Monday, October 19, 2015

Children at the West Bengal Border: A State of Justice between Bangladesh and India

Chandni Basu

Chandni Basu is a doctoral researcher at Institute for Sociology, Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany. Her current research problematises notions and practices of child protection as operative within the purview of the juvenile justice system in India. In this, constructions of childhood/deviance within the institutional space is revoked to provide a post-colonial critique of a pervasive global childhoods project. She can be reached at

Instances of apprehension of children from Bangladesh within the juvenile justice system in India provide yet another scope to look into the border dynamics between Bangladesh and India. The significance of the international border in terms of close socio-historical, cultural connections in the region along with the nature of a border formation brings forth issues of identity, in terms of home-homeland and belonging. The presence of children at the border amplifies these aspects as it ushers notions of juvenile justice and child protection within the domain of border dynamics. This article highlights an interrogation of these notions. It is based on ‘field visits’, to various juvenile justice boards, child welfare committees and state institutional homes for apprehended children in West Bengal, India. These were carried on in-between 2011-12.

My interactions with NGO personnel and officials within the juvenile justice system brought forth the reality of apprehended children from Bangladesh, who constitutes the largest section of children-in-conflict with law at state institutional homes in West Bengal. This scenario urges one to pose the following interrogations: - How does the dynamic of an international border, between Bangladesh and India, in terms of inter-state relations and close socio-historical and cultural ties impact the presence of apprehended children from Bangladesh at the state institutional homes in West Bengal? And how does their presence bear upon ideas of home-homeland and belonging in conjunction with the operationalisation of juvenile justice and child protection within the Indian juvenile justice system?

The status of children from Bangladesh within the Indian juvenile justice system is marked mostly on the basis of a gendered segregation. This results in girls being termed as victims of human trafficking while boys are apprehended and taken as children-in-conflict with law under the Indian Foreigner’s Act, 1946. In the state narrative of borders, they are therefore deemed to be undesirable outsiders of illegal immigration. The economy and ethos of their presence within the state institutional homes however subverts such connotation, almost in contradiction to the dominant state narrative of borders. Their identity as outsiders is deemed to be less significant within the institutional space. They are taken to be harmless and trustworthy and their actions of border crossing as minor acts of apprehension, especially in comparison to more serious crimes like rape and murder by their local counterparts within the institutional perils. This entails a character of liminality to the presence of children from Bangladesh within the state institutional homes in West Bengal, in resonance to the liminality of borders.

What however sets the children from Bangladesh apart from their local counterparts is the encompassing presence or absence of ‘home’. The visitor’s day at the institutional space, in this regard brings forth daunting reminder to the children from Bangladesh about the absence of their homes. Absent visitors for the children from Bangladesh carries along with it the message of their homelessness. Usual comforts of home cooked food and other goodies are therefore denied to them. The rhetorical meaning of the visitor’s day becomes noteworthy. Earlier connotations as trustworthy ‘insiders’ is over ridden on this day, confirming the identity of the children from Bangladesh as ‘outsiders’ after all. Successful repatriation efforts by state machineries are posed as the moment of hope for them to return home one day. As most of them continue to stay for long periods within institutional boundaries what remain evasive are their sentiments and emotions of home-homeland and belonging. State repatriation drives along with agendas of juvenile justice and child protection fail to recognise and accommodate these emotions. Obsessive efforts to find out the correct address from children only confirm the compulsory territorial identification of people as citizens and non-citizens thus deeming the validity of their presence or absence. The identity of citizenship as the basis of modern state structures, in this regard necessitates one’s belonging to the criteria of home-homeland. The historical genealogy of the international border between Bangladesh and India remains momentary here as it introduces the problematic of identity. The significance of borders as spatial-temporal zone emerges to be significant in its capacity to shape and reshape identities. It lingers in the lives of the children from Bangladesh as they leave desh’ in search of bidesh’. [i] The idea of home-homeland and belonging in conjunction with the formal category of citizenship comes forth here.

Practices and nature of juvenile justice and child protection within the Indian juvenile justice system however remain a far cry to address the persistent presence of children from Bangladesh within institutional spaces. In this the legal mechanism itself is rendered to be a liminal zone, as the border space, where ideas of home-homeland and belonging are perpetually held in suspension for the children from Bangladesh. Their apprehension however induces a temporal dimension to the notion of belonging in terms of the formal criteria of citizenship. It foregrounds the othering of all children as ‘yet to be’ in an adult world. Identities of citizenship and nationality for all children hence extend the zone of possibilities as epitomised in the formulation of children as future citizens. The membership of a particular political community and the possibility for democratic participation, or at least some kind of self-determination for the migrant remain essential questions to be determined for children as a population group at large (Parker and Brasett, 2005: 240). This puts forth the situation of indecision that encompass issues of migration. The problematic, as introduced in this article, is enhanced by migrant children. It provides an opportunity where the temporal and spatial aspects of childhood interact with migration at the international border. As the legal mechanism grapples with the situation, the paraphernalia of the Indian juvenile justice system makes evident the redundancy of its scope as it attempts to achieve juvenile justice and child protection in the best interest of children. What remains beyond official initiatives are the quest and negotiations for home-homeland and belonging by the children from Bangladesh, through their everyday presence in India whether inside or outside institutional perils.

Even as most children from Bangladesh continue to wait for long years to be successfully ‘returned’, their presences itself within or outside institutional spaces in India establishes moments of insurrection. It represents their stories of experiences of justices and injustices in terms of border crossings. This reinforces the idea of borders beyond state narratives of undesirable outsiders.

A recent comment by one of the juvenile justice board member in West Bengal points to regulatory revisions like the advisory issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India dated 01.05.2012 on restrictions regarding apprehension of ‘foreign’ children or the Operational Guidelines for the West Bengal Task Force (2013) on apprehension of children only in cases of possession of fake currency or arms. She specifies that since then, no child from Bangladesh has been presented at the board for apprehension. What she misses is the dynamics of child protection, which now lurk upon all children from Bangladesh within Indian institutional spaces to be deemed as ‘victims’ of human trafficking. The matter remains far from resolution!

This is an excerpt from a chapter published in ‘Changing India: yesterday, today and tomorrow’, Winshield, New Delhi, 2015. ISBN 819307030-5.

[i] The etymological significance and connotation of desh (homeland) and bidesh (foreign land) remain pivotal here in terms of its spatial connotation.

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