Karela Fry

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Big-brother racism

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Jan 23, 2012

Amy Chua’s book took a humourous look at how aspects of child rearing show up the major cultural divides in the world. But these fault lines can also be tragic, especially in countries with big-brother style governance, as the Hindu reports:

Three-year-old Abhigyan and his one-year-old sister Aishwarya are in foster care in Norway after the country’s Child Protection Service charged their mother, Sagarika, with “negligence and unable to bring up” the children. Barnevarne, a child care service of Norway, took custody of the children in May last year when Aishwarya was just five months old and on breast feed.

A Norwegian court has now ruled that the two children would stay in different foster homes in until the age of 18, with the parents allowed to meet them only once a year for one hour. The court has, however, said that if the couple separated, it could give the custody of the children to the father Anurup Bhattacharya who is employed as a senior geoscientist in a multinational firm since 2006.

The couple fear the worst when their visa expires next month and they would have to return to India without their children.

Child right laws in Norway are very strict and it was Abhigyan’s “erratic” behaviour at school which made the school authorities suspect that he was probably not being brought up well. The child protection services people started visiting the Bhattacharya household for an hour every week and decided that Sagarika was not capable of looking after her children as she “was in depression, tired and had no patience”. They said the mother “over-fed” her child, fed with fingers and the boy slept with his father.

In a memorandum submitted to the President, the grandparents have said that Abhigyan had already lost his mother tongue. Both the children are traumatized as Barvevarne has arranged to keep them with foster families till 18 years.

The External Affairs Ministry had sent letters to the Norwegian government on December 28 last year and again on January 5 but failed to get any response from them.

NDTV adds:

“The Child Welfare Service has a responsibility to intervene if measures at the home are not sufficient to meet a child’s needs. Examples are when there is every probability that the child’s health or development may be seriously harmed because the parents are incapable of taking adequate responsibility for their child. The Norwegian Child Welfare Act applies to all children in Norway, regardless of the child’s nationality, citizenship or cultural background,” said Gunnar Toresen, Head of Child Welfare Services from Stavanger, Norway.

Norway’s Child Protective Service is a powerful body charged with protecting the rights of children living in difficult family situations. But there are many reports of excesses.

“There has been a report in UN in 2005 which criticized Norway for taking too many children in public care. The amount was 12,500 children and Norway is a small country,” said Svein Kjetil Lode Svendsen, a lawyer.

It seems that there are about a million children in Norway. So, that would imply that a little more than 1% of the children are taken away from their parents and put into foster homes. If this were to happen in China or India then we would certainly see many articles about in the world’s liberal press about big-brothers and dictatorial governments.

IBN Live reported:

External Affairs Minister SM Krishna on Sunday spoke to Indian Ambassador in Norway, asking him to meet Norwegian Foreign Minister and demand for release and handover kids to their parents.

“If at any cost it can’t be done as per their laws, then kids should be sent back to India to their grandparents. It should be treated with utmost seriousness,” he said. Krishna will be speaking to Norwegian Foreign Minister on Monday.

Ministry of External Affairs said the matter has been pursued actively with Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the strong demarches that were made in Oslo and [in New Delhi] on January 5, 2012.

In another report, the Hindu wrote:

A statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs here said Oslo is understood to be trying to find a solution to the issue.

The first article in the Hindu ended with a quote which brought into focus a cultural divide which was not acknowledged by the Norwegian welfare authorities:

“While I do not doubt the intentions of the authorities in Norway, taking away children from their legal guardians who are citizens of another country certainly reflects a wide cultural gulf between their understanding of child care and that in our country,” said Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who accompanied the couple to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Cultural blindness is human. But refusing to recognize it is intolerance. And this incident again smells of the kind of self-congratulatory racism which has been creeping over Nordic Europe in recent years. The argument starts from the fact that the Nordic countries removed poverty in the 60s and 70s. Undoubtedly this was a great achievement, seen nowhere else in the world. Could Colaba have eliminated poverty? It has about the same population as Norway and for a while probably paid up a fourth of India’s tax collection. One doubts it. In any case, why is it that having demonstrated the economic, moral and political committment to the removal of poverty, the Nordic countries are seeing poverty creep back? Clearly (yes, clearly) this can’t be their fault. It must be the fault of all the immigrants.

