After almost a year in foster care in Norway under the aegis of its Child Welfare Service (CWS), four-year-old Abhigyan and two-year-old Aishwarya, children of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, returned to their Indian home in Kolkata on April 24 in the company of their paternal uncle, Dr. Arunabhas Bhattacharya. Scores of relatives and thousands of well-wishers in India and abroad were jubilant over the children's homecoming. This was facilitated by the district court in Stavanger, which endorsed an agreement between the child-care organisation and Dr. Arunabhas and agreed that the children be handed over to their paternal uncle.
Why, in the first place, were the NRI children separated from their parents and brought under the care of the CWS? The background is illustrative. The children, who were clearly not cared for well by the Indian family, were taken away by the Norwegian authorities on the grounds of “emotional disconnect” in the family. They also suspected that Abhigyan had an “attachment” problem. All these led to the authorities asking the CWS to take the children under its foster care. The court approval followed.
Although the ordeal began early last year for the children and their parents, more than seven months passed before the story was reported in India. The plight of Abhigyan and Aishwarya jolted people all over the country. Driven by reporting in the Indian media that took on the character of a campaign, public sentiment turned into an outcry and put pressure on the Indian government. In due course, steps were taken to bring back the children to their natural home, India, at different levels — diplomatic, legal, and political.
The picture presented by the media, particularly news television, was mostly one-sided. It gave the impression that the Bhattacharya children were separated from their parents only because they were not well-dressed, slept along with their parents and not in separate beds, were fed by hand, and so on. They saw in the action what they called a “cultural bias” or “cultural discrimination.” The other side — the real issue of universal child rights — was totally ignored.
It was at this stage that The Hindu decided to look deeper into the facts in order to gain a full and dispassionate insight in keeping with its tradition in reporting on such social issues. It quickly became clear that there were serious gaps in the media reporting until then.
The Hindu asked its Europe Correspondent, Vaiju Naravane, to visit Stavanger to find out the truth. “After reviewing the files and interviewing the family as well as CWS officials, the picture that emerges is a complex one that defies easy pigeonholing,” noted the paper's editorial (“Let good sense prevail,” The Hindu, March 20, 2012).
What followed was a series of articles, interviews, and reports from Vaiju Naravane, which gave a complete account of what had happened in the past one year and more. Well-researched, in-depth reports and articles, numbering more than 15, one of which was a full-page article, all in about 30 to 40 days gave the newspaper's readers a new perspective on the emotive issue. From the Norwegian laws on child protection to the arranged marriage of the couple, Vaiju Naravane gave readers a vivid picture of the life of people, particularly immigrants, in Norway. Even as she pointed out the serious shortcomings of the parents, she was critical of the way the CWS approached the problem. Aarti Dhar in Delhi and Ananya Dutta in Kolkata ably supplemented Vaiju's efforts.
In addition to the reports, expert articles on different aspects of the problem earned the appreciation of readers. For instance, lawyer Geeta Ramaseshan's edit page article “Norway yes, but let's also look within” (The Hindu, January 27, 2012), offered an insightful critique of the way child protection laws and child welfare committees are used in India. The children may be home in the presumably temporary care of their paternal grandparents and uncle but with the father still in Norway and the mother in India, a great deal waits to be done to assure their well-being and future. The Indian news media have a continuing responsibility in this regard — to follow this story accurately and sensitively without being intrusive. The paparazzi, in particular, must keep out, or be kept out, of the way of little Aishwarya and Abhigyan and their family as they strive to find an enduring solution to their ordeal.