Indian children being snatched away from the presumably loving arms of their natural parents by a government is naturally an emotive piece of news. Facts are few, and fed to us in drips by one side alone. Received through our various filters of patriotism and ancient practice, this seems wrong, very wrong. And yet we stay silent.
The Norwegian child protection services took a four year old and a one year old into their custody almost a year ago stating that they were not being adequately looked after by their natural parents. The boy was picked up from his nursery school while the infant girl from home. The case is not being discussed by the Norwegian authorities as they say it is sub-judice. Presumably the privacy rights of the children also stop them from making many details public. What we have been told is that the elder child demonstrated autistic tendencies and was not being looked after properly.
Some of the accusations seem horribly warped – the younger child co-sleeping with the parents is supposed to be wrong and punishable. That is ridiculous – most civilizations ensure that babies sleep close to their mothers. Not only does it help the child emotionally and physically (the mother’s heart beat has been known to revive children), it is much easier for an exhausted parent to constantly look after the baby. There are arguments on both sides – as there are for everything relating to good parenting – but for any normal human – co-sleeping cannot be a crime punishable by separation. Similarly, they have been accused of feeding the child by hand. And pray, what did you do before cutlery was invented? Feeding by hands provides two way communication, is the natural organic way of doing things. Billions of people feed their child this way. It is also the Indian way of doing things – and the children are Indian.
Co-sleeping, feeding by hand – the story cannot be as simple as this. Conversations with Indians who live in Norwayreveal their faith in the authorities. Yet, the Norwegian CPS has been slammed by UN agencies for its harsh judgements and large number of children it has taken away from parents. The results of these fostering arrangements have not always delivered positive results. The internet is rife with stories of children being ignored, mistreated or ill treated by their foster parents despite it being a lucrative arrangement for them. There is clearly something very wrong in a country where over 12,500 children are taken away – a double digit percent of their child population.
Clearly the Bengali parents were unable to assimilate and figure out the Norwegian way of doing things. The family is now bearing the consequences of something travelers the world over face – dealing with laws and rules that are strange and unfamiliar. There are many who say that just as ignorance of the law is no excuse for a crime, ignoring your current cultural circumstances has penalties. In this case a bit of both seems to have happened. If they live there, however temporarily, they should know the norms.
More importantly, it becomes incumbent on every traveler to be aware of the mores of the places they go to in order to ensure their own safety and well being. For it takes very little for cultural cross connections to be triggered off. Want proof? Start a conversation about the use of toilet paper and watch the divide that cannot be bridged. The poor family is trapped in such a situation where neither side can comprehend the other point of view.
The family has not helped their case much either – more evidence of their naiveté in dealing with different cultures. When the children were taken away, the couple went to the police station to seek redressal. Where the mother apparently shouted and cried. This is perfectly normal and expected behaviour inIndia. The parents were distraught. Worse, motherhood had been violated. This is extreme provocation. Yet her outburst was seen as further evidence of emotional instability, thus making her more unsuitable to look after children. C’mon, try it inIndia- snatch a child from a mother and that is exactly how they will react. Ghaayal sherni is the ideal that has been placed before us for centuries – or at least since Bollywood took over. Here, in India, if you are not loud and hysterical, you are not taken seriously. That has been their training. In a different context and place. They forgot that last bit.
Even her parents have not helped their case – after meeting the West Bengal Chief Minster to help them with this, they spoke to the press and were quoted saying that the mother of the tiny tots ( and I paraphrase here) had gone crazy with grief – and elaborated on that. That does not support their case at all! While her grief does need to be publicized to garner support for their cause, the language needs to be carefully crafted to support their goal.
The Norwegian authorities seem to have pinned the blame on the mother, even asking the couple to separate, saying that the mother is unfit. Do they even know what they are asking? Splitting a couple (saat janam ka saath and all) is far more offensive than simple stuff like co-sleeping and feeding with one’s hands. Here they clearly advocate breaking up a family. If one were to given to conspiracy theories, the current evidence seems to indicate that destroying this family was what they wanted.
This case seems to have been mishandled all through. The elder child has shown signs of autism, the CPS says. Firstly, autism is not a disease – it is a spectrum disorder that shows up in different ways, often in extraordinary gifted maths and music talent, often as social incompetence. (Been to IIT, anyone?) Some children need some support to navigate societies, others need intensive care. Was the child really autistic? Was the abilty of the Norwegians so limited that they could not offer support services without uprooting the children?
Even the evidence, as shared, is inadequate. The child went to nursery, sat in a corner and banged his head on the floor. If the child has been brought up in a traditional Bengali household-and there are plenty of them spread across the world – then he was facing an overwhelming situation and merely reacted to that. Indian children do emote with their bodies and throw more tantrums in public than most other cultures. If he did not know the language, was left in a corner by other children and was given limited portions of bland white looking food that he has rarely been asked to eat, then a three year old child will certainly want to bang their head in frustration. In a traditional household, a three year old would rarely have had to feed themselves – and would not know how to. It is a wonder they have not brought that up as a disability.
This neatly brings us to the other learned disabilities that are a consequence of our parenting techniques, but we leave that for another day.
But it is true that inIndia, we are a co-dependant culture. This is seen as a psychological condition in other parts of the world and the right way to bind families and societies here. We build networks based on creating dependencies. A person coming from such a bright world filled with affection expressed via dependence, via incompetence (there is even a word for it in Bengali – Naekami) is thrust into cold and lonely climes where interdependence is neither sought nor encouraged. Indeed the concept of community is very different, with nobody to share the burden, no family to take for granted when you need that desperate break from the continual burden of parenting. Let us not fool ourselves into saying that parenting of young children is easy just because it has been done before.
It is said that it takes a village to bring up a child. Indians are normally not trained to do things on our own. We have people around us – servants, relatives, cousins, neighbours. Our social structures share the load, seeking to spread it so that nobody cracks under the strain. Is it possible that the mother was overloaded and overwhelmed. Sure. Which mother is not? Does that mean you take her children away? Which parent really knows how to juggle two children when they are only three months into the job? If this mother was unable to take the elder child to nursery on time as she was breastfeeding the younger one – was that neglect? It would be far worse to snatch an infant from her food – she prioritized, as mothers do. Punctuality, for Indians, for a three year old is not such a priority – being late cannot constitute criminal neglect. We are humans, not programmed machines. Flexibility, adjustment and learning on the job is the stuff of life.
Norwegian CPS have been cold and cruel in this case. Unless the children were abused (which we will never know), the evidence in the public domain combined with the past history of the CPS indicts the service agency. Their rulebooks need to recognize the cruel trauma of separation as child abuse.
What of the children? What happens if they stay in care? What happens when they get sent back – will the four month old, now at a year in age even recognize her mother? Will the four year old recover from separation anxiety ever in his life? If he is autistic, will he get good care away from his parents? Or will he be better off in alone, fostered in a country with institutions to guide his life. There is no good way out of this horribly mangled situation. The key concern in this should be the welfare of the children, and whatever the outcome, the current series of unfortunate events has compromised that for ever.