Going by election results over the last few years, there is a gradual increase in the number of people who vote for far-right parties which subscribe to a more virulent version of this argument. The fraction of such people in the Nordic countries now stands at about 4-5%, ie, one out of 20 or 25. It is quite possible that the fraction of people who have unexamined beliefs cognate with the above argument, liberal but lazy, can be as large as 20%, which is one in 5. If so, then it is hardly likely that common unexamined beliefs of this kind did not play some role in this incident.

Jan 25, 2012

That still leaves the 4 in 5 who would have thought more clearly about liberalism and the meaning of a welfare state. The following statement reported by IE reflects such a more balanced point of view:

[T]he head of CWS in Stavanger, Gunnar Toresen told The Indian Express, “The impression given is that Norwegian authorities have intervened on the basis of cultural prejudice and that the case is a result of cultural insensitivity and as such an insult to India and Indian way of life…. As head of Child Welfare Services, I most strongly deny that this case in any way is based on cultural prejudice or misinterpretation.”

“I am unable to give any comments regarding the particular grounds in this case because of our duty of confidentiality,” said Toresen.

“The decision to remove the two children from their parents’ custody was taken by the County Committee (the family court) on November 28. The committee’s decision was unanimous…. in the ruling of the court, there are no references to the explanations given by the parents to the media as grounds for the ruling,” Toresen said.

The two children are currently in the custody of “non-Bengali-speaking parents”, sources said. But they are not being given any food, which is culturally banned as per Hindu beliefs

Cultural disconnect between the children and their foster parents is forming the basis of counter to the order of the family court, which was upheld once. Sources said this has emerged as a “legitimate concern” for the biological parents.

Also, the biological parents have questioned the report of the expert on the basis of which the family court gave its decision. The Norwegian authorities have appointed a “new expert” who is right now making an “independent assessment” of the children before submitting his report.

The two sides are now in “dialogue” and they are waiting for the court hearing at the District court to take place at the “earliest”, sources said. The Norwegian government is also going to foot the legal expenses of the Indian couple, who have filed their second appeal.

Feb 18, 2012

NDTV reported developments:

Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya met their children after three months on Friday. For about two hours it was family time as usual. They held the toddlers, fed them and played with them. Then, it was time to go. For the Bhattacharyas are allowed to meet their children only once in three months.

Anurup, a geo-scientist, lives with his wife Sagarika in Stavanger, Norway. They last met their children in November. As parents and children met on Friday, officials of the Norwegian child welfare services kept a close watch through a two-way mirror; “We can’t see but they monitor our actions…they watched us from a glass window,” Mr Bhattacharya explained.

Indian government intervened and the Norwegian authorities agreed to consider giving custody of the two children to their uncle, a dentist from Asansol in West Bengal, who has left his practice in India to stay in Stavanger till the children are allowed to return with him to India.

Arunabhas Bhattacharya is being made to attend regular sessions with the welfare service and psychologists. He is being taught how to take care of the children. He has been asked to stay away from his brother and sister-in-law. He will be granted the children’s custody only after the authorities are sure that their upbringing will “meet with their needs.” He too met the children on Friday.

Mar 20, 2012

ET reports:

Ahead of the hearing on the custody row involving two NRI children in Norway, two senior Indian officials are leaving for the country.

The two MEA officials are heading to Norway on the directions of External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and will be attending the custody hearing on March 23 in Stavanger, official sources said here.

NRI couple Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya’s children Abhigyan (3) and Aishwarya (1) were taken away last year by Barnevarne (Norwegian Child Welfare Services), which claimed emotional disconnect with the parents, and placed them in foster parental care.

March 21, 2012

It may turn out that the Norwegian authorities were completely correct. The media and the Indian public could have been misled about this issue. The Hindu reports:

Given the rapidly unravelling sequence of events within the family in question, Indian diplomats who have left New Delhi for Oslo to resolve the ongoing custody crisis involving Abhigyan (3) and Aishwarya (1), taken into care by the Child Welfare Service (CWS) in May 2011, may have a tough time getting the compromise agreement between India and Norway work, it became clear on Monday. Battle-lines between the children’s young parents, Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, were hardening over the weekend. The father has now virtually given a clean chit to the CWS and put the blame on his wife for what had been going on.

The diplomats sent to Norway by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna are to oversee the transfer of custody of the Bhattacharyas’ children from the parents to the paternal uncle, Dr. Arunabhash Bhattacharya. The dental surgeon from Kolkata is considered by the CWS as “fit, capable and responsible enough to shoulder the burden” of caring for children, one of whom has been described as “severely damaged.” But the newly revealed acrimony between the couple could yet derail the process.

