Recently, one of Bollywood’s favourite couples, ‘Saifeena’, fell from grace in the eyes of their fans, because they named their son Taimur, incidentally also the moniker of a ruthless medieval Turco-Mongol conqueror. In response to the ridiculous number of trolls that their decision invited, we posted the following visual on YKA’s Facebook Page:
We were talking, of course, about the prevailing ‘Chotu’ phenomenon in our society, where collectively, we erase the identities of millions of children living on the streets by calling all of them by a single name Chotu.
As you can see, the visual received a mixed bag of comments, but the most common strain among them was the idea that referring to children on the streets as Chotu is not offensive, or problematic. The argument was that the term was one of affection, that many of us, too, are referred to as Chotu, in our own homes. So, how could it be an erasure of identities of children living on India’s streets? Many commenters were keen to understand what the issue with the term was.
Yes, many of us are called Chotu in our homes. The Chotu of my own family is my younger sister, and I do not think it’s offensive at all to refer to her by that name. But over the years, I have come to realise that calling my sister Chotu is very different from “affectionately” using the term for the child on the street. Here’s why:
No one outside of my immediate family calls my sister Chotu without her permission. When people meet her for the first time, the first thing they ask is her name. They don’t assume they can address her by her pet name, or any name of endearment of their choice. In that act, they acknowledge her humanitarian right to have a name and national identity. That’s the right we deny children on the street, when, instead of asking for their names, we decide they can be a Chotu or Gudiya.
Moreover, my sister belongs to a comfortable home, has always had the privilege of sound education, three square meals a day and a roof over her head. Our family has always had a name, which has power that can never be denied to us. Our economic and financial situation secures our social identities. Can the same be said about a child on the street who has no identity card, or address?
Ever since my sister was born, we had big dreams for her. Every now and then, we would ask her, “Badi hokar kya banogi? (What will you do when you grow up?)” The Chotus on the street, on the other hand, probably spent their childhoods selling balloons at traffic signals, polishing shoes and cleaning cars, or serving chai in the street corner. Despite all the endearment we feel when addressing them as Chotu or Gudiya, how many of us are really thinking about who they will grow up to be?
Our names are an integral part of who we are. An erasure of our names would mean the erasure of our identities, which makes it easier for us to be exploited. In India, it is estimated that there are 12.6 million children who are illegally employed for labour. An erasure of their identities happens every day. Worse still, there are companies in India, such as Book My Chotu and Chotu Chaiwala that knowingly or unknowingly promote this erasure by using the term Chotu in their branding. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are promoting child exploitation and child labour. Yet, when Book My Chotu made headlines immediately post-demonetisation, shockingly few publications reacted to its problematic name. In fact, people praised their efforts!
In the current exploitative system, the onus is on all of us to put a stop to this ‘Chotu’ phenomenon. Change begins with us, and we can start by checking ourselves while addressing a child living on the street. Remember to ask them for their names while speaking to them. Another step we can take towards securing the rights of our society’s most vulnerable, is to make sure we don’t associate ourselves with brands that are known to employ children for labour. With these small but important steps, we can all play a role in helping India’s youngest, most vulnerable citizens reclaim their rights.