In an exclusive e-mail interview with Amit Guin, non-resident Indian parent Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya tell about the custody row of their kids in Norway, and various other related facets.
Take us through the lives lived by Abhigyan and Aishwarya since May 2011 when they were placed in foster parental care in Norway.
It is difficult to provide a detailed account of what they did in foster home. As you may be aware we were allowed to meet only a few times. What we know is that the children lost their natural development paths. Abhigyan had started to learn Bengali, become familiar with us and relatives but he has lost all of that.
Aishwarya was still a small baby being breast-fed when she was forcibly taken away. She (Sagarika) had to go and deliver milk; the mother and child were deprived of the chance to bond naturally. Sometime she started to walk and we missed the moments; the joy of seeing our children grow and contributing to their growth.
What was found during the inspection by the officials of Norwegian Child Protection Services which led to putting your kids in a foster home?
There was no announced inspection. The officials gained entry to our residence in the pretext of providing help with the quasi-autistic behavior of Abhigyan. Therefore the observations that they made were unauthorized and in gross violation of our family’ s privacy.
In our opinion, the allegations (observations) range from curious (e.g. little girl looks at other people’s faces and not mother’s face) to cultural bigotry (e.g. parents had an arranged marriage) to craft (e.g. mother has a poor capability to mentalize).
How did Barnevernet paint your parenting before taking away the kids on the ground of “emotional disconnect’?
The central plank of their argumentation was: Sagarika has poor capability to mentalize (they imply that poor mentalization leads to poor succor to the children by the mother) and she could not follow up on the help (advice) given by the Barnevernet officials. On the point of mentalization, which is a serious allegation, they did not back it up with clinical diagnosis. In fact within the same document they state that the doctors do not find anything wrong with her. This amounts to a gross violation of Article 5 of the UNDHR.
The pretext that Sagarika could not follow up on their advice needs elaboration. A mother who is stressed because she is finding it difficult to manage her work-load needs more hands to cook for her, to do grocery shopping for her, to clean for her etc. She does not need someone to march in to her house and start dictating a military schedule of daily routines such as when to wake up, when to breast-feed etc. The Barnevernet never provided any household help and the help they provided was quite inappropriate in the situation in which we were.
The Barnevernet were more generous to the father (Anurup Bhattacharya). They admit that Abhigyan related well with him but they had problems on issues such as: why does he carry around Abhigyan in lap too much. Further they had problems that he was pressed for time and also had other priorities to manage such as work, driving lessons etc.
What are the differences between India and Norway when it comes to the issue of protection of children?
In India, the society is stronger than the State and State is fundamentally an agency of the people. Family as an organizational unit of society is very strong in India. In Norway the concept of family is very different from that prevalent in India. Whereas families in India could be visualized as flowing rivers that strengthen with every generation, in Norway new families are formed by a process of disintegration of existing families. As a result, in our view, the Norwegian State is stronger than society; it is also far richer than the society in material terms. The issue of child protection has to be seen against this background.
Measures in India primarily seek to strengthen parental capabilities. In India diversity of thoughts and cultural nuances are respected. Measures in Norway on the other hand tend to leverage State’s riches and in our opinion seek homogeneity. Abuse and neglect of children (and definition of what constitutes abuse and neglect can be quite subjective depending on the officers in charge of the case) can lead to placement of children in foster care probably because there is no family to fall back upon or because the family is not liked by the officers in charge. Foster families are handsomely compensated for the job – a whole “industry” supports care activities.
What actions were taken by you to get back the kids on a personal basis?
We have been fighting a legal battle. We had won the first case but subsequently the decision of lower court was overruled. After the children were taken away by the Barnevernet, the maternal and paternal grandparents and the uncle (Arunabhash, who is now in Stavanger) have been to Norway on their own (before the case appeared in media) to request Barnevernet to give custody to them. Leave aside handing over the custody to any of the kith or kin, the Barnevernet did not even let these relatives meet the children. The Barnevernet did not acknowledge communication from the Indian Embassy and totally cold shouldered low-profile attempts from Government of India to resolve the issue.
How helpful have been the Indian and Norwegian governments in resolving the issue?
The Government of India’s intervention has been crucial. As mentioned earlier, the uncle, who has now been assessed to be fit to be a guardian of the two kids by the Barnevernet was denied even a meeting with the children, when he came on his own. It is merely because of diplomatic pressure that the Indian government has applied and Government of Norway has transferred to the Barnevernet that the custody issue has been reassessed.
Did the Norwegians go overboard while assessing your parenting skills? Explain.
The very fact that Norway considers its welfare law to be applicable on all children on her soil irrespective of their citizenship and cultural background smells of assumed self-importance.
The question about our parenting skills is irrelevant. The moot question is about a State appointing itself as the guardian of minors who are otherwise aliens on its land. India too needs to think who will decide for her citizens. In this case India has not demanded the custody back straight away but has allowed Norway to play on “best interest of the children” legal drama. Given that with each passing day children are losing their crucial formative period, probably this was the quickest and most amicable way.
While the outsiders should not judge what system Norway should adopt, many Scandinavians find the system to be corrupt and heavy handed.
If we rephrase the question and ask: would the issues raised by the Barnevernet get any traction in India? Then the simple answer is: No, the issues would not receive any traction in India or for that matter in any country that respects diversity and human rights.
Are the practices prevalent in the Norwegian CPS compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? Explain.
Had there been clarity about provisions of international law on the matter, the issue should not have taken so much anguish and culture warfare. The UNCRC is a well-intentioned provision but it does not provide clarity on procedures and tests to assess if any actions related to children live up to the articles of CRC or not.
Articles 5 and 8 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) lay emphasis on the need for prospecting the child’s roots, identity, nationality, and family relations. Mores of these articles are regularly over looked by Barnevernet. Article 20(3) of the CRC stipulate that when considering solutions (for alternative child care), due regard shall be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background. ‘Best interest of the children’ mantra enshrined in CRC is regularly (ab) used and often used as a redundant interjection while initiating any whimsical child care measures.
What steps should be taken by governments on a bilateral basis to deal with such issues?
A foreign country has a legitimate interest in applying its law on resident aliens for a few purposes: Mala in se, mala prohibita, making a tortfeasor pay damages etc. On the other hand, a country has no locus standi on the welfare of aliens on its soil; therefore it should not apply any instrumental laws in the name of the alien persons’ best interests. The authority to define ‘best interest’ naturally vests with the State that unconditionally confers citizenship on the person.
Seeing these arguments in conjunction with the Indian children’s case, Norway could be justified in for example either asking the parents to leave the country or in asking parents to make arrangements for the children outside the country (if parents would like to continue to stay in the country) but not appoint itself as a guardian of the children. Welfare of the Indian children is a domain over which majesty of India’s laws should prevail.
All countries of the world should agree (make provisions in their legal system) that a statement of what is the ‘best interest’ of minor aliens would come from the country of which the minor is a citizen. Further they should agree to act upon and cooperate to execute the implications of the best interest statement.
This is an issue over which there should be a multilateral action. Given the precedent of this and other such cases, Government of India should seek such a global treaty. The purpose of law in the end is really simple: so that we all can live in peace, harmony and pursue our legitimate objectives.
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