Among the G20 leaders who will be welcomed in India soon will be the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. In Berlin, in a German foster care institution away from her family, culture and country, under the custody of German child services is a little girl, an Indian national, Ariha, not yet three years old. Her tragic story, now well known, has been reported in this newspaper. How wonderful it would be if the praise showered on Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the leaders of the West could miraculously translate into respect for a request made by the Government of India to send Ariha home.
Even better would be a scenario where the PM himself — who on a trip to Berlin, last year, referred to the German Chancellor as “ my friend Chancellor Scholz” — could ask for his intervention to repatriate this beautiful, bright little girl to India to the custody of Indian child welfare services.
This is all possible, as was shown in the Norway case where the intervention of the then UPA government at the highest level saved the lives of two Indian children. Later, as external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, showed special concern for the welfare of Indians abroad, especially children, often caught in the web of childcare services.Ariha’s case is indeed different from the one in Norway. In the latter, there were no injuries to either of the children.
In Ariha’s case, the judgment delivered by the Pankow local court in June this year held that the “severe genital injury” caused to the baby when she was seven months old was not due to an accident that occurred when she was in the temporary care of her parental grandmother as stated by her parents. It held her parents responsible. It is important to remember that there are no criminal cases of causing injury to their child against either parent and the police investigation was closed without any charges being filed. Yet, the court “completely withdrew custody of the parents… in the best interests of the child.” The court allowed fortnightly visits of the parents to meet their child,, quoting the forensic expert, that “the imminent break off of the relationship (of the child with the parents) will cause great risk to the child”. But according to the expert, beyond this, once the new foster parents are decided, such visits will affect their future bonds with the child. So parental visits will have to be stopped once she is of school-going age. The court accepted this too.
So in the coming months, a framework will be set up where the child is purposefully weaned away from her parents — their visits will be reduced according to the court order to once or twice in two months so that they can be replaced by her German foster family. Is this not heartbreaking? The parents have appealed against the judgment but this is a lengthy procedure. Ariha is a Gujarati Jain baby, from a strictly vegetarian family. Today she is being fed a German diet, she is spoken to in German, with every day that passes she is being distanced from her roots.
Each country has its own laws and rules regarding the upbringing of children. In the West, a much larger number of children are taken away from their parents into foster care or institutionalised care for a variety of reasons. Child welfare services in those countries wield enormous power and do not require any criminal charges to be proved to remove children from parental care if in their assessment the “best interest of the child” so require. In Germany, in 2021, according to a report of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), “approximately 122,700 young people lived in a residential home and roughly 87,300 in a foster family”. This was under the Jugenmadt, the same youth and child care services, that went to court to send Ariha to permanent German foster care. They include children who belong to immigrant, refugee or non-German families — strangers to German cultures. With an increasing number of Indians finding jobs abroad — many of them like Ariha’s parents are from middle-class families with a traditional background — cases of Indian children being taken into foster care are being reported in some European countries.
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Our government and the MEA need to work out policy measures towards a bilateral understanding with countries in cases where child services take over the custody of an Indian child. India must be able to take responsibility for its children.
In Ariha’s case — even if we assume, as some of our top officials seem to, that the court is correct — in principle, should not the custody of the child, an Indian national, be handed over to an Indian official agency? How can the best interest of an Indian baby be served by turning her into a foster child in a foreign family, however kind and well-intentioned, they may be? Are our Indian agencies so inferior that they cannot care for her best interests? Does Ariha not have a joint family to care for her? Members of the Jain community have expressed their willingness to take responsibility for the child if required.
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Fifty-nine MPs cutting across party lines wrote to the German ambassador in India with a request to inform the federal government of the sentiments of India’s elected representatives who fully back the publicly declared stand of the Government of India to bring Ariha home. Despite two years of repeated requests by the MEA, even consular access has not been given to our embassy in Germany to meet the child. Will the PM intervene to bring Ariha home? When the G20 meets, and the German Chancellor is welcomed to India, there will be many Indians, especially Indian mothers, who in their hearts and minds will be remembering baby Ariha. Maybe if thousands of #sendArihahome tweets reach the German authorities, someone will respond.
The writer is a member of the CPM Politburo
© The Indian Express (P) Ltd