A team of academics and psychologists on Tuesday dismissed National Commission for Protection of Child Rights claims that children involved in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh were being “misled” and suffering from “mental trauma”.
Last week, the child rights body had asked the district magistrate to instruct police officials to “identify” and “counsel” children at the site. The district magistrate was asked to submit a report on the matter within 10 days. NCPCR Chairperson Priyank Kanoongo had said the order was based on viral videos purportedly showing children saying things such as “the prime minister will throw us out of the country” and “the home minister will send us to detention camps if we don’t show him documents”.
The academics and psychologists visited the Shaheen Bagh on January 26 to assess the claims. The team included professors Poonam Batra, Jyoti Dalal, Monica Gupta, psychologist and psychotherapist Shobna Sonpar and research scholar Chetan Anand.
In a statement, the team said they did not notice any signs of distress associated with trauma. “In fact, the children’s physical proximity with their mothers, whether sitting with them or engaged in activities in a separate space, acts as a buffer to any kind of external or internal stress,” they added.
They said the environment was “constructive” and a “creative way” of organising the experiences of children.
Here is the full statement on their visit to Shaheen Bagh:
The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has expressed concern over the presence of children along with their mothers in the Shaheen Bagh protests. Based on a complaint, stating that children are being “misled” and are undergoing “mental trauma”, the NCPCR has asked the District Magistrate to identify these children, with the help of a child protection officer and a police child welfare officer, and arrange counselling sessions for them.
The undersigned – a team of academics and psychologists visited the Shaheen Bagh protest site to assess the claims being made that children are being ‘traumatised’. This is what we saw:
Firstly, being a women-led movement, we were not surprised to find children of all ages at the protest site. What we found was that children go to school every morning and join their mothers in the afternoon or evening. We saw some children sitting with their mothers and many others engaged in activities next to the protest site. Through the concerted efforts of volunteers - faculty and students from different universities – a semi-open space in front of closed shops has been created where children are engaged in several activities. In one corner we saw shelves with story books for young children, biographies, fiction, non-fiction books for older ones. The entire space was full with display of children’s drawings, protest slogans and art work. Children have easy access to chart paper, pencils, paints, brushes and crayons, arranged by volunteers. The presence of books, posters, paintings, motifs, graffiti and discussions made the entire space look like a festival of some sort.
Volunteers were seen helping some children with their studies. Others were reading out stories; engaging them in discussions. We were told that volunteers also organise special sessions of storytelling and puppetry for the children. Organising activities for children seems to be enabling them to comprehend and engage with what is happening, rather than get ‘traumatised’ by it. Children as young as 11 years shared what they have read about the Indian Constitution in their school textbooks. Volunteers spoke of how children have been encouraged to critically consider all slogans and to reinforce non-violent protest.
Secondly, despite the meaningful engagement and joy that we saw amongst children, it may not be correct to assume that these children are not exposed to the ‘fears and anxieties’ that have brought their mothers and other family members to sit on protest. But what we saw was not ‘trauma’ on the faces of children – young and older – but a genuine attempt to sublimate their fears and anxieties that they may share with their parents, into activities of joy and learning.
We did not see any signs of distress, normally associated with ‘trauma’ such as fearfulness, withdrawal or dysfunctionality. In fact, the children’s physically proximity with their mothers, whether sitting with them or engaged in activities in a separate space, acts as a buffer to any kind of external or internal stress. The 24x7 protest site is in itself, a ‘living community site’ where multiple activities are happening without the fear of the ‘absence’ of family and community support. Mothers are equally comfortable, knowing that volunteers are also taking care of their children, including escorting them back to their mothers or sending them to their home round the corner.
What we saw could be called a constructive and creative way of organising experiences for children which they may normally not have been exposed to in their individual homes every day. Children are not only engaged in giving language to their experiences, but are also participating in finding new artistic expressions to articulate their experiences. We saw an ambience of empathy and care, alongside critical speeches and slogans that assert the spirit of togetherness and the desire to be heard and respected.
Dr Poonam Batra, Professor of Education, Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi
Shobna Sonpar, Clinical Psychologist & Psychotherapist
Jyoti Dalal, Asstt Professor, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi
Monica Gupta, Asstt Professor, Gargi College, University of Delhi
Chetan Anand, Research Scholar, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai