charged environment of protests, the children and parents of Shaheen Bagh were scrutinized for the threats/benefits of early politicization, as was the school in Karnataka which faced sedition charges for staging an anti-CAA play, or the school in Gujarat which asked its students to write congratulatory postcards to PM Modi endorsing the CAA.
An important observation in the case of Shaheen Bagh was how with the larger expectation on women to take on the role of caregivers, and with no institutional alternatives for childcare available to them, children attended protests simply because their mothers did too. Children’s political participation at these protests is then linked to not just communal polarization and discriminatory laws, but also the politics of women’s work. Thinking about the presence of children at protests then first requires an understanding of how differentiated contexts for their socialization come into existence.
Naturally, it is the case that children find themselves in certain situations because of their real-world contexts, whether it be a protest, a school, or work under hazardous conditions. But these circumstances for children, and the diverse socio-economic spaces that they occupy, don’t appear as political questions in our imagination. This is indicated, for instance, by our uncritical acceptance of normative objectives of schooling as a public good, even if a child perhaps faces marginalization at school, and is able to better make sense of this experience by being involved in their neighborhood protest. A ‘normal’ childhood then is only an ideal, an arguably arbitrary one at that, and calls for it often unproductively detract from the messy, always-politically-mediated realities of children’s lives.
Emphasizing the inherently political nature of children’s everyday-encounters challenges our own blinkered vision of what it means for children to be involved in politics, but also compels us to think of children themselves as political actors who are in constant engagement with their social and political lives. From my own interactions at Shaheen Bagh, for example, this ranged from discussions among children on their favourite slogans, to sharing of feelings of fear within their families in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim violence in North-East Delhi. Though interwoven with adult politics, these experiences are qualitatively different and warrant recognition.
Given the political nature of everyday life, how can children be substantively engaged as political actors beyond objects of protective intervention? A useful formulation suggests that acknowledging children’s special vulnerabilities in relation to adults need not substitute this as their defining characteristic, and that children be seen instead for their evolving capacities (Tobin, 2015). A conceptualization of children which recognizes their competence and insight into their own interests is one that affirms their right to participate, in protests or otherwise. How else could existing, or future, children’s rights be meaningfully claimed, exercised and realized?
Tobin, J. (2015). Understanding children’s rights: A vision beyond vulnerability. Nordic Journal of International Law, 84(2), 155-182.
Ketaki Prabha is currently an independent researcher based in Delhi. She has worked in the areas of education and childhood studies.