Dangerous altruism

Published : Apr 20, 2012 00:00 IST

The maternal grandparents and relatives of the Bhattacharya children, with their pictures, at a demonstration outside the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi on February 27.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

The maternal grandparents and relatives of the Bhattacharya children, with their pictures, at a demonstration outside the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi on February 27.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

The case of the Bhattacharya children in Norway indicates that the Child Welfare Service of that country is insensitive to the cultural milieus of immigrants.

Many of us have been following the unfolding story, sometimes strange and sometimes poignant, of the two little Indian children in Stavanger, Norway, who have been put in foster care after being removed from their parents, Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya, in a manner that has been described as nothing short of deception. One, a girl, is a little over a year old and the elder, a boy, is around three years old, going by what one reads in the newspapers.

Let us state some of the basic facts of the case as reported in the media. The Bhattacharyas have a rocky marriage. Whatever else they are, they are not a happy, contented and loving couple. There may be a number of reasons for this, but they are not germane to the issue that is the worry here.

Because of the nature of the marriage, it seems, the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (CWS) took away the children and placed them in foster homes. The boy is said to be autistic, and it has been reported that he has stopped talking and that he frequently bangs his head against the wall. Clearly, the little child is tormented, but no one seems to care. There is no report of any medical attention given to him.

The grandparents of the children, both paternal and maternal, have repeatedly and desperately offered to take the children and look after them. This request has been rejected for inexplicable reasons by the Norwegian court to which the CWS made a reference. When the Indian government, through the Ministry of External Affairs intervened, and the Foreign Ministers of both countries talked about this, and a senior officer was sent from India to intercede in the court, some decision seems to have been taken by the CWS that the children's paternal uncle, their father's younger brother, would be given custody of the child. In the weird world of the CWS, the grandparents were found unsuitable to look after the children, but a young unmarried 27-year-old man was.

The decisions of the CWS seem to have been taken on the basis of a report made out by a supercilious English woman with only basic education, called Michelle Middleton, who found fault with the father, Anurup Bhattacharya, for not owning a car; her reasoning being that he would then have gone to work and got home quicker, and thereby be able to spend more time with his children. She also faulted him for not knowing Norwegian. How that would help him, a Bengali, care for his Bengali children is something the woman does not explain. In fact, she proceeds to fault him for taking classes to learn Norwegian and also for taking driving lessons. As Vaiju Naravane has pointed out in a very perceptive article in The Hindu of March 23, Anurup Bhattacharya is at fault for not having a car and at fault for trying to learn to drive so that he can have a car. He is at fault for not knowing Norwegian and at fault for trying to learn the language.

Vaiju Naravane also reveals that Norway, with just five million people, has put more children in foster care, away from their parents, than Britain and France, each of which has a population of around 60 million. Of the 12,492 children put in foster care in 2011, only 23 out of 1,000 are from non-immigrant families; 35 are children born in Norway of immigrant parents and 51 are children of first-generation immigrants. Without accusing Norwegians of being racist, one can certainly say that they seem to have some kind of assumption that they are superior in every way to the immigrants who come to that very rich country for work.

One is not really interested in the nature of Norway's CWS. That is their business; they may well be doing a grand job or they may be producing damaged children the problem is theirs. What one is concerned about, though, is their assumption that they can do to children who are not Norwegian citizens but citizens of India something as soulless as keeping them away from their families, meaning not only their parents but their grandparents and other relations. The answer they will probably give is that they are following Norwegian law, which is no answer at all. No law can keep the citizens of another country away from his or her family if they have not violated a law in Norway. What law have the two toddlers violated?

They can counter that by saying that the children need care. They may. Who has given the Norwegians the divine right to give it? The care the children need has to be given by the family, their grandparents, parents (if they are not fighting with each other) or uncles and aunts. Here, in India, in their land. The Norwegian CWS may then say, oh but we do not know what kind of care you can give in your country. It is primitive and will harm the children. The answer is that is none of their business.

One has the privilege of knowing some Norwegians and there cannot be finer people than the ones that one has as friends. Caring, loving, gentle, warm and cheerful, they are certainly not like other persons one knows who are not Norwegians. Which is why the events that have occurred surrounding the Bhattacharya children are such a shock. One had, like so many others, made the mistake of assuming that since the Norwegians one knows are such exceptionally fine people, other Norwegians must be like them.

The way the Bhattacharya children have been treated is horrifying in its soullessness, but the real point is that these are children whom they have no right to treat in any way, good or bad. They are Indian children; merely because they are babies and cannot speak for themselves does not give the Norwegians the right to do anything to them, good or bad. All they can do is send them back to their families. We have dreadful problems here in India, but the little children will be with their grandparents, their kin, and sheltered in the love and care that they will get from them. That is something the very sanitised, polished and rich country called Norway seems not to be able to understand the right the children have to be with their own. Vaiju Naravane quotes a former Norwegian welfare officer, now an international civil servant as saying, I think there is a lot of wisdom in many of these immigrant communities that the CWS could, and perhaps should, take on board. I hope the CWS will, in future, have the humility to understand this and internalise it.

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