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The Little Protesters: Shaheen Bagh and its Children

By Sohini Saha

Shaheen Bagh was not only an anti-CAA protest but it also brought a fresh wave into the women’s movement altogether. It was a never-seen before form of protest where Muslim women came out of their houses to occupy public spaces to claim their citizenship rights. However, alongside women, children have also made it into the public sphere, occupying the space with their little bodies and their presence. Not only did the participation of these women raise several questions, but even more strongly the children’s presence in the protest site, on the road, in the cold winter nights of Delhi raised a lot of debates and discussions.

A death of a child who was taken by his mother to the protest site at Shaheen Bagh on a regular basis sparked protests even among those who have supported the Shaheen Bagh movement. This death brought in the matter of children, their roles in these protests, the question of consent and above all motherhood to the forefront. Does a mother have the right to take her child to the protest site in these cold winter nights? Shouldn’t she have stayed back at home to take care of her child? These questions have emerged, not just questioning the responsibility of a mother but also very significantly pushing the debate into the domain of children, consent and protests. These questions have also assumed that the children were merely taken by their mothers as passive beings, who were only present and not participants in these protests. This piece will thereby interrogate the presence and participation of children in the context of Shaheen Bagh and in doing so will seek to rethink protests altogether. Moving away from thinking about the children’s presence as passiveness, it will seek to read presence as participation in itself. In order to understand the role of children, it is pertinent to first understand how in the first place the children have thronged the protest sites of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi or Park Circus in Kolkata.

As I was moving towards Park Circus Maidan, I could hear a child’s voice loudly raising a slogan over the mike that was resonating throughout, a call of ‘Azaadi’. This historical ‘Azaadi’ has now almost become an anthem of protests across India and an expression of dissent under different regimes. However, it was for the very first time that I heard it coming from a little child. On entering the main area and taking a seat on the carpet laid on both sides of the ground, I saw the child. His enthusiasm was sparkling – it could move even those who have the least energy in them. His hand movements, his gestures, his cracked voice, his little moving body, his confidence, brought a strange joy to me. I could see the elderly women beside me raising their hands joining him in raising the slogans. The whole of Park Circus was now singing alongside him. I wondered for a moment, is he our future? Then I felt, he is also our present.

A YouTube video from Shaheen Bagh shows the children who are always there. The students and activists in the area discuss how they have started to engage with the children by making them read books, draw or paint. Another child is shown to raise the slogan of ‘Azaadi’, while other children join him. The children at Park Circus, even though not engaging with active learning with books, have formed a group where they are sometimes seen as leading the masses in raising slogans. Such children are also made to participate, by speaking on the microphone, reciting poems, or singing songs as a way of making them part of the protest and giving them a voice. In short, they make their presence felt. This picture is similar in Shaheen Bagh or Park Circus. The protest of Shaheen Bagh has mostly come about as a woman led protest which it definitely is. I am also very interested in understanding this as a site from which we are witnessing protests from children, sometimes even newborns, who are completely unaware, unconscious of this entire process.

Are protests always willed, conscious enactments? Or do unwilled, unconscious participants give meaning to protests? The protests have seen little children and even newborns joining in, accompanying their mothers. Their presence there is assumed to be a passive one because they are conceived as those who only come along because of their mothers. The newborns especially are the mostly assumed to be the passive ones. They do not consciously participate in the protests and yet they become participants, I argue through their embodied presence. The presence of the children and newborns gives newer meaning to protests and to think beyond a willed and conscious idea of protest. Children are considered to be apolitical beings, thus often without any right to rights. They are but only future citizens and thus their presence in these protests of citizenship and rights calls into question the very basis of citizenship. The usual emphasis on their consent over their participation assumes that children are anyway beyond the question of consent just by being children, by being unable to speak for themselves, by being unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus, they are already situated on the outside. It is this political act of creating the children as apolitical which is revealed when they become participants in this process simply through their presence. The newborns present are often considered to have also come for their ‘azaadi’ as one of the mothers in Park Circus considers. The little children who have taken up the slogans, the idea of brotherhood between different religions become learners in this process. Their slogans are not merely shouted by them as many would say. Instead through these slogans and songs, poems and readings, they cultivate a spirit of togetherness that shapes their understanding, making their participations meaningful. The newborns and children are not willed, conscious people who have come here to join the protests. But that does not make their presence any less participatory. Instead, their presence, their experiences, their learning, cultivates in them the spirit of revolt making them participants in the process.