“It was not just cultural bias that prompted the CWS to act. My wife has a serious psychological problem. She is extremely immature, like a teenager really, and all this media attention has gone to her head. I tried to protect her and do her bidding. But last night was such a shock that I have now moved out and am seeking a legal separation,” Mr. Bhattacharya told The Hindu.

In fact, this correspondent received a phone call in Paris at 3 a.m. on March 19 from Arunabhash, the panic-stricken brother of Mr. Bhattacharya, seeking help. He was advised to contact Rahul Tiwari, a geophysicist with Total in Stavanger, who knows the family well. Mr. Tiwari apparently managed to call Ms. Bhattacharya and calm her down. But he told The Hindu it was extremely difficult because she was “shouting and in an almost hysterical rage.”

Attempts to contact Ms. Bhattacharya failed; her telephone had been switched off.

India has put much pressure on Norway to hand over the children, accusing the CWS of cultural bias. But the CWS had all along insisted that the children were removed because they were victims of parental neglect and that the older child had serious psychological or neurological issues. Both were “damaged children,” the CWS has contended.

How all this pans out on March 23 when the court is to hear the case, will become clearer in the days ahead.

It is normally very difficult for an Indian citizen abroad to get help from the Indian consulate. This case may just have made life even harder for Indian in difficulty abroad.

March 22, 2012

NDTV called this egg-on-the-face:

After reacting for three months to shrill TV debates — lodging protests with Norway, issuing frequent official statements, summoning Oslo’s ambassador and despatching a special envoy to that country — India beat a redfaced retreat today, saying it can no longer “interfere” in the custody row of the Indian children because the situation has “changed”.

As realisation dawned that it might have escalated a family dispute to some sort of diplomatic incident, the Indian government put off the planned visit of its diplomat to Norway.

Minister of state for external affairs Preneet Kaur said, “The government has tried its best to bring the children home so that they have a future in the country. But a new situation has developed… we cannot interfere. The visit of a joint secretary (to Norway) has been postponed.”

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said, “At this point, the version we are getting has changed. We are relying on our embassy to contact everybody for a more substantive report. But there are also elements of this, which is within the family. I think it would be best for the government not to step in and make comments on what the family is doing.”

If so, everyone in India who ever said anything about the matter is in the same position. All the facts in this case seem to have re-aligned themselves. NDTV reported what seems likely now to be the end of the matter:

In a huge setback to the Indian couple fighting for the custody of their children in Norway, the Child Welfare Services (CWS) has categorically said the children cannot go back to family now and the case will be dropped.

In a statement, the CWS said, “New developments involving two Indian children make it impossible to carry out the hearing in Stavanger District Court that was scheduled for Friday, March 23. The conflicts over the last few days between the parents and their respective families mean that the conditions for entering into an agreement of this kind are no longer present.”

During the custody battle, the CWS had agreed to give children to their uncle, a dentist named Arunabhas. But over the last few days, the parents and the uncle of the children have changed their position several times on the agreement that had originally been reached.

“This has caused the Child Welfare Service to doubt their motives as far as the agreement is concerned. The Child Welfare Service does not have sufficient confidence that an agreement would be fulfilled as intended because the necessary consensus and understanding between the parties and their families does not exist,” the CWS statement said.

April 24, 2012

IE reports what is possibly the end of this whole confused story:

[A district court in Stavanger, Norway] gave custody of Abhigyan (3) and Aishwarya (1) to their uncle Arunabhash Bhattacharya after he, the children’s parents and Norway’s Child Welfare Service (CWS) submitted an undertaking saying the conditions for their care in India had been met.

“The court has supported the joint application submitted by the children’s parents and the Child Welfare Service at the hearing on April 17,” authorities in Norway said in a statement issued today.

“The court issued a ruling granting the application made jointly by the parties. This stated that the grounds for removing the children from the care of their parents were and continue to be present, but that it is no longer necessary for them to stay with a family in Norway as agreement has now been reached that the children are to grow up in the care of their uncle and will not be living with their parents,” the statement said.

The children’s uncle and their foster parents in Norway would accompany them to India, Anurup Bhattacharya said. He did not say when he would return to India himself. The children’s mother, Sagarika Bhattacharya, is currently with her parents in Kolkata.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

January 23, 2012 at 4:29 am

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