To live happily ever after

In the din of the unseemly skirmish between the army chief and the defence minister, a little Bill that could have big implications on marriage slipped by relatively unnoticed and unsung.

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In the din of the unseemly skirmish between the army chief and the defence minister, a little Bill that could have big implications on marriage slipped by relatively unnoticed and unsung. The Cabinet this past week approved the Marriage Amendments Bill (2010). If passed by Parliament, it has the potential to become a new deal for thousands of women trapped in abusive marriages.

The Bill marks three significant departures from the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Special Marriage Act of 1954. First, spouses will share assets acquired during the course of the marriage regardless of who paid for them (this obviously does not apply to ancestral property). Second, it introduces a new ground for divorce: irretrievable breakdown of marriage. A wife can oppose a husband’s plea for divorce under this ground but a husband may not. Moreover, if the judges are convinced that the marriage is beyond repair, they will have the discretion to waive the present cooling off period of six to 18 months. And third, adopted children will now have the same rights as biological offspring in the event of a divorce.

All of this is in the realm of possibility; the Bill is yet to become law. Women’s groups have welcomed it – by and large – but elsewhere doomsday predictions range from the death of marriage to the birth of a new breed of mercenary woman.

This is bunkum. With the social stigma attached to divorce, nobody sane gets divorced just to get rich. If anything the Bill has some serious flaws. It applies only to Hindus not to minorities. Moreover, how the assets are to be divided, and in what proportion, is left to the discretion of the judges. In a system where women encounter gender bias daily, this isn’t a good sign.

Others object to the sharing of assets acquired by one partner. If he paid, why does she get a share? Here’s why. In India, housework has no economic value. The 2001 Census, for instance, listed housewives as ‘non-workers’ at a par with beggars and prisoners. I am not aware of any India specific study, but a 2002 UK Office for National Statistics study found that not only did women spend twice the time as men on housework, but if a value were to be placed on this labour, it would be worth £700 billion to the economy.

There are exceptions, always. But in most marriages, the wife either is not employed or is not the primary income earner. When she does work outside the house, she still bears an inordinate share in bringing up the kids, putting dinner on the table, looking after the parents, shopping, cleaning and so on. This is unpaid work.

When a marriage breaks down, the same woman often finds she has nowhere to go. Maintenance amounts are both pitifully low (typically between 2-10% of her husband’s annual declared income) and pitifully slow in coming. Most abused wives either continue being imprisoned in marriages or turn to their fathers and brothers for financial support. A study authored by lawyer Kirti Singh and due to be published at the end of this year, found that in the event of a divorce or separation, the husband ‘usually walks away with all the moveable and immovable assets in the household’. This is why women do not walk out of marriages, even when they face high levels of violence.

By dividing assets, regardless of who has financially contributed to them, the Bill acknowledges the contribution of the non-employed or the lesser employed partner (and this works equally for men).

Far from spelling the end of marriage as an institution, the Bill will strengthen the bonds of marriage. It will enforce discipline on abusive spouses. It will ensure that both husbands and wives remain in the marriage because they want to and not because they have no other choice. It bestows respect and dignity on those who work but are not necessarily paid. And it will see marriage for what it is: a partnership between equals.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

Norway puzzle: 10 questions in custody row

The case of Norwegian authorities taking away two Indian children for “safe custody” has had several twists and turns. The media may have gone overboard and the government may have spoken on the matter too soon. But were the Norwegians justified in taking away the children? Namita Bhandare asks in 10 questions.


If you’ve been following the twists and turns in the hairpin saga known as the Norway kids custody case, then you’re probably as dizzy I am.

It’s been quite a ride. Yes, Anurup Bhattacharya concealed facts about his troubled marriage. Yes, revelations about his wife’s so-called psychological issues seem belated. Yes, he has lost sympathy and credibility by his constant flip-flops (in the latest version he has denied any marital rift though his wife, Sagarika says he has been ‘torturing’ her).

There’s been an incredible level of blame-gaming: Media for going ‘overboard’ and the ministry of external affairs for not exercising due diligence. But leave aside the flagellation for a minute and just consider the following:

1. Was removal of the children, including a breast-fed baby, justified even if one of the parents had psychological issues? Would not treatment, counselling or a similar remedial step have been a more judicious course of action? Many mothers suffer from postpartum depression, for instance. Should their babies be taken away from them?

2. Assuming there was , what prevented one of the parents from assuming guardianship? Surely there are enough successful single parents in India and Norway who are bringing up stable children.

