The rendition of the alphabet that I saw on the walls of Sahyog Drug De-Addiction Centre was difficult to digest. It spoke volumes about the exposure to terrible realities of the young minds creating it. And yet, surprisingly, what I felt when I saw vibrant colours mingled with quiet horror and despair, was a surge of hope!
To be able to transform harsh experiences of violence and poverty into building blocks of literacy perhaps shows faith and imagination that only children can make. As I looked around the premises run by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), I could almost see the painted walls shine with the exhilaration of this faith, breaking out from the grim surroundings of stern and colourless government buildings with bright hues, smiles and perhaps, most importantly, an almost tangible message that pervaded the atmosphere: No matter what your past, you are welcome here, we believe in second chances.
It is a message reflecting compassion and humanity not often found in our increasingly polarised and judgmental world. This centre is being run especially for children in conflict with law – children who have committed offences against the law and are suffering from drug addiction as well. As someone who works on strengthening the rehabilitation systems that the government provides for these children, it is a dichotomy I am often struck by.
The children living in the institutions I visit are looked at by most people in society as criminals, to be shunned and feared, or as needing “spiritual guidance”. It is almost as if they exist in a world that is not the same as ours. Yet, every time I have interacted with them, they talk about going back to their families, their desire to play outside, and yes, regretting the mistakes they made.
As I mulled over this, threading my way through the kitchen where the kids were kneading possibly the biggest roll of dough I had ever seen, to be made into chapattis for the homeless, my reverie was broken by their grinning faces shouting, “namaste didi!” It was hard to imagine that these smiles came from the same children who had seen the kind of darkness that most of us have only seen in films or read about.
The darkness, in a wondrous and strangely heartwarming manner, had not been brushed under the carpet here. It was accepted, spoken about and dealt with, through the therapeutic instrument of art. Even more evocative than the Varnamala (Alphabet) were the illustrations and paintings made by the children. The illustrations, titled, “Meri Bhi Suno (Listen To Me Too)!” told stories that the children had observed or lived through, reflecting their crimes, the life changing consequences of these crimes and the regret that they felt. For me, it was a lesson in the resilience that a child’s mind can show.
“Kuch nahi to rape hi sahi (If nothing else, might as well rape)” is a shocking title, but effectively explains the culture of violence against women that so many of our children grow up in. To summarise, the illustration shows a group of young thieves who are unable to find any profitable loot even after going to a number of houses. Finally they come to a house where once again they don’t find anything theft worthy, so they decide to rape a girl sleeping in the room that they have broken into. They are caught and put in jail and soon realise what a repugnant thing they have done.
“Ishaqzaade” – a popular Bollywood film on young rebel lovers, very tellingly, is here the title of an illustration that tells the story of young Rohan, who is also an addict. Rohan gets into a fight with a boy who misbehaves with his girlfriend. The boy makes a police complaint and Rohan is caught, with no sign of his girlfriend anywhere, at which point he decides to swear off all these activities!
Behind this not so serious tale, is the reality of how the law can be an unforgiving and unfair influence in the life of a child. Child rights practitioners across the country are troubled with the rising number of children booked under cases of sexual assault, when in reality it is simply a case of two teenagers eloping together, as the consent of the girl is in the hands of her parents, till she turns 18.
When I asked about the different moods reflected on the paintings made on pillars, I was told that the colours and composition of paintings made by the children changed and got brighter as they settled into their new life, fighting their addiction and receiving an education. This gave me another surge of hope!
A wave of retribution seems to have swept across public consciousness these days. Implacable positions are taken on all and sundry issues, and hostile exchanges take place between the either parties in the name of debate. Outrage defines public opinion on most issues and a detrimental consequence of this is that policy level decisions are more reflective of the outrage, rather than of informed opinion.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, was passed by the legislature on the basis of a similar outrage over the involvement of a minor in the December 16 gang rape case. The Act paved the way for children above 16 years to “be treated as adults” in circumstances of “heinous” crimes. Today, a child, who has grown up in a patriarchal society, having seen women being treated like property, makes the terrible decision of assaulting a girl or a woman, may not be given the chance to express his regret in the form of an illustration. He will be sent to jail.
Central and state governments are now talking about setting up a “sex offenders registry” – a database with details of persons convicted of sexual assault that may be accessed by the public. The new Act mentioned above could pave the way for children being included in this too. So a 17-year-old boy who eloped with a 16-year-old girl with her consent, might become part of such a registry, and at the tender age of 18, find that nobody is willing to offer him employment or a place to live. Would he be left with many other options, apart from turning to a life of crime? Will legislation and policies like this truly build a good society, shape a confident and productive youth, and help tap into our much touted demographic dividend?
This post is certainly not meant to defend crimes against women, but a testament to the fact that children can be influenced to change the trajectory of their lives in a positive direction. If compassion and understanding were given a chance over anger and retribution, our children could learn the values of forgiveness, making amends and find in themselves the strength to build happy, constructive lives. It is for us to decide if we have the courage to give them this opportunity.
(This post first appeared on her personal blog https://rightsandrants.wordpress.com/ It has been published on YKA by the author)