India’s disturbing trauma narrative

In the silence over violence being perpetrated against children, the country appears to have lost its moral compass

February 18, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:39 am IST

Among the most primal emotions which humans experience in their earliest years of life is fear.

Among the most primal emotions which humans experience in their earliest years of life is fear.

If the seizure of a pair of slippers of an 11-year-old as evidence in an investigation in a sedition case in Bidar, Karnataka, was not ludicrous enough, the imprisonment of a mother of a student in the same case for having contributed to the script of an apparently seditious primary school play, the arrest of the principal for allowing it to be performed in her school, and the interrogation of the children by uniformed police officers in the absence of any child welfare workers, would make a perfect script for an Orwellian nightmare.

Violation of rights

For those puzzled readers who may be wondering what the pair of slippers might have to do with this surreal theatre, it was the very object referred to in the play, according to media reports, when a child says “the boy who was selling tea till the other day is asking us for documents. I’ll ask him where he was born and where his papers are. If he does not provide them, I will beat him with my slippers”. Even if some patriots might argue that a child’s slippers could indeed be used to wage war on our great nation and the remand report for the two women “found grounds for suspicion that the two influenced the children”, the students themselves insisted, even after repeated interrogation, that they wrote the play themselves.

On the other hand, one child told HuffPost India, “We were scared. The policemen raised their voice every time they questioned us.” Not surprisingly, many students have stopped going to school since then.

I imagine most people would think that this story must be fake news not only because it is so utterly absurd but also because our police who cannot find a moment to stop the lawless mayhem on our roads which have made India one of the world’s largest traffic-death countries must surely be doing more important things. But the soul-crushing truth is that these events did happen. Leaving aside the numbing irony that a law designed by the British to suppress the freedom of speech of our avowedly non-violent independence activists should now be used by the police to suppress the freedom of expression of schoolchildren, my anguish is because of the terror that these children must have experienced as a result of this ordeal.

Not only did the arrest of the mother, a single parent, leave the child in the care of a neighbour but the arrest of the principal of their school left all the children without their trusted headmistress. Simultaneously, the police, threatening as they must have seemed to the children in their full regalia and having carted away the mother and principal to jail, were trying to get them to squeal incriminating evidence which could be used against these very trusted adults.

On ‘toxic stress’

These traumatic experiences are not only a violation of the fundamental rights of the child but are severely damaging to their mental health. As the media reported, one child said when her mother was finally released, “I felt lonely and sad because all I have is my mother. I have never lived without her for a single day. So I was terrified.”

The most damaging kind of trauma is that which results in “toxic stress”, a term used to describe a child’s experience of persistent adversity or abuse. Persistence, with no hope of escaping the threatening situation, is the hallmark of toxic stress. Perhaps the most vicious example is unfolding in Kashmir where, after two decades of living in a context suffused with the fear of violence from one side or the other, children have been subjected to six months of a lockdown, losing their fundamental rights of freedom to learn, play and be carefree. Worse, they must witness, silently, the mounting rage and helplessness that dominates the emotional landscape of their parents and their community, compounding their own feelings of insecurity, hopelessness and alienation. There are now many reports of the mental health crisis engulfing young people in the Valley.

The events in Kashmir and Karnataka are not an aberration. Consider the harrowing accounts of the experiences of children in a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where young girls were kept locked up for most of the day and where they were raped, after being sedated, at night. Investigators observed many signs of mental health problems, for example remarking on how “strangely they behaved”, laughing and crying in rapid sequence, remaining silent for long periods, and appearing to be severely depressed. Many girls had self-inflicted injuries, a behaviour associated with trauma in children. Conditions in other shelter homes were not much better, with appalling stories of cruelty and torture, and several instances of suicidal behaviour and mental breakdown.

Yet another example of unspeakable violence has unfolded in the past week with dozens of young women being insulted, paraded and forced to remove their innerwear to prove they were not on their period by their principal and school staff after a used personal hygiene product was found in a garden of their school, in Bhuj, Gujarat. “There are no words to describe the humiliation that we faced,” said one of the students, as the media reported. No doubt, the overall atmosphere in such a school must have been atrociously oppressive.

Breach of trust

Among the most primal emotions which humans experience in their earliest years of life is fear. Fear is key to survival for, in leading to behaviours such as crying, it prompts a trusted adult to respond with affection, food or, most importantly, safety. But there are times when the fear can have catastrophic consequences and this is when the threat is persistent and unpredictable and, especially when, it is perpetrated by an adult who the child has been taught to trust and rely on for their protection — such as the police or the school principal or the child welfare worker or the army. It is this breach of the bulwark of trust which is the most poisonous toxin for the mind, and it is this feature which binds all these forms of trauma together.

When the Donald Trump administration in the United States implemented its policy to reduce illegal immigration by separating children from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico, there were harrowing consequences on the mental health of the children. A report, published by the U.S. government’s own inspectors, confirmed that separation of children from their parents had caused grievous psychological harm and laid the foundations for lasting and profound mental health problems in later life. Virtually every major American professional society concerned with mental health, public health or children’s health condemned the government’s actions as an assault on children’s rights and well-being. While there has been a deathly silence from most professional groups in India in response to the gratuitous levels of violence being perpetrated against our children by the state, a few courageous institutions stand out for doing their job. In the past week, a panel of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights concluded that “it is clear that the police violated the rights of the children at the [Bidar] school”.

Let me emphasise that my concerns about traumatising children have nothing to do with taking sides with a particular brand of politics or ideology, but simply about upholding the foundations of science, the law, ethics and, ultimately, our humanity. I have little doubt that the children of Shaheen Urdu Medium Primary School, the Muzaffarpur shelter home, the Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute and all over Kashmir, cry to see their beloved country descend into such madness that it has lost its moral compass. To be sure, I weep with them too.

Vikram Patel is the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School

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