Thinking about children’s participation in such movements also evidently brings in the question of space, place and embodiment. The questioning of the mother’s decision in taking children to the protest sites assumes, first of all, that such sites are not for children. It also assumes a separation of the home and the protest site, which I argue is a contested idea in case of Shaheen Bagh. Shaheen Bagh’s protest is also distinct in it being a sit-in protest, an occupying of space through one’s bodies. Bodies, I argue, becomes significant here. The occupying of a place through one’s bodies, through one’s bodily presence brings in the question of embodiment. It also gives new meaning to our understanding of protests as about assemblage of bodies. Coming back to the question of how a mother can take her child out into a protest area necessarily assumes a separation between one’s life and protest. In such a separation, protest becomes a choice, protesting sites become public spaces of the outer political world. An inner-outer binary is created between the home as an apolitical sphere and the protest sites as outer public political spaces. In this divide, the children are seen as apolitical beings to be kept at home. Thinking against such a binary, protests are not just a choice that one can selectively decide to go for or not. Our understanding of protests presupposes a choice which I argue disrupts the idea of protests altogether. Instead, I argue that protests may not be a selective activity, but a part of life such that the choice to not go, is not active at all. Shaheen Bagh’s protest, I argue, is not an extraordinary event separated from one’s everyday life and existence but becomes a part and parcel of that everyday life. The mother did not simply choose to take her child there. It was what she had always done, to keep her child with her. The inside-outside debate that has taken a central form in case of these protests can be rethought. Women and children have definitely moved outside but in doing so they have also transformed that outside into an inside bringing in the everyday private lives in the outer realm of the world, dismantling the inside-outside understanding. As Judith Butler discusses in her works on public assembly, when protests move into the back alley or neighbourhood from the main public spaces, they cease to become only public spaces reminding us, as she says, “that politics is already in the home.” This is significant to understand the politics of space and place of Shaheen Bagh’s protest, where Shaheen Bagh is not just a protest occupying a road, a public space but also a neighbourhood, its people. Shaheen Bagh is not a place outside, but through the coming together of people, their everyday ‘private’ lives, it becomes home. The distinction of public and private space, the home and the world collapses, questioning how politics is always in the home and in the world.

Thus, this piece has tried to rethink protests through Shaheen Bagh and the participation of children. Rather than assuming consent, will and consciousness as a presupposition in case of participation in protests, this piece has tried to think about unwilled, unconscious embodied participation through the presence of children and newborns. In doing so, I argue, that protests are not about choice and consent but the becoming of a participant. Further the collapsing of the idea of home and public space does not mean that the space of protest becomes a safer haven like home, instead it brings in the question of precarious existence which is both in the home and in the protest sites. This has been made evident by the Shaheen Bagh and other anti-CAA, NRC movements based on the citizenship rights. The very idea that one can become stateless in one’s own country is similar to becoming homeless. When the very idea of own’s home (homeland) is called into question, home ceases to be a protective haven. The elusive idea of the home (homeland) reveals the precariousness of existence itself making us rethink the home as a safe and protective space compared to the outside world. In doing so these protests also makes us rethink home as a political space whose idea is constituted through a creation of a distinction between safe and unsafe, protected and unprotected, apolitical and political, home and the world binaries. When such a collapse happens, the child’s place in the home as a protective domain is also called into question.

Photo: New Indian Express

Sohini Saha is a PhD Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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