Last month, in an issue of the Outlook magazine (8th August), Neha Dixit’s investigative piece “Operation Babylift” was published. The lengthy article very clearly elaborates the ordeal of 31 young girls from different tribal communities of Assam, who were sent to different states supposedly for higher education. The parents of these children are kept in the dark about their present whereabouts. Based on the three-month long investigation, the article presents some explosive information which needs a close scrutiny and discussion.
In the three months of investigation, the Outlook magazine went through government documents and brought to the forefront how organisations like Sewa Bharati, Vidya Bharati and others have trafficked 31 girl children of tribal origin to some schools in Punjab and Gujarat. Different officials associated with child welfare have time and again intimidated these groups to send the girls back to Assam. But these organisations have conveniently bypassed these directions and violated a number of laws related to child welfare.
A Supreme Court judgement in 2010 looking into a case in which 76 students from Assam were found in a Convent in Tamil Nadu stated that no children from Assam and Manipur below the age of 12 should be taken to other state for higher education. But, in violation of this ruling, children as young as four and six years old have been sent outside for studies. Neha Dixit met the parents of these children who were taken by Sewa Bharati and other organisations to other states. Almost every family recounted that they did send their children outside for better opportunity of education but they are unable to contact their children or know their whereabouts.
Child Welfare Committees (CWC) formed under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000 are entrusted the responsibility of child welfare. These committees are responsible for taking various decisions related to the welfare of children. They are also given the responsibility to ensure that children taken to other states are united with their parents. However, even after many reminders from respective CWCs to send the children back to Assam, Sewa Bharati and related organisations ignored these directions. These organisations did not bother to present the children in front of these CWCs. They also conveniently bypassed acquiring No Objection Certificates from the parents before taking away the girls. Only when the Chairperson of Kokrajhar CWC, Malaya Deka asked the Saraswati Shishu Mandir of Halvad in Gujarat to send the girls back, these organisations submitted some fake affidavits collected a month after the children were taken away. All the affidavits were identical and written and signed in English. However some of the parents that Neha met were not even literate. Also the affidavits are to be collected before and not after taking the girls outside the state.
If one closely studies the activities of Sewa Bharati, one will observe that they start their work through welfare and developmental activities amongst riot victims. In areas where the government leaves a gap in providing welfare services, these organisations step in and develop a relationship with the victims. It is only after building bridges through welfare activities that swayamsevikas start preaching about religion. They start propagating that the Bodos, tribals and adivasis are originally Hindus. While spreading such views, they conveniently overlook the fact that most tribal communities don’t have an organized religion and institutionalized formal religious rituals. Rather most of them pray to various elements of nature. And these communities which have had for centuries a close integral relationship with nature, invoke that affinity through their loosely held religious rituals.
However, organisations working in tandem with RSS propagate that these aboriginal tribes are originally Hindus and under the impact of other foreign religions, they have forgotten their roots. The version of Hinduism practiced in Northern India is promoted as the right way to practice Hinduism. Such an attitude also overlooks the fact that Hinduism have time and again absorbed local beliefs and cultural practices and taken multiple forms. In the name of teaching them about their original religion, these swayamsevikas tell them how Muslims and Christians are a threat to their religion and identity and the best way to insulate their children from these threats is to send them away.
Riot victims, who have lost everything in ethnic clashes, are vulnerable to such talks that incite a fear of loss of one’s identity. As such, these people start believing that their children may forget their own religion and culture and adopt some other religion. Many a times such people send their children to far off places just to ensure that this does not happen.
However in the name of education and safeguarding identity, these children are again removed far away from their own culture and language. Children taken to Gujarat and Punjab learn to speak in Sanskrit while forget their own mother tongue. They give up their food habits as well. Studying about the great heroes from various Indian traditions, they rarely learn about the great tribal leaders of their own community. In the name of saving tribal children from the influence of Islam and Christianity, non-governmental organisations like Sewa Bharati impose another form of puritan but alien religion on these children. Bodos who grew up in a conflict ridden society and had survived Bodo-Muslim, Bodo- Adivasi clashes are very sensitive towards their identity. Frequently displaced and forced to live in relief camps, these people are at times unable to decide right from wrong. And an unknown fear forces them at times to take wrong decisions.
Tracing the whereabouts of these 31 young Assamese girls, Neha Dixit reached Gujarat’s Halvad. The Saraswati Shishu Mandir of Halvad claimed to have adopted twenty orphan girls from Assam.
Interestingly, these girls were not orphans. While interacting with the girls, Neha Dixit noticed that they can speak comfortably only in Gujarati. When asked what they are taught in school, a young girl quickly responded – how to save their honour from Bangladeshis and Missions!
A similar atmosphere was prevalent in Punjab’s Patiala where the remaining 11 girls from Assam were kept. On reaching there, the journalist found out that the hostel where the girls were kept was not even registered under the Juvenile Justice Act. Neha was not allowed to meet these girls.
International organisations working on child welfare emphasizes the need to improve the social condition of a child’s life. But this improvement is to be done in their natural habitat, not by uprooting them from their known surroundings.
This article should have made any sane person worried about the future of the 31 girls who have been taken out of the state. However there was no immediate step initiated by the state administration to bring back these children. Rather, the journalist who reported on this dangerous development got hounded from various factions. Cases have been filed against her. But in this chaos nobody bothered to stop and wonder about the plight of the parents denied information of their own children.
The uniqueness of Assam and the region of the Northeast lies in its diverse culture where different communities have lived side by side for ages. It is this diversity that makes our state beautiful and enriches us culturally. Imposition of a hegemonic culture on this diversity is unacceptable and should be opposed.
The kind of accusations Neha Dixit’s piece has made should be looked into. A proper investigation must be carried out on the activities of the concerned organisations. It is the duty of the government to ensure that the children of tribal communities, the children of riot afflicted displaced families and the children of poor families are not cheated in the name of education. It is to be ensured that they are not denied a healthy, enriching childhood while learning about their own culture and tradition.