Religion and family are two institutions India prides itself in and sometimes, to the point of being so dogmatic that it hurts, quite literally.
In our children, we see an opportunity pass on our legacy, be it religion, tradition or habits.
But what if making young children with impressionable minds part of our "culture" translates to cruelty, even physical pain? Is it okay to make or even let young children survive on nothing but boiled water for over two months in the name of religion? Or making kids as young as ten walk on burning coal in the garb of rituals?
A video from Villupuram, Tamil Nadu, shows the age old tradition of coal-walking for the festival of Muharram. After 12 days of fasting, men walk on burning coal. Men are seen carrying at least two children while performing the ritual and touching the child's feet on the burning embers.
Like 13-year-old Aradhana Samadaria's parents, it is possible that these parents also claim that they are not doing it out of any spite for their children but that their children insisted on being part of the ritual. It is also possible that the parents genuinely believe that the ritual may earn their child the god's blessings and something good may come out of it. It is also not clear if the children were injured in the process.
The problem here, as Mohanlal Manalil, who organises the show 'Science Miracles' (an annual show which busts myths propagated by god men claiming to perform 'miracles'), is that scientific temper still remains a phrase in the constitution, while people continued to be swayed by superstitions. "People today, lack the ability to think, and fall prey to false practices based on superstition sugar-quoted as religious rituals," he had told TNM.
Child rights activist Achyuta Rao says that no religion is more important than a child's safety and well-being. "Those putting children through endangering rituals should be punished because it infringes on the child's right (to safety)," he argues.
He also suggests that ideally, religious beliefs and traditions should not be imposed on children till they are at least 18 years of age, where it should be up to them to decide what religion, if any, they want to follow. Impractical as it may be, he says things are not helped by politicians who treat religion as a tool for mobilization, shying away from calling out cruel and harmful rituals for the fear of losing votes.
Maya Goitonde, a child rights activist says that while many religious practices may be harmful, it is important to have a nuanced approach while dealing with these issues. "If any act causes hurt or harm to the child, it must be curtailed," she insists. But one must exercise caution in painting things in black and white.
With reference to Aradhana's case, Maya says that fasting, in small controlled doses, is not necessarily harmful or wrong. However, the point where it started causing bodily harm to the girl, it should have been curtailed. "It is important to frame the argument (against cruel religious practices) in the context of child rights and not with the intent of vilifying the religion as a whole," she says.
Achyuta says that the government has an important role to play here, which is only possible if it rises over vote bank politics. "We need to educate the people who are involved in these practices. It is the duty of the government which they need to take seriously to protect children," he says.