The case of NRI couple Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya losing custody of their two children has raised the issue of 'ownership' and the question of whether the State has the right to interfere in 'family matters'. We ask the experts
The image of NRI couple Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya pleading for custody of their two children on national television all the way from Norway, via Skype, for the better part of last week sparked reactions ranging from empathy to outrage.
The couple would soon become the poster parents for Indians living abroad, as well as back home.
"The West - and I'm referring to Europe and not America here - has stretched the philosophy of human rights too far," says Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist at LH Hiranandani Hospital.
"This is not an example of cultural prejudice, but a deranged interpretation of child rights," he adds. Shetty is referring to the Bhattacharyas' claim in the media that their two children - a three-year-old and a one-year-old - were taken into foster care because of cultural prejudice.
The couple claims that the only 'crime' they were guilty of committing were hand-feeding their children and allowing them to sleep in the same bed as them - both considered 'normal', if not 'healthy' in Indian society.
"Feeding a child with the fingers is the most healthy way of feeding a child as it involves touch," says Shetty, adding that the relationship between cutlery and touch is an inverse one he argues, "The greater the number of accessories, the greater the distance between humans."
Shetty, who conducts workshops on teacher-child bonding, says that he encourages teachers to 'hold' children, and therefore that touch often encourages agitated children to calm down, in at least "80% cases".
"The instincts of parents should be respected by authorities," he says, adding, "We can't convert everything into science. Too much tinkering by professionals is not good."
Regarding the extent of the role of the State, he advises, "Preserve the wisdom and correct the aberrations."
He goes on to emphasise the need for the understanding of cultural differences, and says, "A culture which has thrived on trust and another which has thrived on paranoia can lead to very different philosophies.
Keen however, not to paint a rosy picture, he says that he is aware that child rights are routinely flouted in India, and that the country has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest rate of child abuse.
Dr Sanjay Kumavat believes that it is important to keep the dialogue going. "This is the tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. Parents are considered owners of the child," he says.
"Only when there is a bruise do we speak of abuse. Our system is such that we don't go beyond the family, and what happens in the family we prefer to keep it within closed doors."
Norway NRI couple: The case, so far
NRI couple Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya lost custody of their two children - three-year-old Avigyan and one-year-old Aishwarya in May 2011. The Child Welfare Services in Norway alleged parental neglect.
The Bhattacharyas, however, claim that they were found 'guilty' only of hand-feeding their children and allowing them to sleep in the same bed as them, and therefore that cultural prejudice had a role to play in determining 'parental neglect'.
The Norwegian authorities have refused to either confirm or deny the account provided by the parents, as they say they are bound by confidentiality. They have, however, gone on record to say that the relevant service visited the family weekly for several months, and that all the required procedures were in place, as also that drastic intervention such as this is rare.
The Bhattacharyas lost the case in the lower courts in Norway, which has ordered that the children be in the care of foster parents till the age of 18. Under the court order, the parents would be allowed three hours' contact a year, in three separate visits.
According to the latest reports, the Norwegian childcare agency has allegedly agreed to hand over custody of the children to Anurup's brother, Arunabhas, who will soon join the couple in Norway. The couple, whose work visas expire in March 2012, claim that they intend to return to India after being reunited with their children.
Parenting styles and culture
According to experts, parents' aspirations for their children are largely influenced by the culture and time they live in. In certain countries, such as China and Israel, serving the country is deemed most important, which is why there is likely to be a greater emphasis on encouraging traits such as studiousness, cooperativeness and a respect for elders in children. In countries such as America, each family must decide for itself what its aims are, thus emphasising the role of the individual within society.