Child custody row: Sagarika then, Dharna now
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Brinda Karat

Indeed, it is the government’s duty to care for the welfare of Indian citizens in other countries, more so a baby.

Nikkhil Advani and Rani Mukherjee, with their film, Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway, have done a great service to the hundreds of Indian families and, indeed, families of immigrants from third-world countries who find themselves trapped in the often cruel ways of the child protection services (CPS) in Western countries where they may live.

The film is based on a book by a real-life heroine, Sagarika Bhattacharya, whose children were taken away from her in 2011, who fought Barnevernet, the all-powerful institution of the Norway Child Protection Services, the legal system and so-called child experts who had declared her an unfit mother, and who was finally reunited with her children a year later. Her valiant struggle transformed her from a bewildered, terrified, traumatised young mother to a strong independent woman taking on the system with the unstinting support of her wonderful parents, Shikha and Monotosh Chakraborty.

The adverse publicity for Barnevernet in the film prompted Gunnar Toreson, the former chief of the Stavenger Barnevernet unit who had dealt with the case of the Bhattacharya children, to comment, “The case was politicised. People were calling the Norwegian Embassy in Washington. … Barnevernet had never experienced anything like this before.” At the end of 2021, there were over 9,900 children taken away from their parents into foster care in Norway, of which 37% were from immigrant families. While children must certainly have protection where there is clear evidence of sexual abuse and violence, activists in Norway and other European countries have flagged the utterly arbitrary and even racist approach of the agencies.

Sagarika’s father contacted me in early January 2012 after months of their painful and unsuccessful struggle, which seemed to have ended with the court finding that for the welfare of the children, they must be sent to foster care.

Our Embassy had done precious little to help the desperate parents. The case became complicated by the differences between the parents, which the Barnevernet used to substantiate their charges against Sagarika.

We had to use every fora available, including the support of then president Pratibha Patil, whom we met along with Sagarika’s parents, Parliament, contacts with ministers, MEA officials, and women’s street mobilisations primarily by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). I met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who personally spoke to the external affairs minister at the time, S M Krishna, who, to his credit, followed up on the case to its resolution.

I spoke to Sushma Swaraj, then leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, and she not only strongly supported the struggle to bring the children back home in her subsequent speech in the Lok Sabha but also joined our protest outside the Norwegian Embassy, where Sagarika’s parents were present. It was political intervention at all levels that helped Sagarika reverse the unfavourable court decision and bring the children back home. Women’s issues are indeed political, we have fought to make them so, which is different from the “politicalisation” charge made by Gunnar Toreson to justify the inhumane approach in the Sagarika case. But it appears that our officials, embassies and governments have not learnt any lessons.

In November last year, I was introduced to a young Gujarati Jain couple, Dharna and Bhavesh, living in Germany where Bhavesh was working. Their seven-month-old baby girl Ariha had been taken into foster care by the German CPS. I learnt of their case through Suranya Iyer, the indefatigable warrior supporter of mother victims of CPS in various European countries. She had helped get custody of the children for Sagarika when they were back in India, and since then, she has been approached by more than 50 Indian couples who have lost their children to foster care.

Dharna and Bhavesh have met ministers and officials but it would appear that the utterly false narration of the CPS in Germany about the case was accepted by our Embassy as the gospel truth and conveyed to their bosses here in Delhi, who have not even bothered to study the papers. I did. They are as shocking and unacceptable as the charges that showed Sagarika as a mother incapable of looking after her children.

In September 2021, the baby suffered an injury to the perineum, the sensitive area between the vagina and the anus, when she was for a short time in the care of her paternal grandmother. She was taken to a hospital by her parents, where she was treated and sent home. Since the bleeding continued, the baby was again taken to the hospital, where she underwent a procedure for stitches. A police investigation was initiated. The mother was charged with sexual abuse of her baby, and the father with showing his sexual organs to the baby.

In February 2022, the police closed the case. So, there are no criminal charges against the parents which would warrant taking the baby away. As in Sagarika’s case, the CPS stepped in. A psychological profile of the mother was created.

The hypotheses were that she could be responsible for extreme, inappropriate child care, causing the injury for a religious ritual, or being delusional and putting a spoon into the injured area. This preposterous profiling was discounted by a later report, but the CPS is using this to damn the mother. Dharna and Bhavesh have been allowed to meet their baby briefly once a month for a year and a half.

In a Facebook video, the distraught mother, recalling the incident, says the baby’s grandmother saw the crying child in distress, examined her, and perhaps inadvertently worsened the injury the baby suffered by falling on a toy or her bowl or spoon in the playpen.

The exact sequence is unknown, but it is clear that it was an accident. Yet, the couple has received little support from our Embassy. Instead of sending their expert legal counsel, reportedly, the lawyer sent by the Embassy specialises in automobile accidents. The case hearing keeps getting postponed, now scheduled for May.

There is no Sushma Swaraj in the government today. But indeed, it is the government’s duty to care for the welfare of Indian citizens in other countries, more so a baby. Even assuming the parents are “incapable”, as charged by the German authorities, we have a robust extended family system in India. Relatives and the Jain community have declared their willingness to care for the child.

When audiences applaud the film depicting the battle of a mother to get back her children, I hope it will help another young mother, brave Dharna, and persuade the government to take the case seriously and bring baby Ariha back home.

(The writer is a Member, CPM Politburo and former member, Rajya Sabha)

(Courtesy: The New Indian Express)