Norway child abuse case: Why the 'cultural difference' defence is bogus

"I'm willing to stand and say on national television that you can't throw parents in jail because they have slapped their kid. You can't take one incident and bomb a family for it," declared the always self-righteous Suranya Aiyar on CNN-IBN, "I think, when you are dealing with child welfare, you have to take in account the paradox that very young children adore their parents regardless whether they are harsh parents or they have been slapped for couple of times. And secondly this idea that the parent is just a parent and not a person, parents can get angry, they can shout."

Aiyar, a lawyer and newly popular talking head, has clearly mastered the golden rule of taking a stand on national television: When in doubt, reach for the red herring. Never mind that V Chandrashekhar and his wife Anupama were not convicted for slapping their child, or "one incident" of violence, or shouting at their children. As Oslo police chief Kurt Lir stated, "They are facing a child abuse case and are charged with gross or repeated maltreatment of their child/children by threats, violence or other wrong, under section 219." They are charged specifically with repeatedly inflicting burns on their son's leg with a hot metal spoon and hitting him with a belt.

The only silver lining in this latest Indian parent-in-Norway tragedy has been our refusal to jump on the nationalist bandwagon. Having learnt from the Bhattacharya debacle, most of us preferred to wait for the facts before amping up the outrage. This, of course, makes the position of Aiyar and other obdurate defenders all the more astonishing. Really, what will it take for some of us to stop viewing everything that happens to an Indian abroad as a foreign atrocity? To excuse any wrongdoing as an instance of Western racism? To hide our sins on alien soil behind the figleaf of cultural difference?

If we want to consider ourselves Global Indians, perhaps it's time some of us faced certain universal truths about this case.

V Chandrashekhar and his wife Anupama in this file photo. PTI

One, inflicting burns with a hot spoon on a child is abuse. It may be an Indian version of child abuse, but it is abuse, nevertheless. And just because the reprehensible practice is common in some parts of our country, it isn't a "norm" or even "normal." It is no more worth defending in the name of cultural identity than, say, Sati.

Furthermore, geography does not alter the criminality of the act. Inflicting severe physical punishment on your child is a criminal act in India as well, but it is rarely prosecuted due to weak enforcement. The couple were prosecuted because Norway enforces its child protection laws with greater rigour than us.

Even so, most Indians know that inflicting severe physical harm on a child is morally wrong. And therefore, two, a well-educated software professional for a big firm like Tata Consultancy Services ought not to require "special training" — either from the company or Norwegian authorities — to know that burning a child with a hot spoon is abuse.

Neither Chandrashekhar nor his wife can be defended on some spurious notion that perhaps such punishment may have been a norm in their family. They are educated, cosmopolitan Indians who are surely aware that in modern society, old-fashioned punishments — say, whipping with a belt — are now viewed as abuse. In other words, they didn't head to Oslo directly from some backwater village, blissfully unaware of these strange new-fangled notions about parenting.

Three, separating abusive parents from their child is not the worst thing you can do to him or her. It's time we discarded our maudlin assessment of the value of a parent, which seems to be: Keep the family together at all costs, even when said costs are borne entirely by the child. Better a parent who beats you black-and-blue than no parent at all. An attitude summed up by the couple's nephew, Sailendra, who told reporters, "The children are missing their parents. The judgement, in fact, is in violation of child rights as the kids are deprived of parental care for the next few months."

This self-serving claim about "child rights" — to parental care, of the most dubious kind — flies in the face of all known facts of child psychology. The Hindustan Times rightly noted in its editorial:

While it is true that the children will suffer some trauma from being separated from their parents, it would be untenable to let them remain vulnerable to abuse. The Indian government has offered help to the parents in the current case and that is the appropriate thing to do. To escalate this into a diplomatic incident does not serve the interests of anyone. Where the government can perhaps extend help also is to ensure that the child gets the necessary treatment and counseling he needs in India where he is at present with his grandparents. Emotionalism should not get in the way of doing what is best for the child who has already been traumatised.

The emotionalism is especially misplaced in this case where children are not doomed to foster homes but have loving extended families ready and willing to care for them. And so they should until Chandrashekhar and Anupama serve their sentence, and undergo counseling required to make them responsible parents.

So enough with all those media stories about the weeping kids. Do children miss even abusive parents? Yes. Do they "adore" them even when they beat, burn, and sexually assault them? Yes. And this is exactly why they need the strongest protection from parental abuse. Children — especially the very young ones — love their parents even when they behave like monsters, and have no idea that what they are enduring is criminally wrong. The saddest part is that to Sai Sriram, his parents' actions most likely registered as "normal". It's society's duty to insist it isn't so.

This isn't to say that either Chandrashekhar or Anupama are monsters — but to insist that we recognise their behaviour as monstrous. The Norwegian court took into account the fact that the parents were under tremendous emotional pressure, struggling to tend to a high-maintenance child with special needs. It also acknowledged their efforts to seek help from Sai's school whose authorities misled them about available social services. But in the end, it is the responsibility of the parents to seek the best solution for their child. Surely the first time they belted that little child or wielded that spoon ought to have been a clue to look for other options. For example: sending the wife and kids back home where they have more family support and access to counselors. Why opt for a "Indian" punishment when there were far better Indian remedies at hand?

The primary duty of parents is much the same as that of doctors: First do no harm. And as with those who break that sacred oath, they ought to be punished when they do.

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