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‘Totally wrong’: Indian mother rebukes Norway for doubting child custody ordeal

Sagarika Chakraborty’s eyes well up and her voice quivers. She turns her gaze away from the camera as her face breaks into a smile: a smile of defiance.

“I don’t know if I am good or bad, but I know that I am a mother. A mother can do anything for her children,” she says, giving a glimpse into what motherhood means to a woman who moved mountains when her children were taken away by Norway’s Child Welfare Service, or the Barnevernet.

Over a decade ago, Chakraborty stood up to governments, rebelled against institutions, and braved cruel accusations to reunite with her two kids.

They say time heals all, but in this Indian woman’s case, the ghosts of her past are haunting her present, as she still faces painful questions and allegations about the ordeal.

A recent film, Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway, brought her life’s darkest chapter to the silver screen, depicting what she endured in Norway and then India.

It drew critical acclaim and sympathy for Chakraborty, but also denials from the Norwegian Embassy and ambassador in India, who termed it a “work of fiction, based on an actual case.”

An embassy statement argued that Norway does not take away children from their families “based on cultural differences described” in the film, such as eating with their hands or sleeping in bed with their parents.

Rather, it continued, the “reason for placing children in alternative care is if they are subject to neglect, violence or other forms of abuse.”

For Chakraborty, the envoy and embassy’s assertions hold no weight.

“Whatever they have said is totally wrong,” she told Anadolu in a video interview.

“The movie is based on my book actually and … I already have the court judgment which says what was happening at that time and lists the allegations against me, like children sleeping in bed with their parents and that I feed them by hand.”

Marius Reikeras, a former lawyer and Norwegian activist who has been supporting Chakraborty for years, and her lawyer in India, Suranya Aiyar, also denounced Norwegian Ambassador Hans Jacob Frydenlund for having “obviously close to zero” knowledge about the topic.

In a video call with Anadolu, Reikeras called on the envoy to practice humility and apologize to Chakraborty.

“Instead of being humble, and really facing the realities about this, also including this case which actually brought the children out of Sagarika’s family without any specific reason, he only makes it worse by continuing to be arrogant towards international society,” he said.

‘Tremendous trauma’

As she narrates her story, the first words Chakraborty uses to describe what she endured are “tremendous trauma.”

In 2007, she was married to a geophysicist in India and soon after the couple immigrated to Stavanger, a small town in southwestern Norway.

A year later, they had their first child, a son. Her troubles with the Norwegian child services began after her daughter was born in December 2010.

It was then that two workers of the Barnevernet started to visit their home, claiming that they were there to offer post-delivery care to the mother and to help out with the newborn.

“This was a very busy time for me with two young babies in the house and no help,” said Chakraborty.

However, the Barnevernet officials – both women – did nothing to help, she said.

“They would just be on the sofa, whispering and jotting down notes,” she said.

Once, according to Chakraborty, they asked her if all children in India defecated in public as shown in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

The Barnevernet took away her children in May 2011, when her daughter was just five months old and her son a little over two years, the same day Chakraborty and her husband had an argument in front of them.

“I ran after the car. I was just falling on the ground. I was screaming and crying until I passed out,” she recalled.

In its evaluation reports, the agency cited concerns over the couple’s parenting style, and later accused Chakraborty of being mentally unfit.

The parents initially won an appeal to get back custody, but a local court overturned the decision and her children were placed in foster care, living with two different families in a span of less than a year.

Chakraborty’s son started developing signs of autism, stopped eating and lost his speech, while her infant daughter fell ill.

“My son was crying every day. He didn’t eat anything. The baby didn’t want to drink any milk … Both babies, their lives were at stake at that time,” she said.

As months passed, Chakraborty pressed the Indian government for help, staging protests to get attention, until the Indian Foreign Ministry negotiated an agreement under which her children would be moved to India.

For that deal, Chakraborty said she was coerced into signing a document granting custody rights to her brother-in law.

‘Luckiest woman’

That marked the beginning of another entire ordeal.

When she moved back to India in April 2012 to get her kids, her in-laws in Kolkata refused to let her even meet the children, while her husband did not return to India, effectively ending their marriage.

Despite the mounting odds, Chakraborty pursued a legal case in India and was eventually awarded custody of her children in January 2013.

Now 41, she lives in Noida, a rising IT hub in northern India, where she works as a software engineer.

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She considers herself very fortunate to have been able to get her kids back from the Barnevernet.

“When I was staging protests, I came across several people whose children were taken away. One was an Indian woman who had a Norwegian husband and seven children. Each time she gave birth, they took away the baby,” said Chakraborty.

The reason they cited was the same that was used against Chakraborty, that the woman was not mentally sound and incapable of raising her children.

“I am the luckiest woman … really lucky that I got back custody of my children,” she said.

Norway attacks ‘a lot of immigrant families’

Reikeras, the activist, said Norway’s child protection authorities often target foreigners.

He said the European Court of Human Rights has passed 15 judgements against Norway in child welfare cases, with at least 65% of the cases related to immigrants.

“The only thing I can say with certainty is that Norway has a tendency to attack a lot of immigrant families, which is also why the European Court of Human Rights has also focused on immigrant families,” he said.

Reikeras said there is a clear pattern of the Barnevernet taking children from capable and working families.

One reason, according to him, is that there is a huge amount of money involved in the child welfare system.

“The authorities are spending so much money on a system like this. They need to take a certain number of children into public care every year to justify the system,” he said, explaining that it is also lucrative for lawyers, social workers, and judges.

Another reason is that these Norwegian authorities have a specific aim to “customize these families into the Norwegian standard, whatever that means,” he added.

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