Thanks to the frequent incidents of piracy off Somalia coasts in recent years, merchant vessels carry armed guards these days. On 15 February 2012, guards on board of an Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire at an Indian trawler on the sea near Kollam in Kerala and killed two fishermen. It looks like an unprovoked attack as the unarmed fishermen could not have seriously threatened the big tanker.
Naturally, there was uproar in India. After a few days of dithering, Kerala Police took two Italian Navy personnel into custody. Since their own captain identified them, their defence can at best be flimsy. Their plea, that is, the incident happened on international waters and they mistook the Indian fishermen as pirates, will be tested in Indian courts. The second argument is somewhat strange as there has been no incident of piracy off Kerala coast possibly for centuries.
Since day one, Rome mounted diplomatic pressure on New Delhi so that the accused were not tried in India. First, Italy rushed consular officials to Kerala and managed to delay their arrest by a few days, arguing that as the incident happened in International waters, Italy’s laws should apply. After the men were taken into custody, Italy sent their Deputy Foreign Minister to pressure India into handing over the accused.
The Italian government’s dogged perseverance to protect two of their citizens contrasts sharply with the Indian Government’s role in the case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, the expatriate Indian couple who have had their infant children taken away by Norwegian authorities.
You would have read about the case, but let me recap the main facts. Barnavernet, Norway's powerful Child Welfare Service (CWS) took away two-year old Abhigyan and his sister, Aishwarya, who was just a few months old, from their distraught parents in May 2011.
Why did they do so? I heard Anurup on a news channel. He said two things: (a) Abhigyan exhibited autistic tendencies when he was two years old, and (b) Sagarika went back to Norway from India in the winter shortly after the birth of their second child. At that time of the year, there is little daylight in Norway. It makes lots of people depressed and Sagarika underwent a bout of post-natal depression which was possibly accentuated by the absence of daylight.
Abhigyan’s preschool reported his “deviant” behaviour to the CWS, who visited the Bhattacharya household and decided Sagarika was unfit to rear the children. Besides what has been mentioned above, there were other issues too. Anurup told NDTV, ‘They told me “Why are you sleeping with the children in the same bed?’’.’ The CWS also found it unacceptable that the parents fed the babies with hand.
So they took away the infants from their parents and sent them to foster care homes. In a somewhat barbaric show of “civilized” social order, the Norwegian authorities not only took away the babies, but also separated the siblings and put them in different foster homes. As per Norwegian laws, the children can be reunited with their parents only when they are 18, and until then, the parents are allowed three visits per year of an hour’s duration each.
A bit of search on the Internet revealed two things. First, in Norway, a country with 4 million people, more than 12,000 babies were taken away from their biological parents last year on similar grounds, and a disproportionately large number of them were from poor and immigrant families. Secondly, foster parenting is lucrative business in Norway. Foster parents are given money for things like building houses and holidaying.
Has the Indian Government done enough over the last ten months of Sagarika and Anurup’s ordeal? Has any minister visited Norway?
Well, no one even heard of their case until January 2012, although the couple had pleaded to the Indian Embassy in Oslo immediately after the incident. The government woke up more than six months later, much like Kumbhakarna, only when the din made by the media made it impossible for them to continue sleeping. Some of our much maligned politicians – though none from the ruling parties – took up the cause and the CPIM MP Brinda Karat made it a personal mission to get the children repatriated to India. Yet the Indian government did nothing more than making diplomatic noises. Finally, after a huge outpouring of anger, yesterday, the government decided to send a special envoy to Norway.
One government is pulling out all stops to protect two of their citizens who are charged with killing, and the other is being sweetly diplomatic to “expedite a custody row” on behalf of a family that has done no wrong, broken no laws. Does the Indian government have any sense of shame?
As I write this (28 February), the Norwegian authorities have announced they have decided to hand over the children to their uncle. The Hindu reports, “And yet the custody saga is not completely over. The district court is to hold hearings on March 23, when it is expected to overturn its own ruling sending the children into care until they become majors.”
As I watch my two grandsons who are about as old as Abhigyan and Aishwarya, I try to understand the huge sense of insecurity every child has. Separating them from their loved ones is simply one way of torturing them. It must have been an enormous trauma for the babies of Sagarika and Anurup to be suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar faces, language, culture, and environment. I only hope they are reunited with their parents soon. I also hope they do not carry any permanent scar from the devastating childhood experience. And finally, let us also spare a thought for the thousands of infants that are suffering the same fate as Abhigyan and Aishwarya.