India, with the largest child population in the world, doesn't have a credible database or reliable institutional mechanism with regard to child abuse.

The hue and cry over the appropriation of Abhigyan and Aishwarya by the Norwegian Child Protection Services (CPS) seemed to have ended, with the decision to hand over the children to their Kolkata-based uncle. He is now in Norway to complete the legal formalities and bring the children to India.

However, there are reports claiming that Norwegian authorities have sent a letter to their parent of the children asking them if they could agree to the children settling in Norway. It is worth noting that the child abduction controversy occurred in a country that ranks highest in the Human Development Index (HDI), a score heavily built on child welfare indicators. Therefore, it would be important to look afresh at the so-called “Indian couple's nightmare in Norway” from different angles.

Shaken baby syndrome

The necessity for a well-organised and vigilant CPS is brought home by a real-life incident that one of the authors dealt with at a US hospital.

Bryan, a baby who was just a few days old, with his eyes popped out of the sockets, whole body turned into blisters, hair scorched, and his burned feet filling the room with a pungent smell was the strangest of all experiences, even to the senior health professionals working there. Little Bryan was burned alive in a microwave oven by his mentally deranged mother.

‘Shaken baby syndrome' — a descriptive term for babies physically abused by means of violent shaking — is a typical ground for CPS intervention. Sadly, those children are usually admitted to hospital with severe brain injury and retinal bleed — a tell-tale sign of physical abuse.

Such events usually happen in the background of socially deprived parents/single parent in an emotionally unstable relationship complicated by alcohol and drugs.

According to Dr Rachel Berger, a child abuse expert at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, there is a 50 per cent increase in ‘shaken baby syndrome' following the recent economic recession in the US. Who will protect those kids? Obviously not their parents! The Norwegian social welfare system expects the State to take direct responsibility of its young citizens through a centralised CPS, locally known as Barnevernet. An ombudsman for children, not obliged to any governmental bodies, leads the Norwegian CPS — the first of its kind in the world.

School teachers, doctors and social workers are bound to report any suspicious behaviour or activities to the Barnevernet. Actions and recommendations of the CPS have to be eventually approved by a court.

What makes the abduction of Indian children controversial is probably the ‘silly' rationale put forward by the Norwegian CPS for such an act — accusation of hand-feeding and child parent co-sleeping.

For the most part, the Indian media presented the child abduction issue as a “clash of two different cultures”. In most media platforms, the social roots of the confiscation of children were located in cultural misunderstandings and insensitivity. In a certain sense, the Indian media approached the child custody issue almost in the same spirit as the forceful custodianship of sailors by the Somalian pirates.

The lion's share of media discussions demonised the entire system of child protection in Norway. It seems like the success of the Indian diplomatic mission in releasing Abhigyan and Aishwarya from the Barnevernet created an elevated sense of ‘victory over evil'. But such an approach undermines the need for a child welfare system similar to Norway's. India, the country with the largest child population in the world, still doesn't have a credible database or reliable institutional mechanism with regard to child abuse. The fragmentation of old patterns of familial and kinship ties, rising number of child sexual abuse reports, and the mushrooming of both formal and informal day-care centres/baby-sitters, highlights the importance of a vigilant CPS radar in India.

Dual existence of NRIs

By and large, the Indian population in the Western world is aware of the importance of government organisations such as the CPS in ensuring child welfare. What perturbed the non-resident Indians (NRIs) was the adverse inference made by the Norwegian authorities, that is, the Indian ways of child-rearing were basically flawed. How can Indian methods of childcare be so antithetical to the ‘scientific' practices accepted by the Norwegian CPS?

Not surprisingly, most NRIs looked at the child abduction issue in Norway through the same lens as the Indian media. The tide of sympathy and ‘angry facebooking' that flowed into Norway from all over Europe and America, aptly illustrates the NRI mindset.

Why did the NRIs criticise the whole Norwegian CPS as inhumane, instead of judging it as an incidental crack in the system? This question can be answered by exploring how the NRI families are ‘rooted' in the West. According to the results of a study by the Central Bureau of Statistics Norway (SSB) published in January 2012, the children of Indian parents are doing best in terms of completing high school within the prescribed time.

Ms Helen Sekine, a sociologist associated with the SSB study, highlights the consistent focus and facilitational role of parents as the crucial factors that determine Indian descendants' educational success. Indian parents, as per her conclusion, are particularly concerned that their children climb up the ladder by making use of educational opportunities in Norway.

In a significant sense, the conclusions from the SSB study in Norway are applicable to the entire West. When it comes to things like education or skilled jobs, NRI children are very much part of, and even better integrated into, the Western scheme of things. But when it comes to rearing of children, most NRI parents try to observe Indian traditions.

All across Europe and America, most non-resident Indian families maintain a ‘floating existence' by not fully adhering to the Western social order. The new generation of immigrants from an ‘emerging India', unlike their predecessors harbouring a colonial cringe, arrive in the West more confident and convinced about their home culture. They stick to the family organisation principles and child rearing practices in India, while functioning well in the everyday life of the West.

This ‘floating existence' is a part and parcel of a greater part of Indian families living in the Western world. Thus, to a great extent, the apprehension among NRIs over the Norwegian child abduction issue emanates from the fact that what has been under attack is their very way of life itself.

(Sajan is a social anthropologist at University of Bergen and Idicula is a clinical neurologist and neuroscientist at Haukeland University Hospital, Bergen, Norway.)

(This article was published on February 22, 2012)
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