A young boy dressed in kaavi, his face smeared with ash and cheeks pierced with a long metal rod (considered a weapon of Lord Muruga) stares straight into the camera. The picture raises many questions about child rights and religious rites, and how far authorities can go to intervene in such practices. A debate that has gained importance after videos of young girls being paraded topless with garlands and jewellery adorning their necks as a part of a yearly practice in the Yezhaikatha Amman temple was released.
On Tuesday, the National Human Rights Commission pulled up the Tamil Nadu police for allowing the cheek-piercing of about 20 children at Chennai in October last year. Two meter steel rods were inserted into their cheeks as part of a ritual for speedy recovery of the then ailing Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa. The children were then made to walk from a Murugan temple in RK Nagar to the Senaiamman temple in Tondiarpet by AIADMK supporters.
Following a complaint, the NHRC studied the incident and observed, "It is apparent that the children were very small and innocent and their cheeks were forcibly pierced. A photograph reveals that the children were made to wear a cap with a photograph of Jayalalithaa on it and with the slogan 'Long Live Amma' written on it. One girl is seen being caught by some persons for the purpose of piercing her cheeks. The incident makes it a clear case of violation of human rights of children."
The Commission has now asked the Additional Commissioner of Police in North Chennai to register a case under sections 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons) /341 (Punishment for wrongful restraint.) /34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention)/120B (Punishment of criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and 23 of Juvenile Justice Act (punishment for cruelty to juvenile or child) against those who forced the children to pierce their cheeks.
In addition to this, the Commissioner has also been asked to inform within four weeks about the disciplinary action taken against the erring police officials, who were, admittedly, present at the site and did nothing to stop the criminal act.
The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) has hailed this move and said that it will provide a precedent in Child Rights that has been sorely missed. "It is very difficult for us to intervene when it comes to rituals because people will argue that it is their right to practice their religion," says Sheila Charles Manohar, a member of CWC in Chennai. "But if action is taken in this case, we can actually have a fighting chance," she adds.
The committee member recalls how in 2012, just when she had joined, they received information that children were being made to pierce their cheeks and walk on a bed of hot coals at a temple in Royyapuram. She immediately left for the site with the police. "But we just could not do anything. First the parents were willingly allowing this and second, even men in uniform are uncertain about how to handle matters pertaining to religious sensitivities," she adds.
"But even sacrificing children is a religious ritual," she argues. "Can you claim that it is a cultural practice and let it go?" she asks.
The NHRC meanwhile, suggests that organisations on the ground that see such crimes at the grass root level, take it to court. "It is clearly a criminal offence and you need to take action on people who force children to do this as per the law," says Jaimini Kumar Srivastava, NHRC's deputy director of Media and communication. "The NHRC has made its position on such practices very clear," he adds.
The decision to take stringent action against such offenders, comes at a time when Tamil Nadu is debating a practice that has been observed for decades at Vellalur in Madurai district.
The video released by Covai Post on Sunday involving minors being paraded topless and being â€śofferedâ€ť to Yezhaikatha Amman temple for a fortnight created quite a furore. The practice involves seven girls, between the ages of six to ten, being handpicked by the priest. They are then brought to the temple in the above fashion and then made to work there under the supervision of the priest.
Following the publication of the story, the media organisation has been receiving multiple threats.
â€śThe first message I received on WhatsApp was a screenshot of my office address, my name and my number. After that I got a couple of messages saying that now I would have to face a lot,â€ť says Editor-in-Chief Vidyashree. â€śThese people are very smart. They use the internet to make calls and send these messages so that their numbers cannot be traced,â€ť she adds.
The abuse that follows for questioning such practices are common.
"Even members of the Child Welfare committee are subjected to such methods of intimidation when we intervene in religious matters," says Sheila. â€śIn fact they will threaten to call the minister or the police commissioner to show us their connections," she adds.
In this case, the Madurai collector K Veera Raghava Rao too had to tread with caution. Parents of the children made it clear that their wards did not require rescuing and that everything was under control.
"We cannot lay down rules here, as it would be akin to interfering in their religious matters," the Collector told TNM. "However, we are closely watching the ritual. There have been no complaints of sexual abuse and we will ensure that there is no space for any in the future as well. If there is a violation, law will take its course," he said.
The NHRC in its press release on the Chennai case had observed that it failed to understand how the consent of parents, or that of the children for the ritual, can justify the criminal act of piercing childrenâ€™s cheeks with steel rods.
"With regard to any form of assault, ideally, the parents' consent to the matter should not hold ground," says Akhila, a High court lawyer. "But when it comes to children, even state authorities and the court is hesitant to take action against legal guardians," she adds.
Several of these religious practices and beliefs in fact even put the child's life in danger. Bizarre and dangerous rituals include throwing babies from a height in Maharashtra and Karnataka or making them walk on a bed of hot coal.
The idea that parents have the best interest of their children at heart is entrenched in the society, explains the lawyer.
"That is why even child sexual abuse has only recently gained so much prominence. Where do you draw the line in such matters? Can a child's ear also not be pierced?" she asks. "The best we can do here is to consider the matter on a case by case basis and understand that a child is not the property of the parent but a responsibility. The fact that we are even looking at such matters from a legal perspective is a step ahead," she explains.