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Custody row: Norway egg now all over Delhi’s face

Family Fight: Tuned to TV,govt ignored red flags,issued as many as six statements on children.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Published: March 22, 2012 2:09 am

After reacting for three months to shrill TV debates — lodging protests with Norway,issuing frequent official statements,summoning Oslo’s ambassador and despatching a special envoy to that country — India beat a redfaced retreat today,saying it can no longer “interfere” in the custody row of the Indian children because the situation has “changed”.

The government tried to extricate itself a day after the ugly fight between the children’s Norway-based parents became public,and it was reported that Anurup Bhattacharya — the father of three-year-old Abhigyan and one-year-old Aishwarya — had filed for divorce,accusing his wife Sagarika of beating him.

Today,however,PTI quoted Anurup as saying that despite some “unavoidable” domestic circumstances,he had not sought a divorce. And in Kolkata,Sagarika’s father told The Indian Express that Anurup had told him that news of the problems in their marriage was “canard”.

As realisation dawned that it might have escalated a family dispute to some sort of diplomatic incident,the Indian government put off the planned visit of its diplomat to Norway.

Minister of state for external affairs Preneet Kaur said,“The government has tried its best to bring the children home so that they have a future in the country. But a new situation has developed… we cannot interfere. The visit of a joint secretary (to Norway) has been postponed.”

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said,“At this point,the version we are getting has changed. We are relying on our embassy to contact everybody for a more substantive report. But there are also elements of this,which is within the family. I think it would be best for the government not to step in and make comments on what the family is doing.”

For the last three months,however,South Block has been doing exactly the opposite. Its playing to the gallery included External Affairs Minister S M Krishna having a telephone conversation with his Norwegian counterpart about the children. Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj and CPM leader Brinda Karat joined a demonstration by the children’s grandparents in Delhi,and BJP MP Tarun Vijay sent a teddy and chocolates to Norway for them. Consider:

Between December 24 and February 22,the external affairs ministry issued as many as “six official statements”,ranging from protests to a demarche to the Norwegian government. This was more than the number of statements India issued on China,Pakistan,or the US. The only other issues on which the MEA was this active were the Italian navy personnel shooting Indian fishermen,and the Maldives situation.

On December 24,MEA said it would “monitor” the situation and the embassy in Oslo would extend “all possible consular assistance” to the Bhattacharyas. On December 30,MEA said the embassy had “vigorously pursued” and made a “démarche” conveying India’s “serious concerns”.

On January 5,strong demarches were made,expressing the government’s concern over longterm separation. On January 12,an Indian embassy official visited the foster family and the children.

On January 21,the MEA reiterated its concern for the children,who were being “deprived of the undoubted benefits” of being brought up in their own ethnic,religious,cultural and linguistic milieu.

On January 22,External Affairs Minister Krishna asked Indian ambassador R K Tyagi to impress upon Norway India’s concerns. On January 23,Krishna spoke with Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store and asked him to expedite the return of the children. The same day,he summoned the Norwegian charge d’affaires Aslak Brun and conveyed the same message.

On February 15,secretary (West) M Ganapathi summoned Norway’s ambassador Anne Ollstad and conveyed the need for an expeditious resolution of the matter and emphasised the “priority attached” to it.

On February 22,when the issue of the Norwegian government seeking extension of the children’s visas came to light,the MEA declared that the children were “neither orphans nor stateless persons”. Norway explained that it did not mean that the children were “stateless”.

In the last week of February,when the grandparents sat on a protest demonstration outside the Norwegian embassy,CPM’s Brinda Karat and BJP’s Sushma Swaraj,visited them and raised the decibel levels. The grandparents met President Pratibha Patil and Krishna,who assured them of the early return of the children. BJP MP Tarun Vijay met the Norwegian ambassador in Delhi and gave her a teddy bear and chocolates to be delivered to the children in Norway.

Ganapathi was then rushed to Norway,and he spent two days meeting officials and pressing them for an early return of the children. All through this,the external affairs minister continued to make public statements and give interviews on the issue.

Sources said South Block had chosen to ignore reports by Ambassador Tyagi who had consistently raised the “red flag”. He had briefed officials in New Delhi about the marital discord in the family,and the factors that had led to the children being taken away by the Child Welfare Services (CWS) in Stavanger. Sources said South Block’s public statements were made in view of the “populist” nature of the debate in India.

“The situation is changing as we speak. Therefore,I will hesitate to get to a categorical declaration. Details are being ascertained by the embassy in Oslo from all the parties concerned. They are in touch with the parents,the paternal uncle and the Stavanger Child Welfare Services. Once we get a detailed report,we will be able to provide some information. What happened this morning has changed to something different today afternoon,” Mathai said today.

In Kolkata,Monotosh Chakrabarty,father of Sagarika,said Anurup had denied his reported statements.

“I called him this morning and he said that it was all canard. He said he never called Sagarika schizophrenic,and there was no question of a divorce. We suspect some vested interests are working against us,” Chakrabarty said.

(With Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay in Kolkata)

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