Imagine a posse of policemen led by a senior officer with the rank of a Deputy Superintendent raiding a home looking for evidence in a case of sedition. You would think they were looking for terrorists, or for guns and ammunition or bombs and the material that makes them. You would be hopelessly wrong. The police were looking for a child's slippers. The child in question was at home, a student in the sixth standard. The bewildered and terrified child dutifully answered the questions they asked: Did you lend your slippers to anyone? If so, to whom? Yes, she had lent her slippers to a friend. Why? Because she knew her friend was poor and did not have slippers nice enough to wear on stage for a class play. Did you know what they were going to be used for? The child was puzzled. Slippers to wear of course, she wore them and returned them to me. The child brought out the object of their interest. She watched the policemen smile at each other as they examined her slippers, turned them this way and that. Her slippers were triumphantly wrapped up and carried away by the police, a day's duty done, India saved in the nick of time by yet another act of sedition. Bizarre? Absurd? Insane? Welcome to the Indian version of a Kafkaesque world, a reality, not a nightmare that you can wake up from and say, oh, thank goodness, it was just a bad dream.
Something like this actually happened on the night of January 31 in the town of Bidar in North Karnataka when a child was interrogated and her slippers taken as evidence in a case of sedition filed by the Bidar police against two women, Fareeda Begum and Nazbunissa. It all started on January 21 when the children of Class 6 and 7 in the Shaheen School in Bidar performed a skit as part of their class activity on social issues. Discussions on contemporary topics and role play by students is part of the syllabus in most schools. The developments around CAA are a topic of discussion with a significant number of parents, particularly in minority-populated areas, taking part in the protests. Children have become part of the discussion. There is nothing surprising about this. We could not have imagined even a decade ago that a teen would shake the world, mobilizing millions of children in the battle against climate change. Here in India, thousands of children have been deeply impacted by the CAA and the hate-filled speeches of our leaders. They watch them, hear their speeches and are filled with dread. They also have access to platforms like YouTube and TikTok and watch the many shows by satirists and speeches and learn the slogans given by students in colleges and universities across the country against the CAA..."Azadi".
The script for the skit performed by the children was a cut-and-paste job from material in the public domain against the CAA, NRC and NPR. It included slogans, jokes and dialogues. A nine-year-old girl played the role of a mother and another played the role of her son. Ultimately in the skit, the mother convinces her son that nothing will happen to them and they will not have to leave the country. In the course of the performance, the mother says, "Yesterday, the boy who was selling tea is now asking for our papers. I ask him, where is he born, where are his documents, if he doesn't show them, I will beat him with slippers...you boil and sell poisonous tea, we put the sugar of love in it. We will not show our documents." The performance was uploaded on a social media platform by a parent who is a journalist. Within a day, a local BJP leader filed a case against the management of the school.
The police led by the Deputy Superintendent arrived at the school and demanded the children, around seven or eight of them, aged between nine and twelve years, should be called. The children were interrogated not once but five times. In violation of child protection laws, they were intimidated by men in uniform. The nine-year-old who played the role of the mother was a special target. On January 26, when the rest of India was celebrating the completion of 70 years of our constitution, in Bidar, two women were arrested - Nazbunissa, the 35-year-old mother of the child actor, and Fareeda, the principal of the school. They were arrested on charges of sedition, on charges of propagating communal disharmony between communities and had to spend a fortnight in jail before they were released. Five others, including the Chairman of the Society who was not even present in the town, are also accused.
It is true that it is inappropriate in a children's performance for words such as "We will beat him with chappals" to be used even though there was no direct naming of the Prime Minister, the dialogue referring to a boy selling tea asking for documents when he could not produce his own educational qualifications was clear enough. At best, the district educational authorities could have taken note and expressed their disapproval.
In the bail order, the local court, which was given a transcript of the play, has held that there is no evidence in the play of communal disharmony or incitement of hatred against any community. The court also mentions there is no evidence that the women arrested were involved since their names have not been mentioned in the FIR. Legal counsel for the women will surely move for cancellation of the charge of sedition in the next hearing. Perhaps it is at that stage that the police will produce their "evidence" - a child's slippers! What will the argument be? That the child was wearing slippers because she was intending to actually go to Delhi to beat the PM with those slippers? Or that she wore the slippers to gesture what she would do with them? Would it have been less seditious if she had been barefoot?
Often, we do not fully realize the enormous cost that common citizens pay in these days of hate-filled politics. Such politics also generates an utter irrationality within the system, when the desire to please the rulers spreads like a plague among all levels of the bureaucracy, leading to the most bizarre actions which even the best satirists could not dream of. Such is the role of the police in this Bidar case. The statements of top leaders of the ruling regime inciting hatred, senior ministers like Amit Shah issuing threats every time they speak, have a most damaging impact on society and on systems of governance that impact the day-to-day lives of citizens.
Apart from everything are the real lives of the women accused in the case. Fareeda Begum, around 50 years old, has worked hard as an educationist and has a reputation as a strict but extremely caring teacher, helping her students get good grades. She has been the main breadwinner of her family, bringing up her two daughters. Nazbunissa is a widow and has just this one daughter. Eager to get her a good education, Nazbunissa left her village and started working as a domestic worker in Bidar. Such is the intelligence of her daughter that she got through the entrance exam of the school and did well enough to earn herself a scholarship. She is talented in other fields too, which is why her classmates chose her to enact the role of the mother in the play.
I met the two women in Bidar jail, along with my colleagues in the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). I also met the child and the teachers and management of the Education Society that runs the school. It was heartbreaking to see the child. She was in the care of her mother's employer, a relative of one of the members of the school board. She was stoic; perhaps at this young age and through the hard times of poverty and dependence, she has learnt not to show her emotions in case it displeases those in positions of power over her and her mother. I spoke to her of inconsequential things. But when I asked her whether she liked acting, her little face lit up and she said, "Oh yes, I do, I can act again if I am asked to, but now maybe I will not get that chance."
The school, a minority-run institution, is most impressive with a socially diverse community of 9,000 students, more than half of whom belong to non-Muslim families. It has won several state awards, most notably for its programme entitled "Academic Intensive Care Unit" where they run an intensive educational programme for dropouts between classes 10-12. Such has been the success of this programme that many of the students have gone on to college where they have got good grades. I was told by local journalists that the charges against the institution were also motivated by rival educational institutions, jealous of its success and recognition as one of the best in the region.
The hypocrisy and double standards shown up by this case are equally glaring. Just a month earlier in December, after the Ayodhya verdict in the Supreme Court, the students in a school owned by an RSS-leader, the Sri Rama Vidyakendra High School in Kalladka near Mangalore, enacted a play in which the children put up a poster of the Babri Masjid and then tore it, symbolizing the demolition of the masjid amid slogans of "Jai Shri Ram". The chief guests at the function included Kiran Bedi, the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, who tweeted her approval, union minister Sadananda Gowda and many other state BJP leaders and ministers. The video shows the highly communal nature of the play enacting an event called grossly illegal by the Supreme Court. But no action was taken. A few weeks ago, the country witnessed slogans to shoot at traitors raised by the Minister of State for Finance in the Modi government. But not even an FIR was registered, not even after there were three actual incidents of shooting, clearly linked to the minister's incitement.
The child in Bidar may be able to overcome and forget her trauma in the happiness of being united with her mother. But we should not forget. Popular resistance to such authoritarian abominations as the Bidar case, depends on our remembering.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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