India and South Asia

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India and South Asia

India has the largest population of children in the world: some 300 million of its almost one billion people. Pakistan has 58 million children, Bangladesh 47 million, Sri Lanka 5 million, and Nepal 10 million, about 40 percent of the population in each case. Together the South Asian countries have some of the richest folklore and artistic creations for and about children in the world. Although the suggestion that childhood is basically a modern concept is a useful one, it does not tell us much about the empirical history and cultural systems of children in South Asia, either in a premodern past or for those who are not wholly "modern" in the conventional sense today. That work remains to be done, especially given the diversity of the region. All generalizations below need to be tempered with a view to this diversity.

The Love of Children

Studies of South Asian literature reveal a high regard for infancy and childhood, starting with rich descriptions of the physical looks, antics, and charms of children; going on to their emotional appeal; and including the multivocal symbolism of childhood, or how childhood means many different things, most of them wonderful. Philosophical perspectives see childhood as representing the highest, hidden truths for humans, as well as marking the fallacy of worldly life and its entanglements. The mythological figures of Hinduism revel in the chaotic play of children, specifically boys. The term play (leela ) for many Hindus describes the nature of God's work. Specially celebrated are the child-versions of Rama and Krishna in the many vernacular textual and performance versions of the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata (c. 300 b.ce. to 300 .). There is probably no bigger corpus of poems about the naughtiness of a child than those by various poets about Krishna as an infant and young boy. In Tamil there is a genre that explicitly addresses God as a child and positions the author's voice as that of the mother. Adult saints or incarnations of godhood were and are often praised as being "childlike" in their innocence and proximity to the Ultimate Divine, such as Ramakrishna in the late nineteenth century and Anandmayi Ma in the mid-twentieth century. In totally secular literature too, there is an appreciation of childhood, as by the poet Rabindranath Tagore (18611941).

In the traditional Indian sciences, children are specially targeted. In the medical philosophies of Ayurveda the treatment of the child comprises one of the eight branches of medicine. The Indian/Hindu sciences of sociology and psychology discuss the graded stages of life and the relationships between the various ages. In modern times many memoirs, such as Mohandas Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth (1957), and novels, such as Mai Shree's 2000 work, that describe South Asian childhoods with empathy.

The Problem of Children

In modern South Asia over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, children have been seen as a problem in several ways. The urge for reform in colonial India often revolved around abolishing child marriages. Boys and girls were betrothed at any time from birth onward and could begin married lives from the age of ten or twelve onward. An early marriage meant frequent widowhood and among the higher castes there was a prejudice against widows remarrying, no matter how young the child-widow. A lack of formal education and overall gender discrimination was seen to be at the heart of the problem. Major reformers in the nineteenth century included Rammohan Roy (17721833), Isvarchandra Vidyasagar (18201891), and Jyotirao Phule (18271890), although they, like all the many other reformers of the time, did not think of themselves as working for the interests of children specifically.

The constitution of independent India, adopted in 1950, has taken an uncompromising stand in protecting children from many of these problems, and when practice lags behind theory, insufficient education is held accountable. The inefficacy of law is seen as related to another problem that arose in the middle of the twentieth century: overpopulation. The population of India went up from 238 million in 1901 to 439 million in 1961 and 844 million in 1991. Family planning was proposed as a solution, with national efforts to persuade people to have two or three children only. Apart from a brief interlude of coercion in India from 1975 to 1976 there have been efforts only to educate and persuade, unlike China. However, the success of family planning efforts are belied by the growth rate of the population: 1.98 percent in 1961 and2.28 percent in 1991. The answer lies partly in reduced infant mortality rates, which vary all over the region, but had fallen for all of India from 129 per thousand in 1971 to 96 per thousand in 1986.

Another highly visible problem in recent decades is child labor. Many children work either as unskilled labor or as apprentices in skilled production. While unskilled child labor is due to the problem of poverty and the infrastructural bottlenecks in education and employment, apprenticeship is a complex system within which skills and ethical training are imparted and future employment guaranteed. Children working as apprentices in trades such as weaving and pottery making work in domestic settings and are not neglected or abused, although they certainly are not given the separate space, resources, and consumer goods taken as normative in the West.

