About 10 years ago, I was employed as a gopher with an international agency that worked for children and their rights. They had a very nice library, which almost no one ever visited, and an extremely cooperative librarian, who had a love for reading. Among the mass of documents, we found all the Eighth Five-Year Plan documents, the rolling plans of the 1960s, and even some background papers. An excited sharing of what seemed a treasure trove with an amused line manager led to many new deliverables being added to the gopher's work programme. Among the tasks handed out was a review of the expenditure profile on children since the first Plan period. The expected output was a statistical fact sheet meant for the media. After a year as a gopher it was understood to keep it simple, and I was not to intellectualize. That fact sheet took many weeks to complete, and, as with many similar such outputs, was utilized, forgotten by all those who read it and discarded. Unremarked went the exponential increase in allocations for child welfare from the first to the second Plan period.
In the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–60) document, India substantially increased allocations for child welfare. However, the increase was tailored to focus on juvenile delinquency. The rationale for the increase was provided in one sentence, ‘Juvenile delinquency has been growing in large cities, the most common offence being theft.’ The section on child welfare does not provide any explanation as to why there had been such an increase in crimes by young people within a decade of Independence that State intervention of the scale proposed had been approved. Following up on this and exploring further has led to this book.
(p.227) With the evidence available, in the early years of this decade, it seemed like a good idea to invest some time, explore further, and see where the quest would lead. A quick survey of the secondary material showed that it would be almost impossible to gather evidence only in India. Some time would have to be spent in the archives of the former imperial powers and possibly also in the neighbouring countries that also experienced loss and the euphoria of Independence in ways that were similar and yet entirely different from that of India. Some of that material had actually been collected by the late summer of 2002, and given location and job transitions, it then seemed possible to think of the search as a book project, with the real possibility of the book coming out by end of 2004. It is perhaps not a good idea to plan so much, for in one incident, much of the material collected over three long years was lost, including the opportunity to access materials. With that loss, the quest was all but abandoned.
Years later, the project was revived in a truncated form. The relationship of the child with the colonial State, the introduction of ideas such as natural evil, and the identification of some children as juvenile delinquents, had to be left out. Further, the redefinition of the relationship in the post-Partition years has been entirely based on Indian primary sources.
On the more recent, post-Emergency period, there is in reality very little information. Although the post-Partition years come alive through oral histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, and official documents, the post-Emergency period is still too recent to surface from memories to become anything more than stray rememberances passed orally from individual to individual. The difficulty and unwillingness of social activists to put pen to paper thankfully does not extend to sharing their memories. The generosity with which many individuals opened up has ensured that the child–State relationship of the 1980s and 1990s as it appears is a study in contrast to what the public conversation would suggest it to be. It also explains why children, their rights, and their childhood experience continue to be treated as a sub-sect of other disadvantaged groups such as women, Dalits, tribals, and minorities (linguistic, religious, and ethnic) in policy dialogue.
What those interviews also revealed, was how constrained the space for indigenous dialogue and debate on the political nature of the childhood experience in India had become. While the number of workshops, seminars, and meetings on a gamut of policy issues (p.228) is ever-increasing, the language of communications is international development-speak. This is now a world with its own language, grammar, and literature, where phrasing such as ‘children in especially difficult circumstances’ is used and understood across national, linguistic, and cultural borders. In such a world, where the definition of childhood is itself universally understood, how does one suggest that there are not one or two but, three overlapping narratives of the diverse childhoods experienced in India?
The original plan to collect, organize, and present the long, winding journey of the State's intervention in the experiencing of childhood, from the firman of Aurangzeb banning the practice of infanticide, to the differing legislative and judicial interpretations of the right to education, has been unfeasible. Information and insights of the childhood experience, fractured by the Partition of British India down the ages is rendered inaccessible by a combination of factors—the hard, visible boundaries of nation-states, power, location, and identity—and the malleable borders of knowledge, the debates and dilemmas of the everyday engagements.
Within these limitations, the collected, organized material available has been presented in a narrative form. Selection of the narrative form to present information and insights on a subject that is at once over-written about and under-analysed is a conscious decision. Within social science academic literature, the use of the narrative form as an approach has been criticized for presenting a singular view that privileges certain voices, and in so doing marginalizes other voices and ways of thinking about the same issue. Discourse analysis, which presents debates and dilemmas, and encourages one way of thinking about an issue or a theme, has been the dominant method of presenting information and insights that attempt to combine scholarship and activism. To deviate from this path and to consciously choose the narrative method is dictated by the material itself.
With limited social science literature on the topic of childhood, and especially of childhoods in India, there is inevitably a suggestive rather than definitive tonal quality to the analysis. Further, the narrative form allows the material to be made accessible to a more general reader with some interest in the relationship of the child with the State.
This project was conceived a decade ago, and there were many times when it seemed an exercise in futility. Martin Luther King so (p.229) aptly explains that only when it is dark enough that we can see the stars. Over the past decade, and particularly over the recent few years, I saw many, many stars, and some showed the way. Looking back, the journey has been a hair-whitening, bone-wrenching experience, but certainly well-worth it. I hope that you, the reader, who has traversed some parts of the journey will join me as a fellow traveller in search of other narratives of Indian childhoods.