JUST before 1 pm, at the Panjrapol end of Mumbai’s Eastern Freeway, a handful of cars and motorbikes and their owners wait, stalled by about 80 to 100 protesters who have blocked the road for over an hour now as the voice rings out.
“Bh*****d, dagad uchhal na, kashala ghabartos?” shouts one voice. “Pick up the stone, what are you afraid of?”
The voice belongs to a boy who is barely 12 or 13 years old, apparently enjoying an afternoon out with three friends. Their target: two public transport buses, windscreens already smashed at an earlier protest site, emptied of passengers. The buses have been made to halt, drivers offloaded. The buses sustain some a little more damage, followed by kids and adults posing for photos at the site.
Several motorists as well as rail commuters were shocked on Wednesday to see children as young as 10 or 11 years of age participating in the protests as Dalit organisations called a state-wide bandh. At Panjrapol, girls barely in their teens joined women in stopping vehicles from passing, shouting slogans such as “Neem ka patta kadwa hai, Modi Sarkar b***** hai.”
At Panjrapol, as at many other locations where road traffic was blocked by protesters squatting on the road for hours, children also ran along bikes and cars trying to get past the blockade, forcing them to stop.
Aditya Mujumdar, a resident of Mulund, was on his way to his workplace in Ghatkopar when he came across children of school-going age in front of a mob pelting stones on parked cars and buses in Vikhroli. “After I left for work from Mulund, I had to leave my rickshaw mid-way at Gandhinagar as the junction was blocked. When I crossed over, I took another rickshaw that I had to alight from again; but this time due to a mob with sticks and stones coming straight in our direction. They were breaking windshields of any visible vehicles, mostly those parked on the side. The mob included a large number of young children,” he told The Indian Express.
On the Eastern Express Highway at Ghatkopar, among those seated on the road to block traffic were several young women and at least one 3-4-year-old girl. Some women protesters explained that with schools closed owing to the bandh, they simply had to bring their children along.
A railway commuter on Cental Railway’s harbour line that was stalled repeatedly owing to rail-rokos said he saw children join adults on the railway platform at Mankhurd station. “They were 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds. The cuss words they were using shocked me — they weren’t abusing us, only Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Fadnavis,” he said.
The issue of children participating in the Dalit protests, especially in stone-pelting incidents, has begun to draw attention after a video of a boy, barely four or five years old, walking on a street in Pune with a stone in either hand surfaced. He tells the cameraperson that he’s in Pune to get justice for attacks on “our community”.
In Mumbai, policemen said they had not expected children to turn up in such large numbers and confirmed that the stone-pelters who targeted cars and buses included children in some incidents. Deputy Commissioner of Police (Zone X) R N Reddy said, “On Wednesday, children protesters turned up in large numbers, but that happened across Mumbai and not just in my jurisdiction.”
“We have to understand that this is a poor community. They don’t have creches or day-care facilities — their children go with them to places of work that may be harsh environments such as construction sites,” said Keval Ukey, a child rights advocate.
“They then pick up adults’ mannerisms and simulate their speech and actions.” He said the right approach to tackle the issue would be a long-term route of surveying communities where children were vulnerable, finding their day-care and education needs and then designing schemes.