22 Jun 2022  |   06:37am IST

The rights of the Indian child abroad

John Dayal

Readers would recall the story of Sagarika Chakraborty, the Indian mother of two children, who waged an international battle for the custody of her children who were taken away from her by the Norwegian state child-protection system. She also had to fight for her human dignity, in fact her very sanity, in a triangular struggle with her husband – the two are separated now – and the government apparatus. In the process, she was accused of being cruel to her children, and at various points, her fitness to be a parent, and her very sanity was put in question.

She succeeded in getting custody of her children, and is now rebuilding her life in India. Evidence of this is her first book “The journey of a Mother – Diplomatic War between Norway and India” which was released recently in New Delhi by Vishkarma publishers at a meeting chaired by the eminent public intellectual, Professor Ashish Nandi.

Barrister, mother and activist Saranya Aiyar, who has accompanied the young woman in this struggle for several years now, has described Sagarika as “a warrior Goddess in” winning her children back from Barnevernet, Norway's child services. She organised a powerful campaign in India, gathering the support of politicians, diplomats and public figures in New Delhi and across the globe. 

At the heart of the crisis is the cultural difference between the developed West and the Asian or African on the structure of families, and exactly how children are brought up. The United Kingdom is among the many countries where child protection laws single out Asian and African parents on how they are bringing up their children. There have been several cases in the UK too where Indian parents have found their children taken away from them by the government agencies who charge couples and single parents with maltreating their young ones.

The West has an understanding of human rights, especially those involving the family.

Much of it has been for the good, as can be seen in the construction of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, and the institutions that have grown from it. Among them is the United Nations Human Rights Council which holds every country to account on how they have protected the human rights and civil liberties of their citizens. 

Modern member states have also created their own system, especially on the rights of children, women and religious and ethnic minorities, and against excesses by the state such as torture. India, by the way, is a signatory to the charter, even though it is yet to sign the treating on the ban on torture.

There are, however, not many bilateral diplomatic protocols in which the government of Indian can intervene powerfully when there are issues concerning family laws and, in particular, the rights of the child.

Marxist leader Brinda Karat, who has played a major role in supporting Chakraborty’s case and persuading the Indian government to use its good offices, has dwelt at length on the failure of the Western authorities to understand the bond of love that Indian mothers have with their children even when they seem to be strict disciplinarians.

The west, Brinda has often pointed out, seems unable to understand that in the sub-continent, it is quite normal for the entire family to sleep in the same bedroom. Most often, the reason is as simple that the one room is all they have by way of bedroom, living room and even kitchen. 

From an Indian perspective, sometimes Western standards on these issues seem to verge on fundamentalism. Government agencies are quick in cracking down on parents every time some neighbour complains he has heard a child sobbing in the neighbouring house, or that the mother is “screaming” at her young son and daughter. The child is taken away from the parent, or the single mother, and put in foster care till investigations are complete. Custody has to be won back in bitter and expensive court battles with the government child care authorities. 

Norway was the leading light of the struggle in Geneva, in Brussels, even in New York - the United Nations, on issues of human rights, of religious minorities. It fought, it voted, it canvassed.

The state had a right and a duty to ensure the child is not being suffocated or shaken to death or the many other ways that parents too can inflict on the child – knowingly, unknowingly, directly or indirectly. 

A child born to Bengali parents, as in the case of the Chakraborty family, had basic cultural rights to be reared, and to be educated in its maternal and paternal culture including such things as food habits, religious mantras or whatever. It ought not to put in sterile state religion-free cocoon.

India, as stated earlier, is a signatory to various international protocols, and many bilateral protocols. There is scope for an accord to ensure the cultural rights of the child, especially in cases of abandonment or litigation because of the parental strife.

It is not as if India is entirely innocent in how its child welfare mechanism works. We see many times how political the Indian National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights can be. 

We must interrogate Indian institutions on how do they respond in cases of divorce, in cases of separation, when it comes to which parents should have custody. We read in the papers everyday: somebody being punished for stealing a child, for trying to “export” a child, because the partner, who often is not the mother, wants the child with him, in America, and not with her in India. These are matters of great delicacy.

Ultimately, it is the right of the child that supersedes everybody else’s right. Parents will die, parents will lead their own lives and have other children but the right of the child is supreme and therefore, to that extent, and asserting her right to be the guardian and the decider of her children, Sagarika Chakraborty has won an important victory.

(John Dayal is an author from New Delhi.)


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