Saturday, January 28, 2012
Inhumanity in Norway
By Swapan Dasgupta
The establishment of an all-embracing “nanny state” has been a cause of concern to many sensible, right-thinking citizens of the European Union (EU).
In Britain, to cite just one example, there is anger and exasperation over the way apprehended illegal immigrants have been able to avert deportation by falling back on the EU’s human rights legislation. The so-called right to family life has been successfully used by those who have broken the law to prevent constituent nations from acting against them.
So absurd is the situation that illegal immigrants were even able to cite the ownership of a cat and membership of a local cricket team to earn for themselves the right to stay in a country where they had overstayed their welcome.
It is against this bizarre backdrop of an over-regulated state, replete with gratuitous codification of daily life, that we must view the strange case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, Indian citizens resident in the Norwegian town of Stavenger.
In May 2011, the child welfare department of the town took the couple’s two children, a son aged two and a daughter then barely five months old into custodial care. The Bhattacharyas were accused of dereliction of parental responsibilities.
What were the faults of the Bhattacharyas, a normal middle-class couple with the husband working as a geo-scientist with Halliburton, a well-known US company? In the courts where the case was heard, the account of parental negligence was provided. These included the absence of separate rooms for the children, the lack of appropriate toys, the absence of a separate diaper changing table and the fact that the son slept in the same bed as the parents and was fed by hand — which allegedly amounted to “force feeding”. The mother was also guilty of breast feeding the daughter in an unsuitable way.
According to a report in an Indian newspaper, filed from Oslo, the authorities argued in court “that when the mother breast-fed the infant, she put her on her lap without holding her, holding the head against the breast but not close to her body”.
Taken together with the fact that the mother had admitted to once slapping her son — a prohibited act under Norwegian law — the Child Welfare Service concluded that the mother failed to look after the children’s emotional needs. The larger interests of the children, it felt, were better served by placing them in foster homes.
The city court of Stavanger agreed with the Child Welfare Service and sent the children to foster homes. As an act of generosity, it allowed the parents to see their children — one of whom was still being breast-fed — twice each year for two hours. In a further revision by the Country Board of the Child Welfare Service it has now been stated that the children must remain in foster homes till they are 18 years of age but would be allowed to spend three hours each year with their parents in three separate visits of an hour each.
The sheer inhumanity of the Norwegian state defies belief. What happened to the Bhattacharyas is not merely the result of the perverted thinking of authorities that believe they know better than the natural parents of children.
It is also an outcome of insular Europeans not knowing and not bothering to appreciate the fact there is no prescribed way of bringing up children. That a child does not have a separate room and the fact that diapers were changed on the bed rather than on a table of a prescribed size are niggling issues. These have more to do with their parents’ financial priorities than a bid to wilfully scar the children emotionally.
Indian children routinely share a bed with their parents or grandparents. This is often a function of space or gestures of affection and they haven’t resulted in India becoming a nation of the emotionally traumatised.
Equally, if feeding a child by hand constitutes an inhuman act of force-feeding, more than 95 per cent of Indian parents would be found guilty of cruelty. Norway cannot dictate how an Indian family chooses to eat. By this absurd logic, Westerners in India should be advised that toilet paper is unhygienic and environmentally unsound!
Like many prosperous but insular countries, the authorities in Norway possess an infuriating sense of sanctimoniousness, believing that their habits, customs and worldviews are the only routes to well-being. There is no common sense view of right and wrong.
In the matter of bringing up children, what the Norwegian authorities are demanding is not emotional sustenance but homogenisation. These are the hallmarks of a totalitarian system that believes children belong primarily to the state. Norway is not a totalitarian state but its social codes resonate with checklists of uniformity.
It is heartening that the Government of India has responded to the sense of outrage at home by summoning the Norwegian ambassador to South Block. It is said that a solution may be worked out with the grandparents of the children giving a helping hand to the Bhattacharya couple.
In other words, Norway will be given a face-saving way out that stops short of its authorities admitting that what happened to the Bhattacharyas was a gross violation of their human rights, particularly their right to a family life and their right to pursue cultural practices. India has a moral duty to rescue two of its children who have become victims of judicial abduction.