In an exclusive interview with The Hindu’s Vaiju Naravane in Oslo, Jonas Gahr Store, Norway’s Foreign Minister expressed the belief that a happy outcome to the Bhattacharya case was likely and said that India and Norway should put this behind them and invest more in a relationship that was of importance to both countries.
This case has generated a massive wave of emotion and ill feeling towards Norway. What is the way forward?
As a Foreign Minister, I have to respect the authority to look after the best interest of the child is, as always, in my country like in India, with the parents and the family. But in extreme cases, the situation is open for the child protection authority to intervene. My impression, having been in the Norwegian government for several years, is that taking a child into care is an extremely serious decision which is really taken as a last resort, when the situation warrants it, for the well-being of the children. I am fully aware that this has brought forth a lot of emotion in India, I have many friends in India who have come to me through government channels, in formal and informal channels alerting me to it and we have to work very systematically to bring out the correct information about procedures but I think everyone understands that the government cannot start commenting on details of a case which, at the outset, is a very serious matter.
So those facts being established, I have received Special Envoy Mr Ganapathi sent by my counterpart. My understanding is that he was able to see the authorities, visit Stavanger and that there is good progress on this matter now. The end station will be a legal decision, which I hope will lead to a satisfactory end to this story. And then I hope that we will have a mutual respect – in the sense that much of what I have seen in the papers and on the Blogosphere about Norway, frankly speaking, has been very unpleasant, as the Foreign Minister of my country and as somebody who has been driving our India policy to step it up. At the same time I understand why these things happen – because these are very emotional issues and obviously everything relating to parents and children, individually and collectively is a big thing. The instructions to my ministry and to our embassies have been to say: although we trust the authorities on this, we have to be very available to explain, and to understand the emotions in the matter. Now that this hopefully draws to an end, hopefully we will see a large family united and hopefully we will see a there will be mechanisms by which the best interests of the children will be safeguarded, I hope we can together turn back to his very important relationship. India and Norway are different, but not that different.
In India there is great admiration for Norway because of how you handle issues of transparency and public accountability. So Indians admire the model that Norway has set for itself. However, there is a feeling that when a society tries to be too perfect, tries to get everyone to conform to a certain mould, you can have an over reach of authority and if that overreach of authority has occurred, then there should be a recognition of it.
I think that is a fair comment. I hear some interpretation/ allegations on Norway that are made in that direction - we are trying to create some kind of perfect state model on how people can live. I would strongly refute that. I would say again that any state intervention into the private sphere of people is extremely serious and a last resort business – it has to be. But in order to make these decisions also sufficiently transparent and accountable, they need to be under the rule of law. And if ministers could intervene and block issues according to their political beliefs or their own assessments and even if the bulk of these decisions were reasonable at the end of the day we would be sliding down the scale not of family policies, but of the accountability of the legal system. I think that the rules which have been made to limit or to protect the integration of families are very stringent. I cannot comment on this case in particular but when authorities intervene it is for adequate reason. But then the families have legal recourse and appeal the case and there is some comfort to be taken from the fact that it is the substance of the issue not the amount of resources that you are able to mobilise that decides the matter. In this case you have all of India mobilising for this family against me, and that makes a strong impression on me and it would be very tempting for me to say that I can do without this noise with India, which is such an important country that I’ll instruct the courts. So the fact that I cannot do that is something I can bear but for the justice of our system, it is the price we have to pay not to be a corrupt country. At the end of the road, I have the belief that the final decision will be the best one, a good one a measured one.
This is the question I keep coming up against again and again, specifically about the Child Protection Service. I have been speaking to a variety of people, welfare officers, lawyers, academics, some very senior persons. One of them, a former welfare officer has gone through all the case papers and said: I think there might have been a better way of handling things. That the ultimate decision which the courts decided on was too drastic and that perhaps a solution could have been found which would have been more helpful because the ultimate aim is to keep families united and together, not to destroy them.
I would assume that neither him nor you nor I at this moment know the details of the matter.
Well you do from the accounts you have read in the press..
