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Where do the children play?

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 31, 2020

Read for revolution: Mizba, Alina and Zebiya (left to right) spend time at the makeshift Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule library at the Shaheen Bagh protest site in Delhi   -  all images payel majumdar upreti

Makeshift libraries, book-reading sessions and simple lessons keep the young ones engaged while their parents join an ongoing protest at Shaheen Bagh

Every day after school, Mizba gets ready for another outing. Sometimes she leaves home soon after lunch; on other days, once she is done with her homework. But Mizba knows that she can’t miss her date with Shaheen Bagh.

This neighbourhood in south Delhi is where crowds have been gathering every day for over a month now in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). And Mizba wants to be a part of the movement.

“Earlier, I was not so aware of politics or of what was happening in our country,” says the Std 7 student. “But now I understand that this (CAA) law is discriminatory to Muslims.”

She is among the many students — and younger children — who can be spotted at the protest site. Some are there because their mothers are at the protest and cannot leave their children behind. But there are hundreds of others who, like Mizba, want to be a part of the struggle. It is for all of them that little corners for recreational activities and book-reading sessions have opened up.

Mizba, for instance, is at a Shaheen Bagh bus stop that has been converted into a makeshift library. Students come and pick up books by SH Manto, Ismat Chughtai, BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, among others. Called the Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule library, in honour of the 19th century social reformers, it was set up on the death anniversary of Dalit activist Rohith Vemula on January 17.

Discourse and dialectic: Students come and pick up books by SH Manto, Ismat Chughtai, BR Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, among others at the Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule library, named in honour of the 19th century social reformers, set up on the death anniversary of Dalit activist Rohith Vemula on January 1   -  PAYEL MAJUMDAR UPRETI

 

“Educating ourselves is an active form of protest, and this is how protests can evolve and sustain themselves,” says Aligarh Muslim University student Mohammad Asif, who set up the library together with Mohammad Noor Alam from Muzaffarnagar. They started out with books from their own collections. “But we’ve grown to 450-500 books since then, and recently opened another library at Hauz Rani at a similar protest site,” Asif says.

Alina, a Std 7 student in a neighbourhood school, helps in keeping track of the books at the children’s section in the library and ensures her peers handle them with care. In one corner, young children are busy cutting out paper puppets from an activity book, which they said would be used for a play later.

A street play, performed by Delhi University students, on censorship and state-sponsored oppression is drawing a large gathering. “Anyone can perform at Shaheen Bagh, from children to adults,” Alina says. “I like it here,” she adds.

The presence of children at Shaheen Bagh has kicked up a storm. A section of the electronic media reported last week that parents were forcing their children to join the protests. Following an anonymous complaint, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights asked the district magistrate (South Delhi) to look into the possible trauma faced by children at the protest site. The uproar this triggered prompted former NCPCR chairperson Shanta Sinha to speak out in defence of the protesting children, describing their presence at the site as their fundamental right.

A team of academics and psychologists assessed the children at the site on January 26 and said there were no signs of distress associated with trauma. A statement from the team pointed out that it was not surprising to find children of all ages at the protest site since the Shaheen Bagh movement was led by women. It concluded that the environment was “constructive”.

Children of protest: A team of academics and psychologists assessed the children at the site on January 26 and said there were no signs of distress associated with trauma.

 

None of the children talking to BLink professes to care about politics, but all stress that they want their parents to be happy and not feel unsafe. Mizba points to an installation of India Gate near the library. The installation next to it, in the likeness of a jail, is meant to depict a detention camp, she explains. There are a few ragged sacks dumped in front of it, a representation of basic necessities provided in such centres, and people can step in to understand what it feels to be detained, she adds. The India Gate installation has the names of the people who have died in the anti-CAA and NRC protests.

“Isn’t it lifelike?” she asks. “I am proud of my country, and this is my home,” she says firmly. Women, she adds, aren’t just protesting in Shaheen Bagh but elsewhere too. “My nani’s house is in Mustafabad, near Delhi; they are protesting there just like us. She sends us photos on WhatsApp.” The Shaheen Bagh sit-in, which began on December 15, is said to have spawned 70 similar women-led protests across the country.

United stand: The Shaheen Bagh sit-in, which began on December 15, is said to have spawned 70 similar women-led protests across the country

 

Another library dedicated to children, run by Jamia Millia Islamia PhD students Vasundhara Gautam, Osama Zakir and Younus Nomani, is on the steps and landing of two closed shops facing the protest site. Says Gautam, “I was in the Jamia library studying when the police attack on students happened on December 15. The university has been only partly functional since then. I have been coming to Shaheen Bagh regularly after the incident. I saw all these children running around, and thought this could be a productive way to keep them engaged.” The books were donated by the library’s founders and other well-wishers.

Art for change: Children have put up posters all over the walls of the makeshift library run by Vasundhara Gautam   -  PAYEL MAJUMDAR UPRETI

 

Gautam adds that volunteers and children have welcomed the library, which opened on January 1. “They find this a safe space to spend time in while they’re at the protest,” she says.

Regular painting sessions are held at the library, which has resulted in a wall full of artwork by children — the themes are about the protest and other issues as well. Children gather for storytelling sessions at the library. “There are some kids who are too small to read, or not literate, or simply do not enjoy reading. We hold storytelling sessions for them. Sometimes authors come and read from books for children,” she says.

Delhi-based author and conservationist Swapna Liddle is in the middle of narrating a story about a monkey and a laddu. Children sit around her, listening eagerly. A two-year-old struggles to sit still and is minded by his sister.

A few feet away, a group is being coached by volunteers — journalism students from Delhi’s Kamala Nehru College. “I come here regularly and now have a fixed set of students whom I teach,” says college-goer Samriddhi Sharma. “As they’re very small, we’re currently teaching them numbers and letters. Some of them are school dropouts, but eager for an opportunity to learn. Even if they don’t want to do lessons on some days, I let them play till they come around,” she adds.

Gautam hopes that the library will continue to attract children even beyond the movement’s lifetime. Funds permitting, it can be set up in a more permanent establishment, she says. “Shaheen Bagh lacks community spaces such as libraries, and I feel that the residents — especially the children — will benefit from the creation of such spaces.”

Adults are not allowed in the children’s library because its founders want to ensure that once the kids enter it, it becomes their safe space. “Children use up the time to play and actively participate in the protests. They are often the ones who help distribute the food, put up posters and paintings, and give the loudest cheers at the calls of azaadi and Jai Hind. They sing on stage, and give their mothers and grandmothers company, keeping their spirits up,” says 32-year-old Umama Hussain, who has been coming to Shaheen Bagh every day since the first day of the protest.

She cradles her 13-month-old baby, wrapped in a blanket, on her shoulder. Doesn’t she worry about bringing the infant to the protest? “Why should I be afraid? This is my home. Where else should he go,” she asks. “We are here because of our children,” she says with a smile.

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Published on January 31, 2020
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