India’s child-lifters - the imagined and the real

Spate of lynchings demonstrate the myth of the ‘fast-developing’ economy fuelled by salivating consumers at the cost of its peoples’ pervasive hatred & inability to maintain a humane society

Stories of lynchings in India of those believed to consume beef have been overtaken by the even more horrific tales of mob-violence against ‘child-lifters’ over the past few weeks. These incidents have resulted in the death of at least 22 people, believed to have been involved in the abduction of children. This scourge, affecting 10 states so far, has in general, been aimed at strangers, particularly those described as ‘mentally challenged’. Victims have been outsiders, migrant workers, members of ‘denotified tribes,’ musicians and nomadic peoples. Rumours, spread by social media, often with gruesome accompanying images, have swiftly produced crowds of people bent on vengeance against those believed to be child-traffickers or worse.

This ugly phenomenon illustrates some of the pathologies in a society which claims to be fast-developing (as it may be in terms of economic growth), but which is distinctly regressive in the development of education and of a humane and tolerant morality. The readiness with which hatred is instantly kindled, without evidence or substance, suggests unaddressed dissatisfactions and unhappiness that have escaped the official chroniclers of India’s growing economic importance in the world. An ancient practice – the generation of stories of malefactors and evil-doers among us – formerly dependent on word-of-mouth diffusion, has always posed a threat to potential victims, especially the mentally-ill, the non-conformist and the obviously different. But when such archaic and malevolent features are taken up by technologies that now penetrate every corner of the land, they are magnified a thousandfold.

Not for the first time, the spread of ‘liberating’ technology can be deployed in the service of cruelty, prejudice and violence, following the use of amniocentesis to detect the gender of unborn children and to further the abortion of girl children, the spread among adolescents of obscene imagery by mobile phone which serves as a version of education in sexual and emotional relationships, the diffusion of communal hatreds against the consumers of the flesh of sacred animals. The recent ‘outbreak’ – and the word accurately suggests an epidemic, the spread of an uncontainable and infections disease – of murder of those allegedly engaging in the abduction of children, is only a further instance of the uncounted and catastrophic economic ‘costs’ of a development almost universally perceived as benign.

A political project of hate
This scary scenario in itself is only a further effect of the work of those for whom generating hate and loathing is a political project; since these things, once set free in the world, take on a life of their own, and have consequences which even their virtuous begetters will one day have to repudiate. Of all human emotions, hatred is perhaps the least biddable, for it can as easily turn on those who promote it as upon those against whom it is unleashed.

It is observable in human societies that whenever majorities choose to see themselves as persecuted, this is generally the precursor to some monstrous act of injustice against the weak and the vulnerable, as evidence, from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1990s and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar, in our time attests.

It is estimated there are more than 12 million child workers in India between the ages of five and 14: no one thinks of calling child-stealers the exploiters of children in glass-making, brass- and lock-making, cotton-growing, embroidery, rag-picking, bidi-rolling, carpet-making, garments, stone-quarrying, in agriculture or in the private servitude of domestic labour

If this marked the limit of the recent spate of attacks on child-lifters in India, it would be shame enough upon a society, which has so far proved itself incapable of staunching this particular form of hatred, which is only one aspect of more generalised and systematic raising of tensions and antipathies in the contemporary experience.

For more substantial child-lifters do indeed exist. They are widespread in economic sectors which appropriate raw juvenile labour: It is estimated there are more than 12 million child workers in India between the ages of five and 14: no one thinks of calling child-stealers the exploiters of children in glass-making, brass- and lock-making, cotton-growing, embroidery, rag-picking, bidi-rolling, carpet-making, garments, stone-quarrying, in agriculture or in the private servitude of domestic labour.

Child-stealer in the shadows
But even while exposing innocent strangers or hapless passers-by to the mob, there is an even more dangerous class of real child-stealers whose malevolent designs are screened by the dramatic events of recent weeks. The real Pied Pipers who lure children away are rarely to be found in the dusty wastes of Jharkhand or the somnolent streets of towns in Assam or Karnataka. They do not prey on children in shadowy corners or dark places. On the contrary. They are welcomed into almost every home in the country, invited into the sanctuary of the family, where they perform their work of alienation more effectively.

For these are the seductive voices of commerce, whose wheedling and insistent voices croon their psalms to children from early infancy, easily bypassing the ancient lullabies and nursery-rhymes of parents. These are the promoters, not only of sweet tocsins and sugary poisons, nutrition-free foods that bring obesity and mental lethargy; which also feed the most extravagant self-centredness, an omnipotence that is no longer infantile but is also carried forward into an arrogant and selfish adulthood.

Vast profits are to be made out of lifting children, taking them away into a world of super-heroes, inter-galactic wars, a cartoon–generated world of fantasy, which is an industrialised caricature of the priceless gift of human imagination: promises of effortless achievement, physical perfection and supreme happiness will later clash with the reality of human limitations, a cruel and inflexible examination system, a reality in which all the prizes, rewards and free gifts lavished upon their childhood melt away before unemployment, addiction and all the social evils that remain even in the presence of the goods that have been tirelessly promoted to the one-third of India’s population under the age of 15. And no one will be held to account for the profoundly distorted version of life to which they have been exposed from their violated cradles.

Nothing stands still. Old patterns of inequality and injustice are not eliminated by ‘modernity’, economic growth and great developmental projects; these mutate under the relentless pressure of perpetual change; a change which turns out to be, in the end, only superficial, a change of image, which decks out in the colours of springtime ancient forms of prejudice and violence against women, religious minorities, Adivasis and Dalits; while those who have been advantaged by ‘development’ have already fled to enjoy their wealth in tax havens or in the real estate of the blessed lands of freedom which care little for the human sacrifice that has occurred in the making of their fortunes; while ‘at home’, in the small towns, unvisited villages and trackless city slums, the abandoned and left-behind turn upon each other with increasing ferocity in a world as bereft of humanity as it is of the necessities for decent human survival.

(Jeremy Seabrook is a London-based author and columnist. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)
(Photo: Indian Express/Prashant Nadkar)

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