A controversial story that did the rounds in Kerala in end-May 2014 was 'child trafficking'. The story carried by some mainstream media alleged that hundreds of children were 'smuggled' from other states to the orphanages in Kerala. Seeing one such batch as part of this unlawful child smuggling, 349 boys and 240 girls were intercepted at Palakkad railway station, which was charged as illegal smuggling, and the children were eventually sent back to their native states. Further, the officials of the orphanages that brought the children and the parents of the children were charged under IPC 370 on counts that would attract imprisonment upto 14 years and arrested. In all probability the overzealous acts taken then would have given the police and child welfare bodies much gratification of a glorious act of liberation.
The move had the unstinted support of certain political parties and a few cultural activists, and was in social media focus. As a matter of fact, most of the children who were sent back did possess legally valid documents. They had been studying in Kerala even earlier and were returning to the state after having spent their vacation back home. True, some children, coming afresh here from poor Muslim-majority villages in northernn India in search of food and education, were without proper documents. Had the reasons for that been ascertained with due caution, those children in every way deserved a sympathetic handling by authorities. Also, the managements of the orphanages involved merited appreciation for their keenness to educate the poor children, even as they could have been given required advice regarding the legal requirements to be met in such an activity.
Unfortunately, the way the incident was handled by the media and authorities was with the accompaniment of sensational stories about extremism and human trafficking. The central Ministry for Women and Child Development submitted a recommendation to the central home ministry demanding enquiry by a central agency into the transport of children from Jharkhand. The state Human Rights Commission and juvenile justice board also clamoured for probe by central agencies. The home ministry and social welfare department adopted an approach without checking the veracity of the allegations and moved along the line of communal polarisation based on fictitious stories.
At the end of all that, in July 2015, a division bench of Kerala High Court led by Chief Justice Ashok Bhushan ordered a CBI enquiry into the matter. Some pronouncements in that order would suffice to tell us in how misleading a manner that case was taken up. The court stated that the matter does not end with sending the children back. Who brought the children, how and for what should be probed by CBI or other central agencies. And it has also to be known why the children, who should enjoy the care and protection of parents, were brought to Kerala. With such observations, the court also said that the fact the majority of chidlren brought to the orphanages were girls, is also cause for concern.
CBI, which took up the enquiry, has now submitted its final report to the Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Ernakulam, accepting that the said children were brought to Kerala for education. Cases were registered on the basis of wrong allegations. As per an order issued by Kerala Social Justice Department on 22 June 2013, there is no legal bar on admitting children from other states to orphanages, and that cannot be deemed as child trafficking. The report concludes with a recommendation to rescind the cases and with a comment that there is no substance in the concerted allegations against the orphanages and that the children and parents are quite satisfied with the system of education and accommodation facilities offered to the children. The case registered in Jharkhand against the orphanage in Mukkam , had already been cancelled by the high court of that state. And on 10 September 2019, Bihar government filed an affidavit in Supreme Court saying that children were taken to Kerala for education, not child dtrafficking.
On another level, this controversy over the incident which was portrayed as an international conspiracy and child trafficking for recruiemtnt to terrorist camps in the guise of education, did play a role in intensifying Muslim-phobia in Kerala. Entities ranging from government machinery to the media became party to that propaganda knowingly or unknowingly. In this age when the smoke of hatred and suspicion makes people invisible to each other, this was a serious lapse. The virtue of social living lies in revisiting past wrongs and in the vigilance to correct them and not to repeat them.
By all means the orphanage case of Kerala, should qualify as a case study for socialogy researchers. For, the case and the responses to that constitute a text book case that will enable us to understand how the social life of Kerala, marked generally by co-existence, is getting poisoned and to decipher how social machinery and individuals fall a prey to it. When the much-made-of 'child trafficking' comes to such a culmination, Madhyamam too does have reason to be gratified – in having been able to stand by truth and being steadfast with what is right, even at the risk of swimming against the current; and in having taken a media position of certitude - against ill-advised obstructions - with the attempts to impart literacy for hundreds of children, who otherwise would have been denied education and had to lead a life like cattle in farms.