In December, when the Bharatiya Janata Party government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament, North East India was the first to erupt in protest. Like thousands of other residents of Guwahati, Yengkhom Jilangamba and his wife enthusiastically attended rallies and protest marches in the city, almost always taking their five-year-old son with them.

To some people, this would seem inappropriate. For Jilangamba, this was just a logical, logistical thing to do.

“If you are a working parent, without any childcare help, and schools are shut and you want to go for a protest, where will you keep your child? There is no option but to take them along,” said Jilangamba, a peace and conflict studies professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati. “The argument that children should not be taken to protests comes from a place of privilege, from those who can afford to get childcare help.”

In the past two months, however, the presence of children at protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens has triggered an intense public debate. In times of political and social tumult, is it ethical to draw children into polarised protests and revolutionary movements? Does it leave them traumatised, or does it teach them how to express dissent in a democracy?

In the case of four-month-old Mohammed Jahaan, being a part of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest with his parents in winter proved fatal: the infant died on January 30 after catching a cold. His parents, who have been sharply criticised from all quarters, have chosen to continue protesting at Shaheen Bagh.

According to some government organisations, children at protest sites is an outright taboo. On January 22, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights ordered a district magistrate in Delhi to send children at the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest for counselling, for the alleged trauma they had been exposed to. At Lucknow’s Ghanta Ghar protest, the local Child Welfare Committee threatened immediate action on protesters if their minor children were not sent home.

This desire to keep minors out of contentious politics, however, has been missing in some other recent cases.

In Karnataka’s Bidar district, for instance, the police have subjected Muslim school children of Classes 4, 5 and 6 to interrogation at least five times in the past two weeks, after the children staged a play with anti-CAA views. The police have arrested the school’s headteacher and the parent of one of the children who took part in the play, charging them both with sedition.

In another Karnataka school, children were made to enact the demolition of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid as part of a sports day event in December that was attended by Union minister DV Sadananda Gowda. In Gujarat, meanwhile, several schools made their students write postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in support of the CAA last month.

For parents, teachers and child counsellors, these incidents have raised complex questions about the ethics of “politicising” children. Do schools or families have a right to impart a particular ideology to children? At what age? And does the answer differ for different ideologies?

Children from the school in Bidar, Karnataka, being interrogated by the police for staging a play in support of CAA. Photo: Screengrab from Twitter

‘Children are already affected by politics’

According to one section of parents, involving children in socio-political movements is inevitable, desirable and often necessary.

“When tumultuous events are happening in our lives, it is absolutely natural that children will be drawn into it,” said Sujata Mody, a labour union leader from Chennai who used to take her daughter to protest meetings during her childhood in the 1990s and 2000s.

Mody believes that children are part of a political framework right from birth, particularly if they are born into disadvantaged or marginalised social groups. “When children grow up in slums and watch adults fighting over water, or when their homes are demolished and they are left out in the open, they are already affected by politics,” said Mody. “It is not wrong for us to expose our children to protests when we are asking for justice and basic human rights. Of course, one should not take children to a place where there is a possibility of violence.”

Jilangamba, who grew up in Manipur, points out that people of his generation were exposed to widespread political violence – including state atrocities – when they were young. “No one raised an issue about its impact on children at the time. Even now, when children are being used in advertisements to sell all kinds of products, no one seems to raise objections,” said Jilangamba. “So this sudden concern for children seems to be selective.”

Historically, across the world, children have always been a part of revolutions, rallies and protest marches. “Even in our own independence movement against the British, it was part of the culture for parents to take children for protests,” said Mody. “As a child I had a khadi-wearing teacher who would share stories of how he and his classmates would leave school to participate in the freedom movement.”

Mody believes taking children to protests against the CAA and NRC would be “inspiring” for them. “Children at these protests will understand more about the Constitution and their rights,” she said.