Education and Socialization

In precolonial times there were several systems of education in South Asia, all local, community-based, and geared to specific purposes and futures. Diversity was the norm, and many factors, including caste, class, region, and religion decided the education that a child would receive. From the 1850s onward, home and community based schooling was gradually replaced by a centralized system of schooling. This was liberal and secular in its trappings and based on a unilaterally enforced British colonial understanding of the proper scope of knowledge, rather than on the extant plural understandings in South Asia. Because of its lack of resources and philosophy in the matter, the colonial state could not and would not provide total or compulsory education for children. The numbers being formally educated in South Asia have always remained small.

Elite children took to the new education with alacrity. Whereas some grew up to be distanced from the masses, most also learned their own histories and languages and became the nationalist intelligentsia of their countries. Today the problems of a system that is insufficient to educate all children continue, as well as those of inequality and division. Schools range from municipal schools for the poor to expensive private schools. In Pakistan the split is most dramatic, ranging between a madrasa -based religious education and a modern liberal education. Everywhere in South Asia, schooling is mechanical and uninspired, and at its best produces young people who can read, write, and count well, but not necessarily be creative or enterprising. The most popular type of schooling is in a liberal curriculum, English is seen as empowering, and the child is encouraged to pursue both as an investment for the family. But such is the lack of interest in the experience of the child, there is a dearth of modern, liberal educational resources, specifically of books, even as consumerism burgeons.

The community and the family are the main sources of socialization for children, where they learn of their religion, ethos, and identity. Muslim communities typically send their children to madrasas, domestic schools for learning the Qur'an, for two to five years, before or together with formal schooling. Hindu communities have no formal religious education. Hindu children learn of their mythology from art, performances, festivals, popular everyday activity, and now the media. All children, with rare metropolitan exceptions, are socialized into an acceptance of interdependence with others, of negotiation about freedoms, and ultimately an age hierarchy.

Age is one of the most crucial hierarchies in South Asia, together with those of class and education. But gender is the fundamental dividing line in children's experiences across all regions, sects, and classes. Much of South Asia is patrilocal and all of it is patrilineal and patriarchal. Girls are encouraged to fit into a future of wifehood, housework, and mothering, each of which comes with complex rules. Muslim girls are taught to have "shame," to be private, and to adopt the veil from puberty onward. Hindu girls are married to men and into families to whom they must adapt and configure themselves satisfactorily. Girls from the more liberal, educated classes, who are sent to mixed or all-girls' schools, are still socialized into roles deemed womanly. Boys of all sects and classes are encouraged to experiment, move around, and learn a skill or acquire a liberal education. The unemployment rate is high, meaning that not only do many boys grow up to be unemployed, they often retain a dependency on their parents well into adulthood. According to some psychoanalysts this dependency is responsible for a part of the economic backwardness and political problems of South Asia.

The games, activities, and media experience of children in South Asia are diverse and rich, even if specific spaces, consumption patterns, and identities are not considered essential for them as they are in the West. Children play a variety of local games, including the international favorites cricket and soccer, listen to a huge range of music, and are audience-participants in amateur theatricals, neighborhood celebrations, and small and large festivals. All this entertainment is free. According to their resources they also watch television and movies, although there are almost no programs or features specifically for children. There is little overt presentation of the sexuality of children or adolescents. Dating and physical contact before marriage is publicly avoided in all classes and communities. Everyday violence is unknown.

For the most part, children in India and South Asia live in a rich communal world in which there are many fictive kin, and family members are around and available. These same kinspeople contribute to making it difficult for a child or adolescent to break with tradition and act autonomously, resulting in, perhaps, a dependency syndrome. Progress for children in South Asia requires a better system of education catering to the diversities of the region, as well as a more enlightened role for the community.

See also: British Colonialism in India; Child Labor in Developing Countries; Islam; Japan.


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Nita Kumar