Blog: Lessons for India from Norway custody row

Blog: Lessons for India from Norway custody row
Stavanger:  Public opinion is fickle. We all know that. One day people's hearts were going out to the parents whose kids were taken away by Norwegian authorities and now all of a sudden many have decided the parents should be left at the mercy of Norway's totalitarian family courts. Some didn't care from the start, because for them, Indians who make the choice of living abroad should "bear the consequences" of quitting their country. But why is everyone forgetting that there are many shades of grey in the story of the Bhattacharyas?

The Indian state response in the Norway case was clearly being led by the media's narrative so far. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs despite having committed publicly, and with much flourish, to bring kids back "at any cost" was failing to respond adequately to the parents' direct pleas during the last few months. Many court dates came and went before the children's visas expired. The family members were not re-assured by the Indian authorities, which is why they would rush to the media each time they felt it was time to press a panic button. The MEA then would only respond when parents would cry foul on TV, instead of pre-empting things and responding with more firmness. Surely before taking a stand that they would intervene, the MEA has done a thorough investigation, or at least relied on the information from credible sources? Once such a position was taken, the MEA should have held on to it with more dignity. They are now doing that. Better late than never.

What went wrong is this. Four days before the court hearing of 23rd March 2012, which was in all likelihood going to lead to the children's return, the parents seemed to have had a big fight. The father confessed this on record to a newspaper and the ugly details of the physical fight were made public. It appears, that the next day there were heated arguments in the presence of the Indian officials in Stavanger. The uncle may have said "I can't go on with this", the father may also have said things he would regret later. Why the Indian officials present thought it prudent to leak the details of this drama to the media remains unclear. In fact it was totally uncalled for.  No matter what happened behind closed doors, or who said what, the family never changed its stated legal position which was- that they want the kids to go to the uncle.

Some even went as far as accusing the Bhattacharyas of having "misled the nation". The fact is that the family is cracking under the pressure. They've lived for months now with the uncertainty and the fear of losing their children for good. They have all put their lives on hold to fight for the kid's to return to India. For too long, they have had to live with the frustration of being either ignored or bullied by the Norwegian authorities on the one hand or distressed at not getting prompt enough aid from the Indian authorities. They have been under public scrutiny and have been chased by dozens of news channels and newspapers day in and day out. I went to their home. They haven't even put away their children's jackets hanging in the hallway at their entrance. It's just that they made their fight public at the wrong time and failed to exercise enough restraint just when they needed to most. Haven't we all heard of stories of couples breaking down when something terrible happens to their children? That doesn't turn them criminals surely?

Why then did they 'lie to the state' is the other question that has come up. The assumption being made is that the parents should open up their private life to complete public scrutiny. They should have expected this given that they have been "using" the media in a sense. But the MEA it seems, have known all along what the problems have been in the family. It might well have been that the parents have always had differences. This has no direct bearing on the case anyway. The children were going to the uncle and not to the parents precisely because the Norwegians didn't them to be with parents in the first place. In fact Norwegian authorities had even suggested earlier that if the parents were to separate, they would give the custody of the children to the father. But at that time the parents were not willing to exercise this option. The MEA should have been very firm with the Norwegian authorities all through. It seems they are doing that now.

Family courts in Norway are heavily biased against parents whose children have been taken away from them. Legal recourse to these Indian citizens in the Norwegian system seems good only on paper. If the child welfare services are willing to give a recommendation to the court today that the children be given to the uncle, it's only because the Indian authorities have intervened and put pressure. Otherwise they had already said that the uncle was too young and the grandparents too old to be given custody and the case would have been closed long ago. The Bhattacharya's would have had to chase Norwegian authorities for the rest of their lives to ask for permission to see their children just three times every year till they turned 18.

Why it's justified for the Indian government to intervene is very obvious. The Bhattacharya family as foreigners in Norway are extremely vulnerable, they are treading on thin ice. They may not have been perfect parents, but it's not as if they've been accused, not even by the Norwegians, of being physically abusive towards their children. They are Indian citizens, they want to return to India and they want their children, who are also holders of Indian passports, to go back to their country. They do not subscribe to the Norwegian way of looking at things. Yes, they did choose to go to and work in Norway  but they perhaps didn't know how serious things could get. Once they realised that, they decided they wanted to return to India with their children. They should now be allowed to do so.

Children's well-being should indeed be of greater importance that the parent's desire to be with them. Theoretically that is correct. As for the Bhattacharya's, they have perhaps made mistakes and harmed their children's mental health by not being more mature parents but both the parents are full of remorse & have learnt a lesson. Children being sent away to a foster home & allowed to meet their parents for three hours in a year seems too extreme a punishment for these young parents. Aishwarya was taken away when she was barely five months old and still breastfeeding. Abhigyan was barely two. The family can still make amends for past errors.

There are many parents who face serious challenges in bringing up their children. But sending children to a foster home, is hardly a foolproof solution. There have been dozens of cases where children have been abused by their foster families as well. Someone put this question up on a Facebook page today "Wonder if Norwegians should have a law whereby people not capable of being 'good parents' should not be allowed to have unprotected sex because of the risk of children suffering if their upbringing is poor!" This mockery of the Child Welfare Service demonstrates rather well how this seemingly well intentioned system that the Norwegians have for their children, can border on totalitarianism.

Norway is a welfare state and it has the resources to provide great equity in the access children can have to a good life, regardless of whether their parents are rich and influential or not. The Norwegian Child Welfare service chief hinting to me that children in India are treated badly is not entirely wrong. But children's emotional connect and their "belonging" to their biological parents or extended family are considered important factors in India. We don't have a welfare state but we don't consider the parents and the family lesser human beings. What is it if not mental torture to take someone's children away from them? Parents' emotional need to take care of their children should also count. This is their right and should not be taken away from them unless there is serious criminal behaviour involved or if children's lives are threatened.

The idea that all children deserve a good life is very noble. But this very idea becomes rather absolutist if it assumes that every child can and must have a perfect childhood. Who defines the parameters of good upbringing? Guaranteeing a "healthy atmosphere" for a child's upbringing depends on any number of things including the parent's financial status and their own relationship as husband and wife. How many children would be "snatched" from their parents if they were not rich or happy enough? Would homeless parents then not have a right to keep their children?

The bone of contention in the Bhattachayra case was the clause that Norwegians were insisting on including in the agreement which would prevent anyone else from fighting a fresh custody case over these kids in India. Whether that was for the children's good or for their own position to be respected so that they don't lose face, is not clear. Either ways, it seems India has given a clear message now, that once the children are in India, Indian law will prevail. The rest is not Norway's business. Period.

None of this assumes that the Bhattacharyas are a perfect family.
Far from it. But less than perfect people also have rights. And the Indian government's final stand to put all of this behind and stick to backing the parents again is definitely a respectable decision that should indeed be applauded. The fight for the Bhattacharya children does make sense. The bottom line is that these children are Indian and there is still hope that their family will be able to provide a decent enough life, even if it is less than perfect by Norwegian standards.

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