Night and day on the banks of the Yamuna river, a peaceful ongoing gathering led by women has become the inspiration the nation needs to turn towards humane principles. At Shaheen Bagh, crowds are said to burgeon to thousands at times. The very elderly hold court here bravely. Children have always been welcome here, and a vibrant culture of music, puppetry, reading together (aloud and silently) and more has been created by participants of all ages. A small shadow has fallen over this beacon of resistance. A four month old infant, Jahaan, who accompanied his mother Nazia for many rounds of vigil at the protest site, passed away last week after suffering from cold and congestion.
Nazia has already returned to Shaheen Bagh. “Why was I doing this?” she responded to the media. “For my children and the children of all us who need a bright future in this country.” She has two other children under six years old, and her family is of a working-class background.
There are many, especially among the privileged, who brand her selfish, irresponsible, a paid agent and worse. They blame her for her baby’s death. If Jahaan had grown older, and been murdered one day for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing a skullcap – as happened to 15-year old Junaid on a train in 2017 – would such tears still fall? There are similarities here to the concern that anti-abortion activists and right-wing people in many countries (including India) claim to have for theoretical children, even as they turn away from the plight of refugee children interned in border camps, queer children who are bullied to suicide, and students left behind by warped education systems that sustain generational poverty. The least vitriolic among them may find an individual case “sad”, while refusing to acknowledge how a sequence of events was set in motion. To do so would to be agree with those who protest, at Shaheen Bagh or anywhere.
The trajectory of this bereavement, and the blame for it, doesn’t rest on one person’s choice. How many details there are to determine whether a child will survive a Delhi winter if he has a bad cold. Does his shanty have adequate heating? Do his parents have money for medical expenses and nourishing food? Does their clinic have enough resources? Does the structure of society, with its interlinked hierarchal systems, provide for their wellbeing? In short: would this child survive a bad cold even if he hadn’t caught it a protest? How then can a parent’s decision to take him there be considered the sole one for his demise?
What kind of parent takes a child to a protest? One who cares. One who knows that the world that child has been born into will not let her protect it from its iniquity for long, and that by showing him the truth, she inoculates him against indifference. One on whose behalf we can also ask these questions: What kind of parent teaches a child discrimination? What kind of parent wants a child to inherit a world from which plurality, freedom and compassion have been excised?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.