To do what Aradhana Samdhariya’s parents and the community around her did through the 70 days of her fast before her death involved a very special kind of sadism. It is hard to comprehend, this sadism, but it is also ordinary: It claimed Imtiaz Khan, the 11-year-old hanged to death from a tree in Latehar because his father was a cattle-trader; it scarred Dinesh Megwa, the 10-year-old Dalit beaten for touching dishes at his school; it brutalised the three boys stripped naked and beaten by police in Bengaluru for stealing food.
Every single day, to please their gods, families or bank balances, Indians mistreat their children. There are almost never mass protests at these outrages, no sit-ins, not even a candlelight vigil at India Gate. No one of consequence is outraged: Not one political leader made it their business to condemn Aradhana’s murder. In spite of mounting evidence that a large mass of children is vulnerable to abuse, the country is yet to set up an effective system to protect those in need. True culpability in the Aradhana case doesn’t lie with her parents, who indoctrinated her with fanatical religious beliefs that propelled her towards life-threatening behaviours. It is that institutions like schools and police, charged with protecting her, did nothing.
From the statistics we have on the welfare of children in India, we know the treatment of Aradhana was not unusual: India’s criminal justice system does next to nothing for those most unable to defend themselves, our children. In 2007, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development released a terrifying study. Fifty-three per cent of children said they had encountered “one or more forms of sexual abuse”. More than a fifth reported severe sexual abuse, including assault, having been compelled to fondle adults’ private parts, exhibit themselves, or be photographed nude. Well over half reporting severe sexual abuse were boys. Nearly three out of four children reported having been physically abused — kicking, slapping or corporal punishment.
In all 13 states the study covered, the incidence of physical abuse directed at children was above 50 per cent. The worst victims were the very young. Forty-eight per cent of respondents reporting physical abuse were between five and 12 years old, while 26.29 per cent were 13 or 14 years old. “In all age groups”, the study states, “an overwhelming majority of children (65.01 per cent) reported being beaten at school”. Indian homes weren’t any safer. Fifty-three per cent of children not going to school said they had been sexually abused in their family environment. Just under half said they’d encountered sexual abuse at their schools.
Most vulnerable were children in workplaces; 61.31 per cent had been sexually abused. In all but four states — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Maharashtra — boys were found to be more at risk of sexual abuse than girls. In Delhi, a staggering 65.6 percent of boys reported having been sexually abused. Maulana Azad Medical College’s Deepti Pagare found over three-fourths of children in Delhi’s Child Observation Home reported being subjected to physical abuse. Fathers made up over half the reported perpetrators. Save the Children and Tulir, in a 2006 study in West Bengal, found almost three-quarter of child domestic workers had been physically abused. In their 2005 study on the trafficking of women, S. Sen and P. M. Nair estimated upto half a million girl children from across the region work as prostitutes in India.
Part of the reason for the silence in the Aradhana case is religion: Politicians and the criminal justice system are notoriously fearful of being seen as intruding into sacred space, witnessing barbaric practices like child marriage. There is also a more profound problem: The notion that children are the property of their families, with no independent rights.
Children across the world are subjected to horrific violence. In the United Kingdom, 5.9 per cent of under-11s and 18.6 per cent of 11-17s reported severe maltreatment, including contact sexual abuse. In the US, a staggering 6,76,569 victims of child abuse and neglect were reported in 2011 — more than nine out of every 1,000 children. Hideous as these figures are, they are still well below levels the government of India’s study suggests are prevalent in our country. Moreover, years of sustained efforts in the US have driven down child sexual abuse levels over 60 per cent from 1992.
Child abuse scars its victims for life. In 2009, Michael Meaney at McGill University found child abuse left markers on victims’ genes, which made them more likely to commit suicide as adults. In India, we’re barely even beginning to talk about the problem. Parliament, institutions, media and most importantly, our society haven’t found the time to discuss or implement high-minded national policies to protect child rights. The country’s criminal justice system simply doesn’t have the legal instruments or police infrastructure to deal with crimes against our children.
Few pre-industrial societies understood the value of treating children in a humane fashion: It wasn’t until 1842 that the United Kingdom legislated to stop kids under 10 working in coal mines. The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci documented the costs for Europe. Fascism, he argued, arose in a society: “Where mothers educate their infant children by hitting them on the head with clogs”. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us then, our child abuse statistics show, that we inhabit a society where lathis are the preferred mode of argument. The ways we educate our children shape the society we live in. In Indian society today, violence is not an aberration; it is the tie that binds us.