BIDAR, Karnataka — In the first week of February this year, a posse of policemen arrived at the modest home of Mohammed Barkat Ali and seized his 11-year-old daughter’s slippers.
These were no ordinary slippers, Ali learnt. These were seditious slippers—vital evidence in a high-profile Karnataka police investigation to determine if a school skit on India’s controversial new citizenship law, scripted and performed by a group of nine to 11-year-olds, counted as sedition.
The police’s actions would be laughable if the only arrests were of children’s footwear. Instead, the investigation has already resulted in the arrests of Fareeda Begum, the 52-year-old headteacher of Shaheen School in Bidar, and Najbunnisa, a 26-year-old single mother whose daughter acted in the play. The two women were arrested a fortnight ago, on January 30, and are yet to get bail.
The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 offers amnesty to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has frequently called for a National Register of Citizens to disenfranchise those who cannot produce enough documents to prove that they are Indian.
At Shaheen School, the children were asked to write and perform a play as a means to understand the implications of the new law. The Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) process of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) urges teachers to think of creative new ways for students to engage with their curriculum.
Nilesh Rakshal, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spotted a Facebook video of the play on his feed and was outraged by a moment where Najbunnisa’s daughter waved Barkat Ali’s daughter’s slippers in the air and said, “The boy who was selling tea till the other day is asking us for documents. I’ll ask him where he was born and where his papers are. If he does not provide them, I will beat him with my slippers”.
The reference to tea was seen as a veiled dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claims he once sold tea at a railway station.
Rakshal filed a police complaint on January 26, India’s 71st Republic day. The police in Karnataka, a state ruled by Modi’s BJP, swung into action and promptly arrested Fareeda Begum and Najbunnisa, and seized the offending pair of slippers. The two women, claims Superintendent of Police Bidar D.N. Nagesh, have been arrested for helping the children write the play. The remand report for the two women, reviewed by HuffPost India, claims that the police “found grounds for suspicion that the two (headteacher and the mother) influenced the children.”
The students of Shaheen School, however, insist that they wrote the play themselves — a claim they have stuck to, even when repeatedly interrogated by the Karnataka police.
“We were scared. The policemen raised their voice every time they questioned us,” one of the children who participated in the play told HuffPost India. “We got the content online and from newspapers. We rehearsed during recess hours and after school.”
At its surface, the sedition case in Bidar is the latest instance of India’s authoritarian turn under Modi and the BJP. Dig a little deeper and two interesting themes emerge: A police force so subservient to its political masters that it is willing to interrogate 11-year-old children and arrest teachers and parents, and a generation of inquisitive young Indians who are becoming increasingly aware of their rights.
A cat, mouse and dog game
The Shaheen School play on the Citizenship Amendment Act is short, succinct and darkly humourous.
“My papers are already with the government,” says a character in one memorable scene, when he’s asked how he will find all the documents necessary to prove his citizenship. “My papers were eaten by a mouse, the mouse was eaten by a cat, the cat was eaten by a dog, and the dog was picked up by the municipal corporation. So my papers have been submitted.”
The conversation ends with the character saying, “I am completely unworried. And you should be too.”
In their interrogation, the children said, the police refused to believe that they had written the play themselves. The child playwrights said they drew their material from hours spent online.
The dialogue that so incensed Rakshal the BJP worker, for instance, was drawn from a viral video clip of a elderly woman who uttered these very same lines when she was asked what she would do if the Modi government implemented the National Register of Citizens.
The play ends with a young boy reciting Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge, a protest poem by Bollywood lyricist Varun Grover that has become the de facto anthem of the thousands of anti-CAA protests around the country.
The children interviewed by HuffPost India said they weren’t really looking for the poem, but chanced upon it in YouTube’s trending videos section.
“Parents of several of our students are illiterate or barely educated. The students depend on online sources of information. Thanks to the web, they often explain subjects which are difficult even to the grasp of adults,” said Zohra Fathima, a teacher at the school.
Najbunnisa, the single mother currently in jail, is a domestic worker who dropped out of school in her teens.
“The police’s claim that the students were tutored by adults is baseless,” said Asma Tarannum, another teacher of the school. “Adolescents know a lot these days.”
Yet the police questioned at least 60 children at Shaheen school, stopping only after the Karnataka State Commission for Child Rights intervened on February 6.
No grounds for sedition
The management of Shaheen school has struggled to comprehend how a school assignment could have spiralled into a crime against the nation.
“Even though Shaheen is a minority run school, over fifty percent of our students are non-Muslim. We maintain good relationships with all religious groups in the area. Different political parties take our infrastructural support for events,” said Thouseef Madikeri, the CEO of the school, adding that no political party had raised any objection to the school events in the past.
A month prior to the sedition row, the BJP’s student affiliate — the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — had borrowed a bus belonging to Shaheen group of institutions for a rally supporting the CAA.
“Even after coming to know that they had used the bus for a pro-CAA rally, we did not raise any objection,” Madikeri said.
The management had not expected a small event to become a political rallying point between the BJP and the Congress, especially in a relatively peaceful town like Bidar.
“This should have been a civil case for defamation, at the most,” said Keshavarao, an advocate for Shaheen school. “If the PM felt defamed, he should have filed the complaint and not a BJP worker in Bidar.”
Prime Minister Modi, who frequently holds staged interactions with high school students, has not commented on the row thus far.
Advocate Keshavarao said a 2016 Supreme Court judgement held that citizens should not be booked under sedition without an order from the state’s Director General of Police or Commissioner of Police.
The order should illustrate that the seditious act either led to the incitement of violence or was intended to create public disorder, the judgment read. In Bidar, the sedition case has been registered by a constable at the New Town police station.
In court, the police have produced little evidence beyond a video recorder and a compact disc containing a recording of the play.
The child’s slippers, seized with much fanfare by the police, were not produced in court.