No. I have the full dossier and so does this person who is Norwegian and a former Welfare officer. And he feels that there are ways in which this could have been handled differently with greater sensitivity.
To what extent are you confident that you have the whole picture?
I have the decision of the County welfare Board, I have the District Court Judgment, I have the reports of psychologists, social workers. I have everything, the full dossier. I am not basing myself only on what the parents are saying. I want to be even handed. You have a Child Protection agency that has saved many more children than it has damaged lives or destroyed families or removed children either illegally or with undue haste. But no agency is infallible. And when there is fallibility, I think there has to be greater communication and greater thought on this subject. And my wish is that there might be an examination of this dossier at some point.
Let me comment on that. When there is intervention in a family that is purely Norwegian, that is dramatic in itself. To that we have to add the fact that in this globalised world people travel, settle down elsewhere in different cultural settings and I can see the curve of the consular cases going up. Cases of Norwegians who find themselves in a different framework and end up in trouble because the place where they settle have different traditions. Now we see it here. For example, one third of all prisoners in Norwegian jails are foreigners and can you imagine the test that puts on our legal system and on our legal system and when you live in Norway and pay your taxes you have equal rights under the Norwegian welfare system.
That statistic might lead to allegations that you are picking on immigrants?
I haven’t heard of that yet! But you will find a number of areas where cultural codes clash. And there can be many challenges that emerge from such a clash. Of course this can at the same time it can enrich a society because it makes a country more diverse. I’m in favour of that and for that we look to India as an inspiration because India is such a diverse country and it has pulled it off! And I often say when I take part in our debates about integration, diversity and pluralism and when some ask well, can democracy manage, I say well, its hard to compare our 5 million with India’s over one billion , you have managed. But the point you have raised is fair and I can say that when this has been settled in a way which be respectful of the family, the children and also of the respectfulness of the welfare system in Norway, we will evaluate. We will go back and look at what we learnt from this. Not perhaps primarily about the rules, but about how do you handle these issues. How the rules are interpreted, received by the people and applied.
An European family might not necessarily object to various social worker barging to your home to teach you structure and how to put order into your chaotic life — Indians would resent that and feel humiliated and see that as an attack on their way of life because lifestyles in India tend to be chaotic generally speaking… This family felt bewildered, resentful, humiliated as if it was being put down, told it was inadequate.
I think this is on the whole is an extremely liberal country. Compared to other countries between Norway and India in terms of geography, like Saudi Arabia for instance, if you try to practice your religion, lifestyle, culture or worship another God, you could be imprisoned. But I am a Foreign Minister and it is my job to look at different ways and be a kind of mediator on our system on that and I can tell you that my focus has been to take the calls from minister Krishna, receive his envoy and to communicate a maximum through our embassies so that we can manage this bilaterally and then we have to put this behind us and begin again and clearly it has begun. I think that that a massive popular reaction as we have seen, in my view based on mis-allegations going on for a few weeks is not without trace. But I am confident that if it ends well and if you are able to document some of the motivations behind this, we can come out of it in the way which is respectful of both sides. But I think it just illustrates that the policy of emotion is a very strong element.
I think the Child Protection Service has been lacking in communication with the India media. This blanket ban saying we shall not tell you anything. I am not asking for the details of this particular case. I am saying give me examples of different cases, A,B,C while keeping the confidentiality but tell us what happened in those cases., the process. How do you start, how do you evaluate, and when and at what time do you come to the conclusion that the situation is irretrievable and separation becomes inevitable. There has been a total refusal to communicate from them.
I think we have to learn from that. Because this is clearly a Service set up in Norway, a Norwegian context and I admit that some of these institutions created in a national context now have to operate in a global context, there is a lag there. I just think we have to admit that even a foreign ministry finds it hard to imagine that this issue, which is pretty clear in Norway, has to be thoroughly explained, even to a very close neighbour. I am very open to that and I think we will be very willing to look at this. But then I would expected in return to see the same readiness the other side to understand that this is so much a last resort measure that we in Norway take very seriously.