Sujata Mody's family, including young children, protesting American President George Bush's war on Iraq at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. Photo courtesy: Sujata Mody

Samreen Farooqui, a filmmaker from Delhi and a mother to a five-year-old boy, believes it would be an anomaly for parents protesting at sites like Shaheen Bagh to not include their children in what they are doing. “Children do need to be made aware of their surroundings, of the world they inhabit and the challenges in it,” she said.

Children born into a minority community in India are likely to face some amount of discrimination outside the home, says Farooqui, and when they are young and confused about their identities, they could internalise that stigma.

“As parents we can talk to our children about the reality, so that they know what to expect, be confident in who they are and learn how to tackle discrimination,” said Farooqui. “And this is not just for minorities – other children also need to know what is going on in the world so that they don’t become the ones who discriminate against others.”

‘Too young to understand’

Anil Athri, a parent with two sons in primary school, takes a different view. While he personally considers the CAA to be a good law, Athri does not believe in making children take sides on the issue. “Children are too young to understand something like this,” said Athri, a businessman from Navi Mumbai. “Although you cannot stop people from taking children to protests, I don’t think it is ethical

Mental health professionals like Avdesh Sharma and Seema Hingorani contend that involving children in political movements and discussions could be risky.

“When children are exposed to polarised views, especially on caste, class or religion, it becomes deeply embedded in their minds and could be there for life,” said Sharma, a well-being psychiatrist from Delhi. “Yes, children should be aware of what is going on around them, but there is an age for everything, and kids below 10 or 11 should definitely not be exposed to something like protests. Their ability to understand concepts and contexts only begins to develop around that age.”

Hingorani, a clinical psychologist from Mumbai, believes that even older children up to the age of 16 could be hurt by participation in intense political movements. “Some children are very sensitive,” she said. “They can have traumatic dreams or become aggressive after attending protests. The right age for children to make their own decision about participating in such protests is when they leave school and join college.”

Hingorani also slammed schools in Gujarat for making children write letters in support of the CAA to the Prime Minister. “By dragging children into believing what they believe in, these schools are corrupting children’s minds and blocking their development potential.”

A child sleep in the lap of his mother at the Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi.

Does ideology matter?

At the outset, parents, teachers and mental health experts that spoke to were clear that schools must not impose any ideological position on students, who often come from diverse communities and backgrounds.

“A school curriculum does not have any ideologies. It would not be proper for any ideologies to be taught to children in schools,” said Sharma.

But can children be raised in an ideological vacuum? Schools across India have always espoused certain beliefs and political positions that most parents do not object to. Believing in the idea of god is one of them – a belief drilled into children through prayer sessions every morning. Another is the value of patriotism, secularism and “unity in diversity” that generations of Indians were taught in school after Independence. For the Congress-led government of the time, this was a conscious nation-building effort in a young country made up of dozens of different cultures, languages and communities.

Is there a difference between teaching children such ideologies and making them take a stand on laws like the CAA? According to parents and child experts, there is.

For Farooqui, making school children enact the demolition of the Babri Masjid is unacceptable because it is an act of violence. “It basically teaches children to wage war at a very young age,” said Farooqui. “It is not possible to bring up a child without grounding them in some idea, but it is essential to teach them productive ideologies.”

In Sharma words, there is a difference between “nation-building” and “nation-breaking”, and schools should stay away from involving children in contentious issues that could fall in the latter category.

According to Anil Athri, schools should be used to influence children positively. He refers to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and Swedish climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg as examples of children who have participated in positive movements. “We need to influence children for the betterment of the world, not to make a more biased society,” he said.

A primary school teacher in Mumbai, meanwhile, pointed out that schools can actually discuss controversial national issues with children without taking a partisan stand. “By simply informing students about different perspectives and taking a neutral stand, schools can teach children that the world is grey,” said the teacher who did not wish to reveal her name. “It could be an opportunity for skill-building – to teach kids not to believe everything they read and to look up where they are getting their information from.”