WAITING outside Hill Line police station in Ulhasnagar to be taken for a medical examination ordered by the Thane Child Welfare Committee, the two boys are restless. Many people passing by pause at the sight of their tonsured heads, some recognise them from a video shared widely on social media. When they realise they are being stared at, the two stop their play and run back to their mothers. The younger of the two snatches a cap from his mother and wears it.
It’s been 10 days since the two from Premnagar locality in Ulhasnagar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, were caught allegedly stealing chakli worth Rs 2 from a shop. Aged eight and nine, they were then stripped naked, slapped, made to wear footwear around their necks and paraded in the locality. The entire incident was filmed by at least three mobile phones and circulated. Traumatised and the subject of local curiosity now, the boys have been getting a steady flow of visitors, including authorities of child rights and welfare committees, and social organisations. Suggestions have also been made to their mothers, both single parents, to send them to welfare homes.
The two women have gone twice to the child welfare committee and returned, not having the heart to hand the boys over. But they worry they may not have much of a choice. Both are employed as domestic help in societies nearby, and earn Rs 5,000 per month for jobs that keep them nearly 12 hours away from home — and the two boys.
That day too, they were at work. “Around 10.30 am, I received a call that my son was caught stealing food. I returned home and saw some of his hair had been snipped off. I asked him about it but he did not say anything. So I gave him some money to go to a nearby salon and get it cut properly. I did not think much about it and went back to work. I thought maybe someone had played a prank,” says the 33-year-old, the mother of the younger boy.
She was back home again only around 8 pm. It was then that a neighbour showed her the video. “I saw what actually happened to my child,” she says. Shocked, she rushed over to the house of the other boy in the video. Together with his mother, 25, she went to the police station and registered a complaint.
The three who were arrested include shopowner Mehmood Pathan and his two sons, Irfan and Tawakkal. They have been charged under various sections, including the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Information Technology Act. They are currently in judicial custody.
The boys go to a municipal school in the area from 7 am to 12.30 pm. They get midday meal in the school. The mothers say they wake up by 5.30-6 am and make food for them, usually dal-chawal or sabzi, for the children to eat after returning from school.
They don’t have money to give the children for snacks, should they feel hungry till their next meal at night, the mothers add.
The two say the boys have told them that they were playing near the snack shop that day when, on a whim, they snuck in and picked up a chakli from a jar. The boys took the chakli to eat, they say.
Adds the 25-year-old mother, “Our sons did not tell us anything about what had happened after that. They are too young to understand what can and cannot be punishment, but they may have been too scared, thinking that we would beat them up too.”
The two women are raising the boys on their own. Both were married while still in their teens. While the 33-year old once lived in Gulbarga in Karnataka with her husband, the 25-year-old was married to a man in Osmanabad in rural Maharashtra. Both say their husbands were alcoholic and regularly beat them and their children. “I was fed up and left with my son for my mother’s house here a few years ago,” says the 25-year old.
Later the 33-year-old came to this locality, where she has relatives. She says she hoped to ensure a better future for her three boys, aged 14, 10 and 8, in the big city.
Amid the many promises and assurances of help now, the mothers have other concerns. “I have not gone to work since that day. I am worried my salary will be cut and I will not have enough money to pay the house rent this month. Today, I did not have money to buy biscuit for my son,” says the 25-year-old. They are also sad that their employers are the only ones who have not bothered to come and visit them.
The chairperson of the Thane Child Welfare Committee, Meenal Thakore, says, “Though institutional care for children is always the last resort, we were suggesting they should be sent to a children’s home for some time so that they can get counselling. At home, they have many visitors who are constantly asking them about the incident. We will decide on issuing appropriate orders based on what their mothers want.” Adds the 25-year-old: “We are looking for information on hostels where they can be sent so that they can study and make a future for themselves.”
Says the 33-year-old, “We cannot leave them home alone now once we resume work.” She says they are afraid the children may loiter outside and be apprehended or threatened by someone from the family of the accused. “Some people who came to visit us suggested we send them to a children’s home for a few days. Others told us they should not be separated from us.” For now, the 33-year old, who has resumed work, has found a temporary solution. While she is away, her son spends the day at her mother’s home nearby.