Six hundred children have gone missing in Punjab over the past year. According to the police, they’re all runaways—children who just decided they didn’t like it at home so they ran away. Because children, well-known for the rational thinking skills and ability to control adults, know what they’re doing and so must be left to their own errant devices to find their way home. Of course it isn’t possible that even a runaway might want to go back home, or that some adult won’t prey on an unprotected child. The police Know Everything, and they’re telling you that six hundred kids in one year is really not such a big deal. It’s media hype throwing things out of whack. An entire school’s population just disappearing. Maybe it’s not even runaways, maybe the Pied Piper came and tooted them all away.

That’s probably it, because in our neck of the woods, fact is ever stranger than fiction, and certainly just as bleak. It’s like living in an original Hans Christian Andersen story, where the Little Mermaid goes through excruciating pain to acquire her legs from the sea witch and, thwarted by the latter and rejected by the prince, dies, turning into foam on a sea wave. Here it’s the police, to whom we ordinarily look to for protection from the wolves and witches, who is the actual villain in disguise. The ones who should be out there scouring the streets for all the missing children are the ones telling us to stop making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s not a big deal that a child walking down a road with her mother was snatched by men in a car in broad daylight. It’s exaggeration to say that the ten year old sent down the road to the parchoon-walla for a packet of tea never came home. He probably just got lost along the way, or decided that this was his moment for escape and did a runner.

With missing adults one still can rationalize National Security, Rogue Elements, Taliban and Shady Agencies. One can try to puzzle out why a journalist would be kidnapped or a politician’s son threatened. But who would have an agenda with a child? How on earth would a child get too close to state secrets, or become a thorn in an organization’s side? They can’t, because they’re just kids. So who is taking them, and what for? Organ theft is the first reason on everyone’s mind, followed by human trafficking. Both are heart-stopping prospects, and how utterly vile and fiendish would you have to be to hurt children. When I was small our bogeyman was the anonymous Pathan who would kidnap you, steal a kidney and dump you somewhere near your home. Now it seems that you’ll never go home, and they bogeyman isn’t an Afghan refugee, but some nameless, faceless fright. The bogeyman isn’t an outsider any more, it’s someone from within—and that’s possibly the most terrifying thing of all. We can’t take a perverse refuge in pretending that evil is coming from outside of us, that we’re good and the Other People are the bad ones. The bad guys are amongst us.

The other question is how have so many kidnappings accrued? How many children does it take to reach a critical mass of concern? So far six hundred, which is closer to a thousand, doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe an actual thousand will be? Maybe when someone who isn’t economically humble is kidnapped? When someone with Contacts loses a child? Then perhaps the Messrs Sharif will stop issuing edicts for inquiries from outside the country and actually put the stick about, because even one lost child is one child too much. But of course it doesn’t matter, because we prefer to spend our time discussing how dreadful and licentious Doraemon is for our little kiddies, and must be banned forever because it’s spoiling their childhood. I’ll tell you what’s spoiling our children’s childhood: being afraid all the time, because their parents are perpetually in a tailspin of fright. If you aren’t quaking sending your child to school, you’re nervous when they’re in the park with you lest a bomb go off, reluctant to leave them alone with anyone lest they touch your child inappropriately and now you can’t leave the house with them at all because someone could snatch them away in front of your eyes. A child coming to harm is every parent’s nightmare, and it is our misfortune to be stuck in a country where even the police can’t make you feel safe. Nobody can make you feel safe, because we’ve been thrown to the wolves and there are no fairy godmothers or talking animal sidekicks who can help us defeat the sea witch. Oh for one day, just one, where the police would say “don’t worry, we will hunt down these criminals and we will bring your child home”, or the Chief Minister say “this will never happen again, not on my watch”, and we could believe it. They don’t even pretend to care about six hundred families that are shattered. For the six hundred mothers and six hundred fathers who watch their door every day, hoping their baby will come through it again. Whether they ran away or were taken away, home is where children belong. There is precious little more important than that. If anyone truly cares about our children’s childhoods, then the Punjab Assembly should be up in arms about these kidnappings and keep at it until the kids start coming home. Until then, banning a ridiculous cartoon makes you wonder who and what the real cartoon really is.