In the span of two weeks, 12-year-old Zen Gunratan Sadavarte has hit national headlines on two occasions, for two completely different reasons.

On January 26, the Class 7 student from Mumbai was given a National Bravery Award by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for saving the lives of ten people when her building caught fire in August 2018.

A week later, while researching the problems with India’s midday meal scheme online, Sadavarte chanced upon a news report on the death of a four-month-old boy at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest. The infant had been exposed to the winter cold on several occasions when his parents took him to the sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and finally caught a fatal cold on January 30. His parents, though distraught, have claimed that they will continue to attend the sit-in protest along with their other children, aged one and five.

Disturbed by what she read, Sadavarte wrote a letter to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde on February 5, describing the participation of infants and children in protests as “torture and cruelty”, violative of “child rights and natural justice”. Her letter sought a probe into the Shaheen Bagh infant’s death and guidelines on the contentious issue of the presence of children at protest sites.

Her letter prompted the Supreme Court to turn her informal appeal into formal public interest litigation. Sadavarte has also been granted permission to represent herself and speak in court at the next hearing.

“My opinion is simple,” Sadavarte told “Why would you take a child who can’t speak for himself to a protest like that? What are you trying to showcase? It is wrong under Article 21 and Article 45 of the Constitution.” Article 21 deals with the fundamental right to life and personal liberty, and Article 45 holds the State responsible for providing early childhood care and education to all children up to the age of six.

Credit: IANS

A precocious child

Strikingly, in interviews done by last week, one of the reasons that parents cited for taking their children to protests was the lack of options for childcare facilities. “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,” said Yengkhom Jilangamba, a parent from Guwahati who took his five-year-old son to protests against the Citizenship Act because he had nowhere else to leave the child.

Jilangamba also pointed out that when women are at the forefront of protests – as is the case with the ongoing anti-CAA movement – the presence of children at protests site would be inevitable. “Because of the patriarchal society we live in, women are seen as the primary caregivers of children, and we don’t have infrastructure for affordable day-care,” he said.

Sadavarte claims she recognises this problem, and would never expect parents to forgo their right to protest because of these constraints. But she has been unable to reconcile this with the fact that the infant at Shaheen Bagh was exposed to conditions that proved fatal, and that his parents are willing to continue exposing their other children to the same conditions.

A student of Don Bosco International School in South Mumbai’s Matunga area, Sadavarte is the daughter of Gunratan Sadavarte, a civil lawyer, and Jayshri Patil, a criminal lawyer. They named her Zen on the suggestion of a Japanese monk they met in Aurangabad when she was a baby.

According to Patil, Zen has been precocious since she was a toddler, always studying each year’s curriculum before the school year actually begins. Sadavarte plays state-level basketball, inter-school Scrabble and loves writing poetry. She claims to have read the complete constitutions of five countries and memorised the preambles of seven. She has also read the complete works of Shakespeare, unabridged, and Patil claims she often stays up long past her bedtime to read about history.

“I have read about the freedom struggle, the Indus Valley civilisation and other international civilisations, and my research also extends to the discrimination against black people and Red Indians [Native Americans],” said Sadavarte, who is short-haired, bright-eyed and confident in her speech.

‘I want to be a lawyer’

For a 12-year-old, Sadavarte is fiercely independent. When approached her parents with an interview request, her father left the decision to her, saying, “she makes her own schedule”. Throughout the interview, held at a Mumbai café, Sadavarte needed no help or prompting from her parents, who sat at another table.

“I want to be a lawyer representing India at the International Court of Justice,” said Sadavarte, who is passionate about human rights causes.

Like most children from urban, upper-middle-class, English-speaking families in India, Sadavarte has access to books and the vast online world that she uses to satiate her thirst for knowledge and information about a wide range of issues.

Unlike most of her peers, however, Sadavarte makes it a point to step out of the comforts of the city to try and understand social justice issues on the ground. She spends almost all her holidays travelling with her parents, visiting villages in Maharashtra and other parts of India, and has been particularly affected by gender and caste-based discrimination that she has witnessed in rural schools.

