Our democracy requires us to take children more seriously

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanOct 02, 2016 | 12:15

Our democracy requires us to take children more seriously

A friend, curious about my piece, teasingly asked me whether my options for topics this week extended beyond J Jayalalithaa or the Indian Army. I confess that I was planning to write on one of them and suddenly felt a bit predictable.

He asked me why I don't write about news of a different kind. "Write," he said, "about old age or childhood. These too are states of war no one talks about. They do not make news except as anecdotes. But if Hobbesian world of brutality exists, it is there".



I was surprised and realised that he was right. Fortunately, a week ago, I had been to a conference on children interned for crime. A sensitive NGO Butterflies produced a fascinating and depressing report on them.

The Butterflies report tried to go beyond a standard social work report that always terms childhood a dismal science.

Very deftly, it tried to show the class character of justice. The report reveals that crime runs across society intersecting both poverty and affluence. It is only the lower classes who land in jail; the rich are able to buy their way out of the justice system.

The poor are criminal because they are criminalised by poverty and by a society that is consistently unfair and brutal to them. Poverty does not cause criminality. It is just that the poor are more easily labelled and treated as criminal.

This blows a huge hole into the social science theory which cannot make poverty the root cause of crime, when crime grows happily in the compost heap of affluence.

Once a child is treated as a commodity, we are hard towards it. (Photo credit: Reuters)

There is a kind of innocence about the power that goes further. Many children are in these homes because they could not stand the torture. They preferred to confess and be punished, rather than be tortured.


Suddenly the report changes in texture. We are facing children who desperately need rights and the entitlements of citizenship.

A child is a survivor of the great migrations, the movement of industrialisation and displacement.

Worse, the crimes listed, apart from cases of violence and sex, are petty and many are sentenced before justice is available.

The courage of the Butterfly report is that it breaks stereotypes about poverty, childhood and criminality.

The logic of deviancy is no longer following the spilt between pathology and normalcy. Secondly, time is critical in the understanding of criminality. People do not realise that not all offenders become hardened criminals.

Reading the trajectory backwards makes crime look inevitable and the criminal doomed. Most children adjust, reform and return to the maturity of adulthood. There is nothing fatalistic or doomed about the crime.

The report argues that political economy is important but so is moral luck. A tender hand or a helping adult can go a long way in redeeming a child. Kindness and political economy are both needed to understand children who are still criminal.

To understand this complex residue, one has focus on the fact the families faced with poverty, starvation, unemployment are often too vulnerable to give that extra care that can save a child.


The child sensing the weakness of the family moves to the cocoon of the peer group. Peer groups are protective but also demanding.

They can be violent in terms of their initiation rights but provide a sense of home, of comradeship, membership and belonging. Social scientists in India in their obsession with the stereotyped family need to spend more time understanding peer groups and gangs.


Unfortunately, we see childhood not in itself as a cocoon, a universe of its own requiring its own myths and science but we securitarise and commoditise childhood, treating it as potential manpower, we equate it to a resource.

Once a child is treated as a commodity, we are hard towards it. Treating a child as a citizen with entitlements that began long before adulthood will be a new part of democratic theory.

Social scientists emphasise on the need for an understanding voice. But their notion of voice is limited. They think an occasional quote provides a child participation and representation in defining and determining his universe.

The child's story, his scream of pain, his sense of loss, his anecdotes about surviving in the city are rarely a part of ethnography. A child, no matter how small, has to be listened to seriously as a theorist of his own being.

Injustice for these children is a prolonged rite of passage. They suffer in the wilderness of a city, in remedial homes which create a sense of punitive justice and in schools where they are seen as backward. Turning to punitive institutions hardly redeems them.


The report offers the possibility of a new model based on a more open-ended understanding of the need to decriminalise childhood. It suggests a triangular model of cure, therapy and reform.

It is not sentimental. It realises some children gorge on criminality and yet one needs empathy to understand background.

The dangers to such an understanding comes from the fact NGOs in civil society and the state see childhood in different ways. The state sees a recalcitrant citizen and a failed resource and wants to be punitive. Civil society sees a failed childhood and attempts therapy.

The state needs to be more open to civil society imaginations and not also ignore them as deviant. This report also raises a bigger question of the fate of the body in relation to the body politics.

A child's violated body, subject to brutality, incest, starvation, threat, rape faces a vulnerability whose collective state we must understand.

A state, therefore, cannot be punitive subjecting the child to official brutality and punishment. This doubles the violence.

What the report demands is a different kind of storytelling which sees new initiatives that looks for a different social science and a different way to construct a society.

This is news in the days of old behaviourist social science which is blind to childhood as being. Democracy demands that we take childhood more seriously and caringly.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: October 02, 2016 | 12:15
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