We are taught when we are little that our good deeds come back to us. As grown-ups, we may find that one wrong enmeshes us in a web of further wrongs. The Bhattacharya children have returned to India. But has Norway come to their mother here?
When the children were confiscated in Norway, their mother perhaps had little option but to accept the terms the Norwegian Child Welfare Service insisted upon for ensuring the children’s release — that their custody be given over to their uncle. But now that the children are back in India, we need to question whether the agreement giving custody of the children, one of them a girl, to their 27-year-old bachelor uncle, is legal or just. Whether the mother wishes to question the agreement or not is a private matter. But since we are likely to see more such cases in future, we should examine the issues that arise from the apparent solution to the crisis.
Legally, a host of questions arise — is this a case of a contract signed under coercion from the Norwegian authorities, and, therefore, invalid? Does Indian law permit the custody of a minor girl to be handed over to an unmarried man? Can the report of the CWS be the basis, without adjudication in India, of the removal of the mother from the guardianship of her children? If the children are not raised by the uncle, but are brought up by the paternal grandparents, is the custody agreement then voidable on the basis of not being performed?
Sadly, for a mother in circumstances similar to those of the Bhattacharya case, the answers under Indian law to some of these questions may give scant comfort. But even if the law were not to support the mother in such cases, we, as a society, cannot consider the issues as closed.
We have shown ourselves to be quite indignant at the allegations of “violence” against the children — based on claims of a child being slapped or of quarrels between husband and wife. Will we be unashamed at the evidence of sexism and misogyny in the Indian family? Will other Indian women, who are separated from their children by foreign authorities, find themselves depending solely on the goodwill of the husbands and their families for justice in India? Will the woman have access to her children only if she agrees to ‘obey’ her husband, to live with his family because that is the ‘proper’ place for a married Indian woman, and to ‘adjust’ to life with her in-laws, however they may treat her? Is there any value given to motherhood in India, or are we too at risk of being told one day — as the CWS told Sagarika Bhattacharya — that we may be loving mothers but are poor caregivers, and hence the confiscation of our children is justified?
The silence on these questions from women’s and children’s commissions and other public bodies in India is disheartening. There are several points about the CWS’s case against the mother and its assessment of her children that rest on shaky grounds. Yet not a single expert or authority in the relevant field has questioned them. Take the CWS’s assessment of “attachment disorder” in a three-year-old child — based on the direction in which he looks! Or the assessment of “emotional disconnect” from the mother in the child based on the facts that he wriggled away when she tried to hold him in front of the care-workers but did not do so when the care-workers held him, and used to bang his head. If the unfortunate boy really has some disorder, this certainly was a surprising way of divining the meaning of his behaviour. What goes on in the mind of a child with such disorders is a mystery to us all. Before pinning the blame on anyone for such problems, should we not take note of the fact that there is no final word on the probable causes of their appearance? We do not know whether the problems are genetic or environmental.
Then there is the allegation that the mother did not respect the care-worker’s assessment of her son’s condition. Will parents and children be subjected to the extreme torture of separation because a mother is not seen to be respectful enough towards the experts, not selected by her, who assessed her children?
If the CWS’s allegations and justifications for its actions are taken at face value, the confiscation of the children has continued from Norway to India. This is because, for a mother in this situation, the gross abuse she would have suffered at the hands of the authorities abroad would be compounded in India by the sexism of Indian laws and society.