3. It is now being said that the elder child, a three-year-old boy, had started showing ‘characteristics of autism’. In that case, Child Protection Services (CPS) should have organised medical, social and psychological support to the struggling family. How does taking the child away from his parents and placing him in foster care help?

4. Taking away the children until they turn 18 is extreme under any circumstances. If CPS was so concerned about their welfare they could have taken the children into temporary care and provided the family with support until things improved.

5. Much of the confusion could have been avoided had CPS been more transparent in providing reasons for removing the children. Even now, CPS has not bothered to provide a reason and Gunnar Toresen, its head, has only said that the children ‘needed more’ than they were getting.

6. Criticism of CPS’ motives, including its lack of cultural sensitivity, remain valid. An English welfare worker investigating the case lists various ‘faults’ including the fact that the father spent too much time commuting to and from work because he did not have a car.

7. Interestingly, CPS lost the first round of court hearings when a local court ruled that there was no situation that warranted placing the children in an emergency shelter and they could continue living at home. CPS then appealed against that decision and won in a subsequent round of court hearings.

8. CPS faces the severest criticism from Norwegian citizens themselves. CPS “in order to have work, want children and they attack anybody who is vulnerable,” says Marianne Haslev Skanland, a professor emeritus in Bergen, Norway on her website. She talks of the child protection ‘industry’ where foster ‘parents’ are paid handsomely to look after the children placed in their care. According to Norway’s Statistics Bureau, last year ‘placement services’ were provided to 12,492 children, an inordinately high number for a country with a population of five million. Between 2004 and 2009, 19 of 1,000 children placed in foster care were the children of immigrants.

9. Despite the ugliness of the and a family spat that is a personal matter, the children remain Indian citizens. Nothing has changed that. What then is the obligation of the Indian government to ensure that its citizens return home?

10. The Norway kids case has been marked by high emotion and drama ever since the story broke in India three months ago. Then, the story was marked by ear-splitting nationalism. Now, tinged with embarrassment, both government and seem to have on the grounds that this is a personal, . We’ve let the pendulum swing to the other extreme.

to decide whether the children should be handed over to their paternal uncle, a dentist who lives in Kolkata and is presently in Stavenger. The parents and uncle are now reported to have drawn up a fresh agreement for the possible hand over of the children. But CWS is not likely to reach an early decision soon.

Tragically, behind the melodrama and the chest-beating, there is only one concern: the fate of two young Indian children caught up in the sort of ugly tangle that only adults could weave.

How Indian media covered the case


Norway is guilty of violating law which has global sanctity

Norway can learn from Oprah’s visit to India

Norwegian nightmare: State-sponsored child protection racket

Has there been anything more outrageous, cruel and insensitive than the Norway kids case? Dark as a Scandinavian winter, this unbelievable story shows no sign of ending soon. Namita Bhandare writes.


Has there been anything more outrageous, cruel and insensitive than the Norway kids case? Dark as a Scandinavian winter, this unbelievable story shows no sign of ending soon.

On February 15, three weeks after the ministry of external affairs reached an understanding with the Norwegian government for custody of the minor Indian children, currently in separate foster homes, to be handed over to their paternal uncle, the ministry summoned Norway’s ambassador to India to express its concern about the delay in handing over the children.

In Norway, the parents this past week had an hour-long supervised visit with their children. The uncle, a Kolkata-based dentist is already in Norway, staying in a hotel, meeting with welfare officials and psychologists, presumably to ensure that he’ll be a fit guardian. He has been warned by Child Protection Services (CPS) to not make any contact with the parents.


Despite these efforts, there is no guarantee that the hand-over will take place soon. “We have to evaluate whether care of the two Indian children who have been placed in a Norwegian foster home can be awarded to the brother of the children’s father,” CPS head Gunnar Toresen said in a statement. But the childrens’ visa runs out on May 1 and the uncle is keen to return home with them before then.

The Indian family’s in May last year when it was investigated by CPS. Welfare officials interviewed the family of the Indian geophysicist who works in a multinational firm to find that the four-year-son was fed by hand by his mother, did not have appropriate toys and slept in his father’s bed. There was no diaper changing table for the baby and when she was breast fed, the mother cradled only her head and not whole body.

CPS saw this as evidence of an ‘emotional disconnect’ and placed the children in an emergency shelter before eventually placing them in two separate foster homes, to be reunited with their parents only when they turn 18. Until then the parents can see them thrice a year for an hour each.

CPS has never publicly stated the case against the parents with Toresen only saying that the children ‘needed more’ than they were getting.

