By Uma Sudhir
Nothing is quite as heartbreaking as hearing a child cry. And with Nartana, all of us cried. Here was this 6-year-old child from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, with knife-cut and burn injuries all over her body, injuries inflicted with a hot iron knife, by a cruel, sick person, possibly her own mother.
What’s more, the child’s cry had not been allowed to be heard outside the confines of the walls, the child called a home. And how. By muffling her voice by stuffing cloth in her mouth and raising the volume of the television in the room, so that when her tormentors indulged in the worst, inhuman acts of torture, the world outside would know nothing of it.
Sometimes you need to thank a power-cut. That’s how, I am told, the TV was off and a neighbour heard the child’s screaming, helpless voice. And Nartana got rescued. A small girl, in many ways still a baby (the baby fat quite visible), bruised all over, the soles of baby feet cut exposing raw flesh, infected and raw, the branding marks left by a hot iron, black marks around her eyes, patterns left on her back from flogging, the scalp looking bald in patches. Don’t know if it is from forcible pulling of hair or an infection.
Nartana unfortunately, became a spectacle before the world. It is easy to blame the local media crews and cameras whose prying eyes tried to capture her pain to show the world, asking her questions for which she hardly had any answers, even as the innocent child looked on, dazed, fear clearly written all over her face.
I personally couldn’t disagree when some critics called the endless discussion and analysis and comments from all and sundry on the subject, on some Telugu news channels, a media circus, trying to milk the tragedy for what it is worth. The girl was practically on auction, with public pronouncements being made to tell the world how much their heart beat for the child.
But then it is also true, as Arundhati Roy put it, that even Gandhian satyagraha doesn’t work without an audience. So also the role of the media. And here there is a larger purpose served from the `sensational’ story. The child would hopefully get some help, some attention. It would rake up a debate and review of the places presumed to be safe for a child, like her school and her home. Make us rethink about concluding that a mother is always the best natural guardian for a child. May be we would seriously start putting in place mechanisms to monitor and ensure that children have a safe childhood.
After all, both the accused in this case were teachers. The mother, a primary school science teacher in a government school. And her friend ran a private school for small children. If they could allegedly torture Nartana to such an extent with no sense of guilt or wrongdoing and hide it from the world so skilfully, could they have been good teachers, in whose custody one can trust children to be safe? Most unlikely.
A senior police officer shared his anguish that the media hype was in violation of the law and also child rights. That as per section 21 of Juvenile Justice Act, a child in need of care and protection should not be exposed in the media. That the offence is cognizable and those guilty may be asked to pay upto 25000 rupees in fine. “I know your channel masked the face and injuries of the child but then…”
The police officers dealing with the case may have been aware of the legal provisions to protect the child but who will tame the media bull. Not so easy. Experience has also taught us that most times, once the media moves on, so will the concern for the child’s welfare.
Having said that, violation of the child’s rights by the socalled saviours, in the media, law and order machinery, women and child welfare department and even social activists, remains a big concern that needs to be addressed. Doing something good cannot be an excuse for doing something wrong as well.
As I write this, my own 7-year-old, up from bed, comes rushing into my arms, confident of the love and security she will get there. Doesn’t every innocent little child deserve this? I am hoping some day soon, Nartana will get this loving embrace, even if not from the mother who brought her into the world.
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