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We owe children a debt, not just a duty

A K Ghosh |

A little boy sits in the shadow of a crumbling wall, hands folded on his lap, his feet touching each other. His eyes gaze solemnly into the future. He is a contemplative child; his dark eyes are serious, brooding. The wooden door shut behind his back, the corrugated sheets that roof his home, the decrepit walls that frame his being, the evening shadows that fall in long sideward sweeps make him think, perhaps about the life being lived.

Life has caught up with him early; he does not have open doors and waiting parents to run to. He sits in silence and thought. But with a sense of calm and tranquility with which only a child can look into an uncertain future from a closed past. Our little boy seems to transcend the tragedy of his own lost boyhood in his communication with his environment, in the accepting silence with which he seems to listen to the still, and music of humanity.

The child does not consciously think; he does not look at his situation as a problem; but his whole personality reflects his situation, his look, the slack folding of his limbs, the composed but also resigned posture in which he sits. He is thus more truly evocative of the dimness and hopelessness that evades the “experienced” mind which fragments a position into problems which may then be solved. The fact of the matter is that all the solutions of experts have not alleviated the tragedy of deprived childhood.

Nations have united to form organisations for children. Nineteen hundred and seventy nine – the Year of the Child – passed with much fanfare but our child and millions like him continued to sit on steps with nowhere to turn to; doors are padlocked behind them; they gaze blankly into an empty future.

One began to wonder, is this the unalterable truth of naked reality – are all our conceptions and myths about the “innocent” children themselves an exploitation by the conscious, ”experienced” adults? Do we take for granted the innocent affection and simple love of which only a child is capable as our birthright – do those to whom we give birth have no right?

Children have not denied us the fulfillment they can offer; they continue to reassure us of the existence of a future, while we can only stand for that which is past. They justify for us the debility and helplessness of old age as being symbolic of the stage of life when the old man transformed acquires a new simplicity – as Nietzsche implied in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ when dealing with the “three transformations”.

It is adults who, strengthened by the new awakening force that children provide, can make their lives meaningful by looking on them as symbolic of the “mystic centre”. Do adults have the right to be psychologically and emotionally supported by children when they lock the gates of a dignified life to them, when they place them on doorsteps under declining shadows?

In Christian iconography children often appear as angels. Paintings abound with the soft figures of little ones, draped over the larger bodies of grown up human beings. In almost all cases the little angels with soft limbs and cherubic faces stand for undefiled beauty and unfallen perfection. In art, they frame with elegance and innocence the central passion of evil and destruction which are enacted by the central figures of adults.

They stand for the ideals of happiness and harmony. Their psychological impact is on the soul; they symbolise formative forces of an unconscious, beneficial and protective kind. It is not ironical that adults should derive psychological protection from beings to whom they do not care to offer even material protection? The mythology of many major religions conceives of the entrance of god into this world as a troubled child.

When Christ was born the “Massacre of the Innocents” destroyed thousand of little children. The Christ-child survived by escaping to the Land of the Jews, but even there was no room for him in the manger. The birth of Lord Krishna amidst the tumult of storm and tempest and the fiery wrath of King Kansa is also well-known. When god as a child survived human cruelty he stood for a future awakening. Even today when one dreams of a child the interpretation is that some great spiritual change is about to take place. One also thinks of the mystical child who solves riddles and teaches wisdom, the “child that is father of man”.

But men forget that at least on the physical level they owe a responsibility to children who sustain them so well mentally and spiritually. On the mythic plane of the general and the collective, one thinks of the heroic child who liberates the world from monsters. The youthful activities of Lord Krishna are the Indian contribution to this universal concept of the child as deliverer. In alchemy the child wearing a crown or regal garments is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone, that is, of the supreme realisation of mystic identification of the “god within us” with the eternal.

However, cruelty to children is not a new phenomenon and in our country we should be quite used to the brutal treatment that is meted out to children in terms of abuse, rape, beatings and hard labour. Yet we were all shell-shocked by the thought and the sheer optics of the horrific killing of a 7-year-old boy inside the school premises of a Gurgaon school by a bus conductor for allegedly resisting sexual assault. Soon followed the case of a 5-year-old girl allegedly raped by a peon inside the premises of a private school in Shahdara. A large number of cases come to light when corporal punishment seems to verge on sadism.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the child which India ratified in 1992 requires member states to take affirmative action in protecting children from all forms of sexual abuse, neglect, exploitation, torture or any form of cruelty. Almost all countries have legislation to protect children. The United Kingdom (Sexual Offences Act, 2003 dealing extensively with the rights of children), the United States, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, among other nations, have adopted a child rights approach, under which, any transgression of a child’s right, violence or other forms of physical and mental torture, isd a punishable offence.

In India, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Posco) Act, 2012 – in effect since 14 November 2012 and designed to protect children against sexual and penetrative sexual assault, sexual harassment, pornography – is a well-framed, comprehensive law. However, under Section 17 of the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (CPRC) Act, 2005, all states and Union Territories are required to have a child rights commission. This state commission is supposed to monitor the implementation of the Posco Act.

Sometimes it is alleged that most state commissions are either not fully equipped or not fully functional. The Centre, at times, advises the state governments for vigorous enforcement of existing legislation such as Prohibition of Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000, Child Marriage Prohibition Act 2006, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956, Information Technology Act 2000. Apart from “sensitising enforcement machinery”, state governments have been advised to incorporate the issue relating to crime against children in syllabus of various police academies.

In order to ensure that there is no delay in registration of FIRs and arrest of the accused, a crime against children desk has to be set up in all police stations. Children go to school in search of learning, not to be killed at the hands of mentally unstable teachers and principals and outside perpetrators.

Let us remember that only if children are immunised from adult prejudices, there lies hope. If we were to just sit and think we would soon realise that we are the receivers and little children the givers.

It is they who radiate the calm of spirit even while they sit among the ruins we have provided them. They do not ask questions; they continue to provide us with hope for the future, with love and affection. When will we realise that we owe them not merely a duty but a debt?

(The writer is a Former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)