The recent arrest of an Indian couple in Norway for alleged abuse of their child has once again raked up many anxieties about parenting, cultural specificity, racism and law. Unlike the earlier instance of the Bhattacharyas whose children were taken away by Norwegian child services because they hand-fed them and slept in the same bed, which Indians see as normal gestures of affection, the second case does throw up some uncomfortable issues.
The arrested couple are accused of burning their child with a hot spoon and beating him with a belt because of his habit of wetting himself. Just as we recognise hand-feeding as a routine sign of love, we cannot pretend we do not recognise this kind of abuse as a routine form of disciplining children in our society. And that we also often hear of it in contexts where a weaker person is in the care of someone children cruel to aged parents, employers abusive to domestic help and teachers violent to students.
It may well be true that the couple struggled with the psychological difficulties of their child and were denied help from the system as they were not Norwegian citizens. But we should not use this and other debates about the corruption, limitation or rigidity of the Norwegian system, to hide from ourselves as usually happens when such incidents come to light in India. Such abuse, firstly, comes to light only when it reaches a point of near-death, which indicates how normalised it otherwise must be.
Even then, our system isn’t quite geared to respond to the situation in a positive or constructive way, precisely because of this normalisation. Just as a parent often beats a child when he/she feels the child has shamed them by failing to meet some public standard of success, so the government punishes those who they feel bring shame to society. This is most evident in how the state responds to sex workers. They are “rescued” without being asked and put into ‘shelters’, where they will supposedly be in the care of those, who like parents, know what is right.
Then, in places like the Navjivan Sudhar Kendra in Mankhurd, these women are often raped, starved, ignored when ill and basically abused as a way of life. It is only when these women then “publicly shame” their caretakers by exposing the abuse that there is a brouhaha as happened when several women escaped from the tortures of the Mankhurd shelter.
Such moments destabilise the unspoken norm that authority brings a right to violence - but only temporarily. For a while some words waft through the air in seeming response probe, committee, Woman and Child Department, court directive. Or as CM Chavan said “stern action will be taken against the culprits.” Let’s not allow political correctness to make us forget the importance of sternness.
So, you send the shelter head on extended leave, suspend the district probational officer and transfer a deputy commissioner for systematic torture on their watch, but you incarcerate and abuse women who exchange sex for money. Sternness has an odd sense of proportion, eh? Three months later, when nothing seriously changes and more women escape, the language is quite different and so are the culprits.
Suddenly it’s established that the women are in fact beyond disciplining and caretakers are retrospectively justified. No one says it, but it’s implicit when Mr RR Patil ensures that police ask officials to raise the boundary wall and install a barbed wire fence, prepare verified dossiers on the women, not the caretakers, and conduct surprise checks where they frisk the inmates. Questioning Daddy only ensures more punishment.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.