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The cultural prejudices of children's welfare 

Suranya Aiyar
Writer and campaigner.
CHILD WELFARE / In this chronicle, the question is raised as to whether the child protection agency was right about the Bhattacharya family.

MODERN TIMES wrote about this case in 2012.  

The story of the Bhattacharya children is relevant again, ten years after the case of the children who were removed by the child protection agency in Stavanger caused an outcry in India. The reason is that the launch of the feature film Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway comes to cinemas in Norway on March 17. The film is based on the story of the children's mother, Sagarika Chakraborty. The mother is played by a famous Indian film star, Rani Mukerij. 

Facsimile from NDTV

Ten years ago, after reading about the Bhattacharya case in the media, I got involved in the campaign to get the children back. The campaign was initiated by Indian Member of Parliament Brinda Karat. The Indian government eventually intervened and the children were returned to Sagarika (Chakraborty).

Gunnar Toresen, who was head of child protection in Stavanger municipality at the time, has reacted to the film news by making various statements about what happened ten years ago. Of course, officials who were involved in the case will defend their actions. But unearthing allegations made ten years ago about the Battacharya case does not answer the questions that arise in connection with the case today.

Tore the family apart

The most interesting question is how to explain the fact that the children have done so well, having been brought up in India by their mother and grandmother, under the supervision of society, teachers, doctors and friends.

It is obvious that there are grounds for questioning whether the Child Welfare Service was right about the Bhattacharya family. Sagarika has raised her children alone these years. Child welfare services split the family: When confronted with a bully, some submit while others take up the fight. Child welfare took advantage of the parents' different attitudes, thereby increasing the level of tension between the parents.

The result was that Sagarika, who had envisioned a life as a housewife, was suddenly alone and the sole breadwinner of two young children. She was tough, and trained in software and business management. Her parents supported her during her education and she has since worked for a multinational software company.

This tells something about Sagarika's strength and personality. It shows her ability to handle problems. This is the same woman who the child welfare authorities thought could not handle the children. Child protection also believed that Sagarika was "unstable". Sagarika has now shown that she is stable for ten years, she is actually a well-functioning and impressive young lady.

In the West, it is almost exclusively the children of the poor and vulnerable who are taken care of by child protection – welfare measures?

There is something to be learned from Sagarika's resilience in the face of adversity. Has the welfare state forgotten what people can achieve themselves? It is one thing to help others in need, but to see the needy as unable to raise their own children is a disturbing feature of a welfare society. In the West, it is almost exclusively the children of the poor and vulnerable who are taken care of by child protection – welfare measures?

Heartless bureaucracy

Toresen and others allege, falsely, that the Battacharya family has political connections in India. The parents come from ordinary circumstances, without wealth or connections. India may not have the same welfare schemes as developed countries, but that is precisely why there is a culture among politicians on the left, like Brinda Karat, to always listen to those who knock on the door and ask for help.

Mahatma Gandhi fought for independence both for peasants and the poor. The political commitment to Sagarika's cause must be seen in the context of Ghandi's legacy – that it is the duty of leaders to get involved in issues that concern the weak and disadvantaged.

Instead of blindly supporting child protection, Norwegians could take the Bhattacharya children's story as an example of what is lost when individual human commitment is replaced by a faceless and heartless bureaucracy.

In his memoirs The Journey of a Mother (2022), Sagarika raises some serious questions about cultural prejudices among Norwegian child welfare caseworkers. In a harrowing scene, Sagarika describes how the case manager – of English origin – tells her that it was the British who civilized India, and that the Indians "ran around naked" before the British arrived. Sagarika countered with a lecture on Rabindranath Tagore. An intense exchange of views ensued, which led to the case manager's dislike of Sagarika increasing.

The caseworkers had no idea that the "Bengal tiger" is unleashed when Bengali culture is violated. Tagore was a Bengali freedom fighter, poet, playwright, philosopher and artist. He became a Nobel laureate in literature in 1913. Tagore is a star in the firmament of Bengali cultural and intellectual achievement.

Bengalis, perhaps more than any other Indian, have a deep understanding of their place in history and their contribution to the culture not only of India but of the world. For example, Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was an internationally recognized Bengali filmmaker, with films that won prizes in Venice and Cannes.

Rani Mukerji

The Bengali

I was a bit wondering how Sagarika got such a great actress like Rani Mukerji to play the lead role in the film Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway. But when I saw the film's trailer, I could clearly see Mukerji's motivation in every scene. It is clear that Mukerji's Bengali culture has been awakened by the scornful attitude of the child welfare case workers. The production also emphasizes the Bengali, and it becomes particularly atmospheric in Rani's beautifully curated Dhakai sari. I will not explain this further – it is time for Norway to make an effort to learn what India actually is. 

When I first heard about Sagarika's case, I was reminded of a story about Satyajit Ray's film Father Panchali (1955). I'll end with that story: The film is about a pair of siblings in a village. In one scene, the sister steals a pickle, and runs out into a field with her brother. They squat and roll the pickle between their fingers, poking the tip of their tongue at the sour treat in a very Indian way. When the internationally award-winning film was shown to audiences in England, people walked out of the cinema hall during this scene, calling the film "disgusting". 

Translated by Iril Kolle

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