Part 2: Indian NGOs and Child Welfare Committees traumatise Nat children in the name of “child protection” by Madhu Kishwar

Rescue or Persecution?

Well-known academic, writer and human rights activist Madhu Kishwar continues her harrowing description of the mistreatment of children of the impoverished Nat community under poorly thought-out child and social welfare laws. Part 1 of this essay was published last week. The Nats are an impoverished community of wandering acrobatic performers, whose performance traditions go back hundreds of years. Rather than uplifting Nat children, the Indian child rights laws along with NGOs, police and Child Welfare Committees implementing them are compounding the problems arising from their parents’ poverty and lack of work opportunities. It is high time that people in public policy wake up to the fact that welfare interventions, well-intentioned as they may be, can end up being oppressive to the very people they are supposed to help. Madhu Kishwar’s essay on the Nats will be published in several parts over the coming weeks, with a more detailed version with video recordings of interviews with Nat families to be published on the website of her organisation, MANUSHI. This article was originally published by the Sunday Guardian on 25 November 2017 with the title Violating child rights on the pretext of ‘rescue’ operations as part of our weekly series in collaboration with them called ‘Global Child Rights And Wrongs’.  

Case of 5-months’-pregnant Nandini & her 5-year old daughter

A Nat girl who was taken by the police after this performance. Photo: MANUSHI

Parmeshwar, Balkumari and Gayatri Devi came to MANUSHI offices in great panic.  The police had taken away Gayatri’s 27-year-old daughter-in-law, Nandini, along with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Anjali, when they were out doing street performances.  Nandini was five months’ pregnant.

She had been placed a Beggar’s Home for one year by a Magistrate who MANUSHI later learnt would go on daily rounds to nab “beggars”, exercising his powers to pass “on-the-spot” orders. This is how such orders are passed, right on the spot by a roving magistrate without even the pretense of a due process trial. As per Nandini’s account, she and her daughter were resting under a tree when they were picked up. They were targeted because of their dholki and hoopla ring. 

The Beggar’s Home staff badgered MANUSHI’s team about helping Nandini and her family learn some other skills so that they didn’t have to “beg” for a living. Our team tried to explain that Nandini was a traditional art practitioner, not a vagabond bhikhari.  But the Home In-Charge was unconvinced. She said if the government considered it to be begging, they had no choice but to implement the law.

When we pleaded for mercy on account of Nandini’s being pregnant, the Superintendent began pouring out the problems faced by the Home. She said they were severely short-staffed. In case of a medical emergency such as a pregnant woman like Nandini going into labour at night, the Home did not even have a vehicle take her to hospital. The Superintendent told us she would be only too happy to release Nandini and lessen the burden on the Home, but it could not be done without a court order. She allowed us to meet with Nandini in her presence. As we were leaving Nandini begged us tearfully with folded hands to get her out of the Beggar’s Home at the earliest.

Getting Nandini released was complicated by the fact that the Magistrate’s order claimed that she had admitted to begging.  As far as we could tell, the Magistrate had arbitrarily filled that column without bothering to find out from Nandini what she had to say in her defense.

An appeal was filed by MANUSHI’s lawyers and after some efforts the court passed orders for Nandini’s release. But then a new problem arose. A copy of the order was not handed down when the judge passed it in court. Without a copy of the order in hand, the Beggar’s Home would not release Nandini. For the following week Nandini’s relatives went to court every day but were not given the order.  Finally, they had to pay a bribe to get it.

Even then, their problems were not at an end. When the family reached the Beggar’s Home they were told that Nandini could not be released as the order did not mention her daughter Anjali. It took another round of court proceedings for Nandini and Anjali to be released.

If, despite active and high-quality legal help from a well-known organization like MANUSHI, these Nat families face such obstacles regaining their children, readers can imagine what nightmares they go through when facing the system on their own.

The system sees Nat parents as exploitative. But would Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) or the police ever dare to capture children of well-off families who perform in TV serials or films?

The CWCs and NGOs that capture Nat children off the streets term it as “rescue operations”. But neither do the children want to be “rescued” nor do their parents treat them as unwanted.  In fact, every time a Nat family loses its children to such “rescue” operations, they work tirelessly, and spend thousands of rupees on lawyers and sundry touts who operate around the “protection homes” of the NGOs to regain their children.

Case of Kabir and Umman

Two Nat children, 5-year-old Kabir and 7-year-old Umman, were picked up by the police soon after a performance. The police had been alerted by an NGO named “Light Life Freedom” that purports to “save women and children from sexual slavery”. The children were taken to a “protection home” operated by this NGO.

