When it comes to talking about virtues and vices, passion is one of man’s stronger forces, capable of either making or breaking him. So strong is this innate drive that it has frequently tugged at the heart of humanity during crucial junctions of his life, blinding him of reason and logic. A similar wake of passionate frenzy has found itself being swept over Assam, and to quite an extent, the rest of India over the case of defending the beloved singer, Angarag Mahanta popularly known as Papon.
The blazing controversy was sparked off when a video was shared by the singer himself on Facebook, showing him kissing a young girl who was a contestant he was mentoring as a judge. A few contestants of the reality show, “The Voice India Kids”, were shown playing Holi with the judges by smearing gulaal (colour) in the presence of adults. The hue and cry was raised when Papon had inadvertently kissed a young girl on the lips.
Whether the act had been deliberate or an accident intended to be a peck on the cheeks spurred by a faulty camera angle and a spontaneous jerk of the contestant’s head is unclear, leaving the viewers divided. The father of the child had come forward and stated that it was an act of fatherly affection and that nothing was wrong, a claim reiterated by the child herself.
Apart from shedding light on the problematic nature of the responsibility of power and how Indian children’s reality television shows encourage an unhealthy climate of brutal competition based on popularity, the incident brought to focus the usually invisible elephant in the room: the topic of children and their consent.
A wide section of citizens, including a staggering number of Papon’s fans, defend his actions by claiming that it was intended to be a kiss on the cheek from a mentor to his student, a ubiquitous act of blessing and endearment. But why is it that a kiss on the lips is considered as “bad touch”, but a peck on the cheeks or forehead is brushed off as everyday affection?
In fact, how many times have we seen parents asking their children to not talk to strangers, but a kiss from papa’s colleague or a hug from an aunty is deemed okay? No matter how uncomfortable the child feels.
Karishma Attari’s article on children and consent, published by Scroll.in, underlined at how Indian children are treated as family property and while acclaiming them as so, we are sending out mixed signals of consent. By pushing a child to greet Uncle or Aunty with a kiss or a hug, we are forcing our demands on the child without taking into consideration his comfort.
“A kiss on the cheeks, fine. On the forehead, okay. But on the lips, oh no, that is against our culture! To a child, are you seriously kidding me?!”
When the line is drawn between various intimacies, it makes certain gestures of intimacy, familiarity and closeness normalised and acceptable between a minor and an adult. When it is from a familiar adult male, it is considered either brotherly or fatherly, as the contestant’s father had stated. When it is from an adult female, it follows a similar trajectory of being motherly or sisterly, an act of affection, endearment and blessing.
But do we as adults, take heed of how the child reacts? Whether they are comfortable with it or do they pull away often, as their cheeks are pulled, and kisses are planted.
Where does the consent of the child lie then? Slippery as it is, does its meaning imbibed in legal implication and responsibilities to the state pass out on kids? After all, what would a six-year-old child know about laws, acts and offences? Simply put, it is asking the child if they are okay with it before seeking to give a hug, a caress or a kiss.
To label the innocent peck as familial affection also implies the dangerous assumption that every child’s family members are patron saints of morality, making them incapable of sexually abusing their offspring, sibling or cousin. There have been numerous instances of parents and siblings sexually abusing a child under the shield of belonging to the same family.
The National Study of Child Abuse reported in 2007 that 53.18 % of Indian children not going to school had faced sexual abuse in the family and 50% of the abusers were known to them. The recent horrendous rape of a six-year-old child by her father in Punjab is a prime example that not even guardians can be erased as exceptions to predatory sexual behaviour.
To put it bluntly, a child when born, is a product of its parents. But when does a child cease to be familial property and be treated as an autonomous individual with the agency over their body? We Indians are not famous for treating our children with self-reliance and independence. As a society, we pride ourselves on maintaining our kith and kin, of putting family first, of respecting our elders. So strong has this grip been on Indian families (especially joint families) that even the smallest act of defiance draws looks askance, whether that is exiling oneself from the Whatsapp family group or not greeting Daadi and Daadu with a kiss when they arrive at the doorstep.
The behaviour of not reciprocating affection is often taken as something that is not “normal”, a character flaw of being shy, cold, aloof and inexpressive but not a conscious choice of an individual with a right to his/her body. It is thus not surprising to see a culture of obedience, subversion and tolerance being fostered from an immensely young age within the family itself. It would also be worthwhile to remember that for many of us, sexual abuse began at home too.
The Protection Of Children From Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) defines a child as anyone under 18 years of age. However, a vast gap appears when we compare a child of six, a pre-teen of twelve and a teenager of seventeen. It would be too late to wait for them to grow up with the assertion of claiming their bodies as their own.
In fact, it is never too young to teach children about the rights to their bodies. Simply asking them whether they are okay with a mundane act of affection, drawing lines between comfort and unease and teaching them to raise their voices and refuse goes a long way in body safety. Numerous children’s books are available on body safety and awareness. There are plenty of videos on the internet, both for children and parents about consent, touch and body privacy. Open communication with children without hiding away from talks on private parts, sexuality and respecting others bodies encourages a culture of awareness, responsibility and empathy.
The #MeToo Movement drew the curtain over many of my friends and acquaintances who opened up about sexual abuse and inappropriate touching at home, scarring them for years. Unlike the scars on our bodies, there are no medicines that quickly erase the scars on our mind.
As conscious adults, we are responsible for the generation that will succeed us and it is our duty to ensure that the children of tomorrow grow in in a healthy, positive way. It is our duty to ensure that our sons, daughters, siblings, cousins, neighbours, and students do not have to wait for a decade or more to pass before lashing their anguish on social media in the tide of another movement calling out sexual offences.