Three people were arrested by the Assam police in Lakhimpur on Thursday in connection with the use of a minor girl in a Congress-led protest against rising fuel prices and non-fulfilment of promises by the BJP government on June 6. The 4-and-half-year old was allegedly made to sit on a dried sheath from a betel nut tree (dhokuwa in Assamese) and dragged around on the road along with the protestors in the harsh sun. The three apprehended include the child’s mother, local Congress member Jitumoni Das and local journalist Kumud Barua.
The Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) immediately notified the Lakhimpur police when they learnt of the incident. “We instructed the Police Administration to take immediate necessary action against the perpetrators as the action is a punishable offence u/s 75 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015,” says Dr. Sunita Changkakati, chairperson, ASCPCR.
A suo moto case was registered by the Lakhimpur Police the day after the incident. “The three are out on bail. We arrested the child’s mother, the boy who dragged the dhokuwa and the journalist who had disclosed the identity of the child in the media,” says Sudhakar Singh, Superintendent of Police, Lakhimpur.
The incident earned the ire of many child rights’ groups as well as student bodies across Assam. “Children who are exploited for unconscionable gains (such as this case) are victims. She was too young to even understand what was going on,” Miguel Das Queah, Child Rights Activist, Executive Director, UTSAH Child Rights Organisation. “If this was a Scandinavian country, the child would have been taken to the State’s Foster Care system.”
The child’s mother, when contacted by the Child Welfare Commission (CWC) of Lakhimpur, went on record to say that she “got the dhokuwa from home and was apparently meant to sit on it herself, but her daughter went and quickly sat on it instead.” The intention of sitting on the dhokuwa was symbolic. As stated by the mother, it was to say that the petrol prices have become so high that soon the dhokuwa will be the only affordable means of commute.
“But that is not right. The mother should have stopped her. Whether she was dragged for two metres or ten, it was still a hot day and an extremely incorrect step,” says Mallika Bora, chairperson, CWC, Lakhimpur.
The dhokuwa is often used by little kids in small town Assam as a plaything. “A child sits on it, the parents pull it. It is very popular here,” says Dr Joy Prakash Das, Lakhimpur district Congress president. According to him, the child reportedly came along with her mother to the protest because no one else was home. “We had no idea that she would be coming,” he says, “The BJP is trying to malign us by saying we are using underage children as a tool of protest. If that was the case, we would have definitely had more children present.”
While there are diverging views on how long the child was dragged around (many reports claim that she was dragged around the entire town), Das maintains that it was “not more than 4 metres” and “in no way deliberate.” “She did it out of jest,” he says, adding that he is ready to cooperate with the police on the matter.