The children were in Delhi with their uncle, Jay. Their parents were back in their village in Chhattisgarh. When Jay approached the CWC, he was told the children would not be produced, nor their whereabouts disclosed, until their parents appeared. Jay called the children’s father, Dilkumar, in Chhattisgarh.  Dilkumar rushed to Delhi, arriving the following day.  But when Dilkumar appeared before the CWC, the officials told him that the children would not be given to him as he was not in a position to educate them.

Dilkumar tried to explain that being together with family took precedence over everything else and how his children would not be able to study, in no matter how good a school, if they were not with their family. But the officials would have none of his explanations and rudely shooed him away.

A desperate Dilkumar rushed to MANUSHI’s office. We looked up Light Life Freedom on the Internet. All we found by way of credentials was an obscure Facebook page with a one-line description along with photographs showing some “rescued” children with their faces blurred out. There was no address or contact numbers which any accountable organization ought to have provided. 

MANUSHI arranged for a lawyer and filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi High Court. At the hearing, the lawyer hired by Light Life Freedom claimed that Kabir and Umman had been forced to perform tamasha so that Dilkumar could arrange for his eldest daughter’s marriage. He went on to build a case that Dilkumar was unemployed and the parents were cruelly extracting money from their children’s labour. The judge appeared to favour this view. He commented to MANUSHI’s lawyers that whatever the Nat traditions may be, the children should only be allowed to perform after they grew up, not while they were so young.

Dilkumar who was witnessing all this could only gather that his children would not be returned. He broke down in the court. His sister Dilkumari, who had accompanied him, also broke down in tears. Other members of the Nat community assembled there were visibly distressed. The next day at the hearing Dilkumar could no longer hold back his emotions and without a care he poured his heart out. He pleaded with the judge to be reunited with his children and offered to leave Delhi never to return if the children were released.

The judge was jolted into compassion by Dilkumar’s pleas. He summoned the children for an in-chamber hearing. Kabir and Umman told us later that they were quizzed on whether they liked living in the children’s Home and the food there. Umman said she told the judge that they were miserable there. Owing to strict gender segregation in the Home she was not allowed to see her brother. She broke down telling the judge how it was bad enough to be kept apart from her parents, but being barred from seeing her brother though he was in the same building was agonizing. She also told the judge that the food in the Home had no salt or spice and that she would any day prefer food cooked by her poor parents.

The judge thankfully released the children. But he also ordered that the children must be educated and not used for performances by the family. He warned that a repeat of the offence would make things extremely difficult for them.

Dil Kumar and family. Photo: MANUSHI

But the Nat families have limited choices. They can either take on daily wage manual labor as and where it is available, or continue with their traditional art form. Both have their attendant risks. When the parents take on daily wage labour, the children are left unattended in their roadside jhuggis.  At least there is more security for the children when they perform as a family.

Gandhi Lal, a Nat parent whose case was described in Part I of this essay, says “We want to continue earning our living by showing our traditional art (paramprik kala) …. we certainly want to send our children to school, provided the government helps us and it doesn’t involve abandoning our kala (art).  We want the two to go together.”

Dil Kumar, Gandhi Lal’s brother, says it is not as if their community is not interested in educating their children.  Almost every family sends at least one child to school and dedicates only one or two to learning their traditional arts.  To quote Phool Kumari, an elderly Natni, “We owe it to our ancestors to keep this tradition alive. At least one member of our family will keep practicing the traditional art, even if he is sent to school.”

Nat families can only afford government schools. But these schools provide very poor education. The children pick up no new skills.  In fact, they are not even taught proper reading and writing.  The few who manage to clear their secondary school exam are not able to find any worthwhile job.  Most of them end up as manual laborers in casual jobs with incomes as low and uncertain as when they lived by showing tamasha.

Dil Kumar’s mother told us that she had managed to educate one of her sons, Prakash, upto BA (graduate) level.  But he only found a low-paid job as a guard in Delhi. Without quality schooling, there is little incentive for putting children in school. This was confirmed from my field visits to Nat villages in several north Indian states and Nat bastis in Delhi.

In the next part of this essay, I will analyze the antiquated, colonial- minded and bizarre laws that are being used against the poor to legally snatch their children and lock up the adult family members in jail. To be continued.

The author is currently Maulana Azad National Professor of ICSSR and founder president of human rights organization, MANUSHI.