Can We Please Leave the 12-Year-Old Activist Zen Sadavarte Alone?

Social Commentary

Can We Please Leave the 12-Year-Old Activist Zen Sadavarte Alone?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There’s a reason I avoid sharing my childhood pictures with the world. Like most Indian kids, I had a mushroom cut that resembled Super Mario’s Toad more than anything human, thick glasses, and a flourishing unibrow. I looked like what I was: a nerd whose best friends were books, probably because they didn’t have to listen to me hold forth. Lucky for me and most of us, we grew up away from the harsh gaze of the public — a luxury not afforded to the 12-year-old of the moment, Zen Sadavarte.

Despite only being in the Class 7, Sadavarte has cut a wide swathe through our headlines lately. She recently won a National Bravery Award for her quick thinking during the Crystal Tower fires in Parel, Mumbai. Just 10 years old at the time, Sadavarte made everyone cover their faces with wet cloths to prevent smoke inhalation — the primary cause of death or injury in a fire. Predictably, the keen student who has read the complete works of Shakespeare had also paid attention during the fire safety lessons at school.

Now, Sadavarte’s reputation as a young woman to watch out for has been boosted by her viral letter to CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde following the death of a four-month-old during the Shaheen Bagh protests. The daughter of two lawyers, Sadavarte argued that making children participate in protests violates their rights. Urging political leaders of all stripes not to make hay from the tragedy, she called for a probe into the infant’s death and questioned whether children should be allowed at protests. Now, she’ll be speaking at a hearing before the SC, prompting many media outlets to position the bespectacled, serious-looking girl as a poster child for “anti-protest sentiment”.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing commentators on social media and the news have been quick to co-opt and twist Sadavarte’s appeal for children into a wholesale condemnation of the Shaheen Bagh movement. The sit-in against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the Centre’s proposed NRC has made it past the two-month mark and is still going strong, forcing Home Minister Amit Shah to finally engage with the protesters. For those who support the government, the tenacious women of Shaheen Bagh have gone from nuisance to menace, and Sadavarte has become yet another convenient tool to discredit them.

The daughter of two lawyers, Sadavarte argued that making children participate in protests violates their rights.

But if every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the outspoken Sadavarte has seen her share of detractors too. Some have pointed out that the women of Shaheen Bagh can’t afford childcare services and shouldn’t be denied the right to be politically active because of it. Others have jeered at Sadavarte for being elitist, as if a 12-year-old from a comfortable Mumbai suburb, no matter how well-read, should understand the complexities of being a working-class mother.

Naturally, Sadavarte’s advocacy focuses on children like her. She has previously brought up the issue of inadequate mid-day meal schemes, and did so again before the PM when she received her bravery award. On Monday, she spoke out against a seriously weird pledge made on Valentine’s Day by students at Mahila Arts and Commerce College in Amravati. The girls were made to repeat a chant swearing off love and dowries, and promising to trust their parents in arranging their marriages. Sadavarte, in an appeal to CM Uddhav Thackeray and Women and Child Minister Smriti Irani, called this a clear case of gender discrimination, claiming the incident went against the Constitution. She blasted the oath — which was allegedly encouraged by local political groups — for being “inspired by Manusmriti.”

Nor is this the first time Sadavarte has spoken unequivocally about casteism, gender inequality, and social justice. At the age of nine, she attended a protest for Dalit student Rohith Vemula, and has already shown more political engagement at her age than many of us will in a lifetime. The SC’s decision to take cognisance of her letter over thousands of others surely cannot be blamed on her. It should be hard to accuse Sadavarte of being a right-wing Hindutva icon — and to hold a young girl to a higher standard than our elected officials and judiciary.

Still, that hasn’t stopped social media trolls from claiming Sadavarte’s bravery award is a sham, and even that she is part of a larger agenda. Many have taken the route of whataboutery, lambasting her for not bringing up child welfare for underage labourers, or kids in Kashmir. Others have directed complaints to Sadavarte to put before the SC, since she supposedly has their ear. But the most common response towards Sadavarte has been one of disbelief.

This is not the first time Sadavarte has spoken unequivocally about casteism, gender inequality, and social justice.

Call her a progressive, a moderate, or a bhakt: it doesn’t change the fact that Sadavarte is facing the same disdain that so often follows young female activists. Cruel memes have poked fun at her appearance, and she has been frequently dismissed as “coached” and “brainwashed” — the same words levelled against 17-year-old climate champion Greta Thunberg. Her bravery award has been called into question just like Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize, earned after she was shot by the Taliban and continued to advocate for girls’ education. Apparently, whether it’s Sadavarte or Yousafzai, a girl ushering any sort of change is not enough to deserve recognition.

No one has to agree with Sadavarte. She herself would likely be open to other arguments, which is more than can be said for both her supporters and her critics. After all, she’s a fiercely intelligent young activist who isn’t afraid to speak up, haters be damned. Is it this quality that makes so many despise her — that she’s a pre-teen girl who doesn’t care about being popular? By her very existence, Sadavarte, like the mothers and daadis of Shaheen Bagh, is a powerful voice who refuses to be silenced by conventions of gender or age. We no longer have to hope that the future is female; the present has delivered on that promise.