The three women who helped ‘Mrs Chatterjee’

MEA must become proactive in helping Indian parents

The Rani Mukerji starrer Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway was released throughout India and worldwide on March 17. In Norway itself, tickets were sold out four days before the first screening. This shows that the issues raised by the film are not of concern only to Indians but also to Norwegians who suffer the heavy hand of the Barnevernet, the Norwegian Child Protection Service (CPS). The CPS has been empowered by a draconian law to protect child rights but, on the ground, acts without adequate institutional checks or balances, thus causing needless and sometimes endless suffering to parents who are deprived of their infants and children without any discoverable reason. Reasons are not discoverable because the right to privacy of the abducted child is heavily protected in the law itself, leaving the victim parents often quite bewildered as to why their children are being taken from them. While CPS is free to enter what evidence it wishes in Norwegian courts of law, defendants are simply not allowed to examine much of this “evidence” kept under wraps. Inevitably, the judge is obliged to list in the direction of the prosecution. And there is virtually no recourse to the executive because, it is claimed, the Norwegian system does not permit intervention by any ministry or minister.

This confers such arbitrary powers of immunity and impunity on CPS that the moot question is whether in protecting the child’s right to privacy the human rights of the deprived parent and the child are not being brutally violated.

The film is based on the real-life story of a young Indian woman, Sagarika Chakraborty Bhattacharjee, whose infants were snatched from her.

Among the allegations made against her was the accusation that she fed her children with her hand; that she smeared her daughter’s forehead; that the kids slept in the same bed as the parents. The social worker assigned to them was a young English woman, who mocked Sagarika that Indians were “running around naked” until the British “civilised” them, and that she knew how Indian parents brought up their children because she had seen Slumdog Millionaire! Sagarika was also charged with mental illness and instability for having fiercely resisted the attempt to take away her children. Besides, foster parents are so handsomely compensated that exploitation of child protection laws for pecuniary gain is an ever-present threat.

While the children were eventually repatriated to India through the intervention of foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj—at the instance of Brinda Karat, the fiery CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP at the time—it was only the dogged persistence of a pro bono Indian lawyer, my daughter Suranya Aiyar, that eventually reunited Sagarika with her children. They are both growing up happy and normal in the loving care of their mother who has had the grit to train herself in software engineering and give her children a good living by working in a multi-national company. The current state of the mother and children is the best proof that in stealing away her infants the Barnevernet had gravely erred. It also showed that if the Norwegian government puts its mind to it, successful executive intervention is possible, whatever the theology of the law.

What lesson does all this hold for India? Only one. That with millions of NRIs travelling abroad and facing the rigours of child protection laws in all of the western world, MEA must become pro-active in helping Indian parents deal with such cases that are rife in the western world. To this end, perhaps a law needs to be enacted by Parliament to secure a binding commitment from the government to do so through its diplomatic and consular offices abroad.

Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.