Regarding Temple Elephants and Child Rights


Photograph from the Daily Thanthi newspaper. The Tamil Nadu Secretary of Education addresses the NCPCR jury from the audience. I was sitting two seats away from her (as seen in bottom left of the photo).


“There’s an elephant blessing people on the other side of the street.”

I said it nonchalantly, almost as if it wasn’t even worth mentioning at all. But there it was, a hulking behemoth that blocked traffic as it slowly ambled up the street. I briefly glanced at the flowery chalk drawings on its forehead and observed the nimbleness of its trunk as it collected coins from passersby. And then I continued to walk ahead on the road, looking for the nearest autorickshaw stand.

Brian’s reaction was different. His eyes widened and his jaw (quite literally) dropped about an inch. He was experiencing a “wow” moment. One of those instances when you think, “Where else in the world would this be happening?” As I watched my friend stare in awe at the temple elephant, I kind of missed that feeling of wonder that India used to give me. I’m proud of the familiarity that I forged with Madurai over the past ten years. But I never thought I’d become so desensitized to some of the more amazing sights and experiences that this part of the world has to offer. I never thought I’d be unimpressed by elephants.

On October 17th and 18th, I learned that India had a few more “wow” moments in store for me. They came at a public hearing for the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in Chennai. I was part of the reporting team, tasked with taking extensive notes of the proceedings.

This job came with several responsibilities. When hearing the stories of ten-year-old kids who were forced into bonded labor – where they worked sixteen hours a day without breaks or proper food – I wrote notes. As NGO workers discussed how medical professionals denied proper treatment to sick children because of their caste background, I continued to write notes. When parents wept openly as they recounted how abuses by teachers – including systematic beatings, psychological torture, and sexual assault – led to their child’s eventual suicide, I wrote even more notes.

As I wrote, I became scared. I wondered if I ever wanted to be a parent, knowing that this world is full of sick people who could hurt (even destroy) a child. These children’s parents could not protect them… and this fact continued to torture them.

But I couldn’t allow myself to become to distracted by these depressing thoughts. These children and their parents were finally having their day in court and it was my job to record the proceedings. I needed to make note of every fact, detail, and opinion presented in the seventy cases that were heard. And most importantly, I needed record the observations, recommendations, and orders made by the jury.

The jury was incredible. Unlike countless school principals, education administrators, and police officials, jury members actually listened to the complaints and testimonies of children and their parents. They openly questioned and castigated negligent education officials and police officers who blindly sided with child rights offenders instead of serving justice on behalf of abused children. They reopened civil cases and criminal investigations, even when police and government authorities carelessly withdrew them years ago. They ensured that abused children would be offered counseling and medical treatment at the cost of the state. They were unwavering in their commitment to guarantee all children the right to education, regardless of their gender, caste, location, or family income.

In one case, the jury questioned school administrators who ran an institution with an appalling record of human rights abuses. At this school, students felt powerless. Many were discriminated against because of their caste. Some were regularly harassed and beaten. Too many were made to feel as if they were unimportant – somehow less than human.

It was almost painful to listen to the incomplete and, at times, blatantly dishonest answers from these school administrators. It was even more frustrating to know that, in a state like Tamil Nadu where education and child rights laws are among the most progressive in the world, it seemed impossible to hold people like these accountable for such blatant offenses.

But it turned out that accountability was not a fantasy. During the proceedings of this case, the Secretary of Education, who was two seats away from me in the front row of the audience, stood up and interjected. In front of the crowd – which consisted of victims, their families, NGO workers, police officials, and the press – she revoked this school’s government recognition. Not only did she publicly shame the offenders, she also paved the way for the school to be shut down.

As the Secretary of Education made her declaration, a majority of the audience burst into applause. A real, tangible change was being made. I imagine that while it all occurred, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped about an inch. This was the “wow” moment that I craved.

I imagine that there will be legal appeals regarding this school’s closing. I know that the NCPCR Jury’s orders will have to be followed up vigilantly and that victims may not get the results they expect in a timely manner. I am certain that (despite the public nature of this hearing) teachers, local authorities, and community members will continue to exercise power – oppressive power – over children. And it’s hard for me to imagine that a blessing from a roadside elephant will ever relieve these children of this burden.

But, through the process of this hearing, I came to realize that the awe India used to inspire in me has not disappeared. It has evolved profoundly. My excitement can come through involvement in movements that positively impact the lives of the vulnerable. My enthusiasm can stem from historical events and landmark hearings, which drastically alter the social status quo. My sense of wonder can come from systematic shifts in the ways that people view and implement human rights.

With all of this in mind, I guess I can forgive myself for not being impressed by elephants.

Ted comes to the AIF fellowship with a passion for performance, human rights advocacy, and gender equality in India. After graduating from Kenyon College with a degree in International Studies, Ted served as a Fulbright Scholar in South India. There, he researched the social movement of the Thirunangai (Tamil Transgender) community, focusing on the ability of community leaders and activists to utilize creative technology and event programming to promote their agenda to the public. During his tenure as a Fulbright fellow, Ted had the opportunity to present his research and also perform Karagattam - a South Indian folk dance that he studied since 2003 - at various conferences and Fulbright alumni association events in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. After returning to the United States and spending a year as a Marketing Associate at the Corporate Executive Board in Washington, D.C., Ted was named a Peace Fellow by The Advocacy Project. As a Peace Fellow, Ted spent six months working with the Jagaran Media Center, a Dalit rights advocacy organization in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he helped revitalize their print media division and led creative projects profiling the arts of lower caste communities. Ted is currently a 4th year candidate in the Department of Anthropology at American University.

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8 thoughts on “Regarding Temple Elephants and Child Rights

  1. Hi Theodore, we feel that God had sent you to India for a special purpose. Through all this you are being more mature in every sphere of life. We hope and pray that God gives you a newer vision to uplift the downtroden. Go with courage for no forces in this world could ever overcome the truth in God. Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. Our prayers are always with you.

  2. Awesome piece as always Ted! I worked in a school in Darjeeling and there is definitely a sense of hopelessness among many at changing the school system there – the high levels of abuse by teachers, the corruption involved in the hiring of teachers, etc. Very nice to see that change is possible and can come from local and public pressure and not paternalistic outside interference.

  3. India and Nepal are the biggest and best places, I have generally found, for “wow moments.” Of course it also takes a an aware and intelligent observer to continue having the Wow moments and find and appreciate them through life wherever one is. Combining your great writing and observations is always a great read and even sometimes an enlightening experience. Thank you.

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