“In many places, girls and boys are still separated in schools,” said Sadavarte. “And in Himachal Pradesh, I saw one school taking children on a trip to a temple, but the lower-caste children were made to stand in a separate line and they were not allowed inside the temple. That is the kind of mentality we don’t want in this world.”

Credit: Gunratan Sadavarte

Sadavarte believes that young Indians want to move past these biases and prejudices, but lack the social framework for implementing new ideas. “I feel we need a lot of development, but we also need systems to support the morals of the new generation,” she said.

Sadavarte acknowledges the United Nations’ position that children have a right to protest for their rights. In 2016, at age nine, Sadavarte herself attended a college protest in Mumbai against the caste-based discrimination that allegedly led to the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. “I went there for research, to understand why people were protesting,” she said.

When the Shaheen Bagh infant died, Sadavarte says she took leave from school to travel to Delhi and visit the protest site, where she spoke to children before writing her letter to the Chief Justice of India. “I was neutral,” she said. “I wanted to know why people were protesting, and whether the children there knew what was going on around them.”

While some older children were familiar with the cause, Sadavarte found that the harsh wintry conditions at Shaheen Bagh were not necessarily favourable for children in general. She believes that if protests stand to harm children – like the infant who died of a cold – their participation is wrong “at any age”.

Selective cognisance by the Supreme Court?

According to child rights activist Shantha Sinha, the concern shown by young Sadavarte for the Shaheen Bagh infant is understandable. But she believes that the Supreme Court’s prompt decision to take suo moto cognisance of the child’s letter raises questions.

“We are a country with starvation and malnutrition everywhere, and many infants have died of hunger,” said Sinha, a former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. “If the Supreme Court has taken cognisance of an infant’s right to life, it should include the right to life and life with dignity in all such cases. I have seen many children write postcards and letters to the Supreme Court about how they are affected by the lack of water, toilets, teachers or schools, but those cases are not taken up.”

When it comes to suo moto cases, Sinha believes that a court – particularly the apex court – should ideally take up public interest cases that involve problems with governance, policy or state actions. While the state cannot directly be held responsible for the death of the Shaheen Bagh baby, she says, there have been other recent cases where it can.

In Karnataka’s Bidar district, for instance, the primary school children who staged a play against the Citizenship Act have been interrogated by the police at least five times after a sedition case was filed against their teacher and a parent. In several parts of Uttar Pradesh, reports have found that the police not only detained 41 children while cracking down on anti-CAA protests, but also tortured several minors in custody.

While these incidences have been widely reported in the media, no court has taken suo moto cognisance of the cases.

There is also another reason for the prominent presence of young people at the protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Under the citizenship law, those born after 2004 – who are still minors today – would have to bear the heaviest burden of proving their citizenship, since they would have to prove that both their parents are Indians.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to winners of the National Bravery award in Delhi. Credit: PMO India via Twitter

An appeal to national leaders

At the time of this interview, Sadavarte was not familiar with some of the other controversial cases of children being caught up in the political tussle around the Citizenship Amendment Act. She did not know, for instance, about the schoolchildren in Bidar who have been interrogated by the police.

But in the case of the Shaheen Bagh infant, Sadavarte has clear views.

“I hold not just the parents responsible but also the organisers of the protest and the government,” she said. “It is my sincerest appeal to Mr Modi, Mr Amit Shah, Mr Kejriwal and Mr Rahul Gandhi not to play politics with this issue because it is about the protection of the next generation.”

For now, Sadavarte is looking forward to speaking at the hearing of her case in the Supreme Court, and is focused on her independent, extra-curricular research on two topics that have caught her interest. “Presently I am working on children’s hunger, because in rural schools, midday meals are not served on weekends and during school holidays. I am also researching transgender reservations, which should be introduced as a policy.”

During the bravery awards ceremony on January 26, Sadavarte claims she asked the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the social justice minister if the government could improve the midday meal scheme and provide children with meals even on holidays. “I was disappointed that they did not answer my question directly but started explaining other things to me,” she said.