More? What exactly? Are toys, a diaper changing table, cutlery more important than the emotional bond that the parents can best provide? Do a paucity of these warrant a forcible abduction? Can any humane person, let alone a state, argue that this is enough to justify yanking these children from their roots and replanting them within the needs of a substitute ‘family’ that is paid handsomely to provide them the ‘more’ that CPS believes they need?

Certainly there is the suspicion that there has been a complete cultural disconnect. Indian mothers routinely hand feed their young children, Indian children just as routinely sleep with their parents. If a mother’s holding of her baby daughter while breast feeding her is seen as sign of an emotional disconnect or the fact that she feeds her little boy by hand and not cutlery is evidence that the child is being force-fed, then what should Indians make of the fact that Norwegian children sleep apart from their parents? Should Indian authorities take to barging into Norwegian expat homes, taking away their children because of what we define as abuse?

Assume for a minute that CPS acted out of what it sees as the children’s best interests, why did it not then offer counselling or remedial classes to the parents? Why did it not attempt to place the children within the parents’ larger, extended family? Why did it worsen the children’s trauma by placing them in separate foster homes, disconnected from each other, their language, culture and religion? Why did CPS refuse to even reply to four different letters written to it by the parents? And what kind of shameless arrogance even now leads it to drag its feet in finding the fastest possible resolution?

Perhaps it is not arrogance but something more sinister.

CPS “in order to have work, want children and they attack anybody who is vulnerable,” says Marianne Haslev Skanland, a professor emeritus in Bergen, Norway on her website. Last year, according to Norway’s Statistics Bureau, as many as 12,492 children received ‘placement measures’; between 2004 and 2010, as many as 19 out of 1,000 children born to immigrant parents were taken away from their families. CPS budgets have also correspondingly gone up. In 2010 it spent 7.7 billion NOK (krone), up from 930 million of the previous year.

Skanland talks of the child protection ‘industry’ in her native Norway. “It is an industry, which pays incredible amounts to psychologists for ‘reports’ and to foster ‘parents’,” she says. Foster parents are paid nearly 50,000 euros a year per child along with paid holidays, regular time-off and allowances for buying cars or improving homes.

SPORTS LEGEND NOT SPARED: Former Moroccan Olympic champion Khalid Skah shows a document during his news conference in Rabat on August 5, 2009. A child custody battle between Skah and his estranged Norwegian wife has strained diplomatic ties after Morocco said Norway helped spirit the two children away from their father. Reuters/Rafael Marchante

Recently, CPS’ ham-handed snatching efforts received a fair amount of criticism within Norway after it was revealed that the foster father where it had placed two young Turkish boys was, in fact, a sex offender. Two foster daughters had complained about sexual abuse from him but were ignored until the foster father himself pleaded guilty to child pornography and child sexual abuse.

Norway’s prosperity – including the apparently limitless funds it devotes to child ‘protection’ – stems from the development of its oil industry. It’s an industry that has encouraged, even depended on immigration, ending years of homogeneous insularity but revealing also a darker, racist side. Writing for The Afternoon Post in July last year, the country’s head of the Directorate of Immigration, Ida Borrensen said, ‘those with very different cultures from ours should be restricted’. A recent poll found that at least half those surveyed favoured restricting immigration. And at least one Norwegian High School found merit in seating children according to ethnicity.

Despite a falling birth rate among ethnic Norwegians, population has grown, fuelled by immigration from Southern Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. Islam today is Norway’s second-most prevalent religion that is practiced. And this growth has coincided with increasing White Supremacy and a growing intolerance of Islam, a growth that has seen the rise of parties like Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom that cuts its teeth on Islamophobic rhetoric. In the aftermath of last year’s tragic massacre by a right-wing, anti-Islam fanatic, Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead, questions were raised in Norway itself: Was Breivik just one bad apple or was he a part of a growing European malaise of intolerance and racism.

That answer might just be hinted at in the manner in which CPS has conducted itself in the Norway kids’ case. There is only way to end this sorry story: Immediate reunification of the family. Norway’s intrusive nanny state may be of concern to its citizens. It is for its citizens to press, or not, for reforms and restoration, or not, of the sanctity of family.

But the abduction of the children of Indian citizens is a matter that concerns us. The children might never recover from their trauma, the parents might forever be cautious about being judged in their relationship with their children. We do not know the extent to which these children might have been brainwashed, the suitability of their foster ‘parents or even whether they will remember their parents. These are larger questions that will be answered at a future date. But for now, there is only one priority: Bring these children back home.

How Indian media covered the case:

Norway is guilty of violating law which has global sanctity

Norway can learn from Oprah’s visit to India