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School plays may be momentous events in the lives of young child performers — and their parents — but they are rarely the stuff of national news headlines. Yet as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ratchets up its crackdown on dissent, a student play at a Muslim-run private school is in the spotlight. It landed the headteacher, and one performer’s mother, in jail for sedition.
For five consecutive days, police have subjected the child players — many as young as eight and nine years old — to interrogation, seeking testimony to identify or incriminate adults who may have helped develop the offending production.
In a photo of the investigation — taken from the school’s CCTV cameras and shared with media, two young boys wearing their school uniforms sit hunched over, surrounded by four cops — three in uniform and one pointing a small handheld video camera at them. They are questioned about the show, and its preparation.
Police are said to have confiscated a slipper used as a stage prop as evidence; a nine-year-old girl (it is her widowed mother who has been jailed) has been left to the care of the landlords while the local court considers whether to grant bail.
The play at the centre of the probe was staged last month at Shaheen Urdu Primary School, which caters mainly to aspirational lower middle-class and working-class families in a small town in Karnataka, a state now governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP.
The topic was an issue that has already made waves across India: the BJP’s plan to compile a national register of citizens to separate genuine Indian citizens from illegal immigrants, who will face the threat of detention and deportation.
New Delhi’s recent creation of a fast-track to Indian citizenship for followers of all major South Asian religions — except Islam — from three nearby Muslim-majority countries has fanned fears among India’s own Muslims that their absence from this list shows that they are the group most likely to be excluded from the new citizens’ register.
In the school’s short skit — which was videoed and shared on social media — the children echo pervasive fears about a process likely to require all Indians to prove they descend from legal Indian citizens or be rendered stateless.
“Mother, Modi says show the documents of your forefathers or leave the country,” says a plaintive child. A young girl, playing the mother, responds: “Where do I get these papers from? It’s been a hundred years since my father in-law passed away. He is in his grave now. Do I dig up his grave for these papers?”
Then, defiance. “He was just a brat selling tea, grew up in front of us, and now he is asking for documents?” says a girl, referring to Mr Modi’s oft-touted origins as a humble tea-seller’s son. “Bring him to me. I’ll ask him where he was born, and where are his papers. If he doesn’t show them, I’ll hit him with my shoe.”
Members of the BJP, incensed by the children’s disrespect for the premier, have vigorously defended the police action, saying the adults responsible should face prosecution under India’s colonial-era sedition law for “poisoning” children’s minds.
“If it incites hatred, ill-will and disaffection against the government than it is sedition,” Vivek Reddy, a BJP spokesman, said in one heated television debate. “To say, ‘throw slippers against the ruler of the nation’ . . . is that criticism? . . . Merely because it is a play does not mean that you can say anything and everything.”
Critics counter that the police interrogation of young children over a school drama reflects an alarming erosion of India’s democratic freedoms. “It is fascism,” lawyer Nandita Rao insisted.
As for the children, psychiatrist Professor Vikram Patel of Harvard Medical School told me they are likely to be traumatised by a police interrogation aimed at implicating their parents and teachers — the most trusted adults in their lives — in a crime that carries a life sentence.
“It is Orwellian, but it is not just abstract Orwellian — it’s a very practical threat to the wellbeing of the children,” Prof Patel says. “Gandhi would hang his head in shame that we have descended into such madness.”
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