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THE STATE AND A MOTHER

It has been several days since child welfare authorities passed interim orders for two foster children to be restored to their mother after finding her fit to take care of them. Yet the children have not been restored, apparently owing to the police’s refusal to recognize the authority’s orders.

The Bhattacharya children,who were Indian citizens living with their parents in Norway, first hit the news when they were taken away on bizarre grounds by the Norwegian child welfare authorities. These were “forcefeeding”, a tendency to temper tantrums in the son and the fact that the five-month-old girl appeared to “prefer” looking at other people’s faces than at her parents’.

The actual details of the Norwegian proceedings have been scrutinized by experts. A petition recently filed with the National Human Rights Commission by jurists and human rights activists, including two retired high court judges, says of the Norwegian proceedings that they reveal “a shocking absence of any justification for the grave and life-altering step of permanent confiscation of the children from their parents and the violation of basic human rights of both the parents and the children in that case.”

Then there was the confounding spectacle of the Norwegian “child welfare” authorities refusing to hand the children over to anyone other than a 26-year-old unmarried uncle. It was reported that the mother was not happy with this arrangement. What mother would be? But she, no doubt, was compelled to agree under threat of never seeing her children again.

Finishing touch

Back in India, after escaping the intransigent Norwegian system, the mother found herself up against the injustice of the Indian patriarchy. Her estranged husband did not return from Norway and his family said that the children were theirs. In India, there is nothing new in this. The orthodoxy is that children belong to the husband’s family. The mother enjoys her rights only through her husband and his family.

But there was something different here. The mother was not up against conventions alone, but also the unconventional (and in India, possibly illegal) fostering arrangement forced on her in Norway. Here was a mother deprived of her children without even a custody battle.

So now the mother had to prove to the Indian authorities that she was a “fit mother”. No woman should have to prove her right to be a mother. In India even criminals, be they convicted assassins, are, quite rightly, not questioned regarding their role as mothers. Yet, this woman, an ordinary citizen whose children were snatched away by a foreign authority for no justifiable reason, had to spend months proving her “worth” as a mother to Indian authorities. Finally she was found to be physically and mentally fit. A competent authority ordered interim restoration.

But now the police refuses to act. How can the police refuse to act on the order of an Indian authority? How can the police raise questions about the authority’s order? The police have reportedly asked whether the Child Welfare Committee of Burdwan is a court. But the question is this: are the police a court? Since when do the police have powers to question orders of a statutory authority?

This is where our system puts the finishing touch to gender injustice in Indian society. Whatever justice a woman manages to draw out of the system against the patriarchal establishment, is cancelled by refusal of the police to accept the authority of the bodies that have been set up to protect women’s and children’s rights. This has to stop. It is not just about one mother and her lonely battle for justice, but about a fundamental issue. Are we serious about supporting women and children in India against social injustice?