Sheela Barse, a gutsy champion for child rights, juvenile justice and rights of women prisoners

Sheela Barse, a journalist, and activist, known for her pioneering work on these issues among others, passed away Monday night in Pune. She was 84. Indian Express broke the story of her demise; Barse’s family said that the journalist was bedridden for nearly a year after suffering a fall.
Image: Live Law

A day after the news of Sheela Barse’s death, child rights activist, Enakshy Ganguly penned this beautiful tribute to her on her blog. We at Sabrangindia reproduce it here with gratitude.

Adieu Sheela Barse- Salutes

I was informed last night of the passing on of Sheela Barse. I am fully aware that this name may not mean a lot to the new generation of activists. Law researchers may have heard of her and referred to orders with her name.

But for me, I am feeling a sense of loss. I have not met Sheela for over 30 years and yet I feel I never quite lost touch with her in my heart and mind. Every time I think of or mention juvenile justice, Sheela’s is the name that comes to my mind. I was delighted to find an interview with her in Live Law which was feisty as she has always been. I recall her as I think child labour- because that’s why I got to meet her in 1986!

It is impossible to write on children’s issues without citing Sheela Barse and all her PILs. Her work on women prisoners in the early eighties could be considered path breaking. A simple internet search is enough for that. But like many feisty fighters of peoples rights , she remains unknown to most of the larger public. I doubt that whether my own children or even my spouse recognise the significance of her life, despite their relationship with me. I realised as I spoke to many young activists, they were unable to recall her. How do we make people like Sheela Barse as much a national heritage in the minds of the public she spent her life fighting on behalf of, as the sportspersons and actors or even other ‘celebrities’? My yoga teacher, with whom I was talking about Sheela said, how come we do not know her….our children of course never will. That is so sad indeed!

It was 1986 and the draft child labour law was under way. Rajeev Gandhi was the Prime Minister and P.A Sangma the Labour Minister. The new terms – Prohibition and Regulation were to be added to the amended child labour law. My friend Neera Burra and I met at the Indian Social Institute, Delhi, where we both worked. Neera introduced me to Vasudha Dhagamawar, who had just set up Multiple Action research Group (MARG), and whom I worked with for 10 years. Neera and Walter Fernandes, the Director of Indian Social Institute, were busy with a research project on child labour. I knew nothing on the issue. But, as my first assignment with MARG, I was roped in to coordinate a huge national conference on child labour. I was given an assistant, a typewriter and a room. The mandate of the conference was to argue the draft law.

The luminaries who co-convened this conference were Tara Ali Baig (SOS Children’s Villages), Sharadchandra Gokhale (CASP) and of course Walter Fernandes and Vasudha Dhagamwar. I only remember being totally overawed by them all to begin with. Sadly except for Walter, we have lost all of them.

Among the invitees was Sheela Barse. She was already quite a legend. Even before she arrived there were stories about her – how she had jumped over factory walls in Bhiwandi to discover children working there, travelled alone into ‘dangerous’ spaces and filed cases in court.

When she arrived, she was direct and outspoken – and told off anyone she was unhappy with. She was a tall and imposing woman with a quicksilver mind and oozed confidence and stature. As co-ordinator of the national conference, I was expected to ‘deal’ with her. Anyone can imagine how overwhelming it can be for a 25-year-old to meet such person. I cannot remember, what she was annoyed with, but do recall the feeling of terror when she stamped her feet in irritation!

India would not have had a juvenile justice law had it not been for Sheela Barse who filed for children to be treated differently in criminal cases. She was relentless. (PIL on rights of children in custodial institutions Sheela Barse v. Children’s Aid Society & Maharashtra 1987 AIR 1987 SC 656, (1987) 3 SCC 50; Children below 18 years kept in jail, this Hon’ble Court called for complete information and directed strict compliance Sheela Barse (I) v. UOI (1986) 3 SCC 596; Physically and mentally retarded children and abandoned or destitute children kept in jails. Sheela Barse (II) v. UOI (1986) 3 SCC 632; PIL on behalf of children in police lock-ups (1986) 3 SCC 596 PIL against minor children in jail. Sheela Barse v. UOI (1987) 1 SCC 76; PIL against jailing of mentally ill children in West Bengal. Sheela Barse v. UOI (1993) 4 SCC 204; PIL against lodging delinquent children in regular jails. Sheela Barse v. UOI 25 ACC 370).

She was also one of the early activists to have reported and fought sexual exploitation of children. Remember the Freddy Peats Case in Goa? Her PIL against international organised Child Sex Exploiters Sheela Barse v. Goa & UOI, exposed the pedophilias in India. This led to the prosecution of the foreign perpetrators who were extradited and the German Police Tape recorded her evidence in Frankfurt where she was invited. She was part of drafting of several of the policies and laws in her life time and continued to fight for the causes she so believed in.

I remember you Sheela Barse! You are not forgotten ! zindabad!

Advocate Anurag Bhaskar did this interview on LiveLaw with Barse in 2020

(The author of the blog is Co- Founder and Former Co- Director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights. I am an Honorary Professor- National Law University, Odisha. Ashoka Fellow. (2003).


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