Indian Parents’ Norwegian Nightmare Transcends Cultural Insensitivity

Anurup Bhattacharya with three-year-old son Avigyan (Photo: NDTV)

Anurup Bhattacharya with three-year-old son Avigyan (Photo: NDTV)

It’s been nearly eight months since Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya’s children were taken away from their home in Norway. Norwegian Child Welfare Services separated the couple from son Avigyan, 3, and daughter Aishwarya, 1, last May, allegedly in objection to the parents feeding the children by hand and sharing the same bed.

The children were placed in a foster home until they reach 18 years of age–the Bhattacharyas were granted visitation rights only twice a year. Following increased attention and scrutiny within the media, India urged Norwegian authorities to reunite the parents with their children on Monday. Local Child Welfare Services in Stavanger, where the parents reside, have maintained that the grounds on which the children were removed from their household are confidential.

But a stance of confidentiality does little to refute claims thus far that the decision was made on cultural insensitivity, bordering on ignorance. If authorities interpreted feeding children by hand as forceful–or sharing a bed as coddling or inappropriate–there remains little evidence to dispel the notion that this boils down to a different approach in parenting, dictated by cultural preference.

Gunnar Toresen, who heads the local branch of the Child Welfare Services, issued a statement citing the organization’s responsibility “to intervene if measures in the home are not sufficient to meet a child’s needs”. Now that matters have escalated, catapulting a local dispute into a high-profile international debate, Toresen will have to do better. If a clear case can be made for why Avigyan and Aishwarya were being raised in inadequate living conditions, this could take on an entirely alternative discussion. But without that perspective, the obvious conclusion–if reports are to be believed–is that Norwegian authorities view a very typical style of parenting among the South Asian community in a way that is both prejudice and condescending.

One can argue that there is nothing uniquely South Asian in the way the Bhattacharyas were seemingly raising their children. It is common practice in many cultures around the world to share a bed with a toddler and infant child–the University of Michigan Health System estimates children often do not transition into sleeping in their own bed until ages 2-4. And no study or data would be required to prove that India is not the only country in which eating by hand is commonplace.

Ultimately, if Norway wishes to be one of many countries that welcomes immigration and serves as a land of greater opportunity, it will need to eradicate any practices indicative of an East vs. West mentality. And unless the Child Welfare Services of Stavanger comes forth with a valid excuse for its ruling in this case, the situation represents a tragic portrait of the struggle immigrants face when settling into foreign territory. But choosing another country to raise children does not–and should not–necessitate immigrant parents to let go of integral pieces of culture in an effort to assimilate.

Sabrina Siddiqui is the editor-in-chief of Divanee.com.

@sabrinasiddiqui