Rani Mukherjee returns to the big screen with the film ‘Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway’, set to be released on March 17 this year. The trailer of the film was launched on February 23 and has generated a lot of buzz around the movie, which is based on the real-life story of an Indian woman defiantly standing up to the Norwegian government to reunite with her children.
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What had happened? We take a look at the decade-old case and the journey of a mother to move nation-states for the sake of her children.
New beginnings in Norway turn sour
Sagarika Chakraborty married geophysicist Anurup Bhattacharya and the couple moved to Norway in 2007. A year later, Sagarika would give birth to Abhigyaan, the couple’s first child, who soon showed signs of autism. Thus, in 2010, Abhigyaan would be put in a family kindergarten where he would receive specific care, especially as by this time, Sagarika was pregnant again, with her soon-to-be-born daughter Aishwarya.
Norway’s Ambassador to India writes | ‘Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway’ doesn’t represent the deep care Norway has for families
Tragedy struck in 2011 when the Norwegian Child Welfare Services, known as the Barnevernet (literally: ‘child protection’) took both Aishwarya and Abhigyaan away from their parents, to be kept at a foster home till they turned 18. Supposedly the couple had been “under observation’’ for months for what Barnevernet termed ‘improper parenting’.
Allegations against the couple included sleeping on the same bed as their children, hand feeding (which was seen by Norwegian authorities as force-feeding) and also corporal punishment (Sagarika had allegedly slapped the children once). While these things might seem “normal” in the Indian context, for the Norwegian authorities, it was anything but that.
Notably, Norway does have extremely strict laws regarding children and their upbringing and these laws are universally implemented, regardless of cultural differences.
The long battle for custody which turned into a diplomatic row
What followed is an over-a-year-long tussle for custody of her children, during which Norwegian authorities claimed that she was ‘mentally unfit’ to raise two children – Sagarika herself was in her late twenties at the time and was not known to be particularly organised or punctual, something that authorities used against her.
This story soon captured the attention of both the Norwegian as well as Indian media – with many highly critical of Barnevernet’s actions. Some went as far as to call it a “state-sponsored kidnapping”. The issue was that not only did Barnevernet appear to be culturally unaware regarding Indian parenting, but they also seemed to be personally attacking the mother to strengthen their own case.
Berit Aarset from Human Rights Alert Norway, which has repeatedly spoken about the impunity with which Barnevernet acts, said this about the case: “This is not the first time such a thing is happening in Norway … the legal system favours the Child Welfare Services and they do what they want all the time … in almost every case they say one of the parents has a mental problem just to make their case strong”.
With increasing publicity came diplomatic pressure. Then External Affairs Minister SM Krishna met his Norwegian counterpart in Oslo to seek a compromise on the matter and after lengthy negotiations, it was decided that the children’s custody will be awarded to a paternal uncle back in India, the 27-year-old dentist Arunabhas Bhattacharya.
Another battle for custody
The Norwegian Child Welfare Services handed the two children over to their uncle and grandfather in Kulti near Asansol, West Bengal in April 2012. While this was a welcome development, the battle for custody was not yet over. The draining fight with Norwegian authorities had taken its toll on Sagarika and Anurup’s marriage. Sagarika now faced a fight for custody of the two children back in India.
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She approached the Burdwan Child Welfare Committee for custody of her children. While this committee gave a verdict in Sagarika’s favour, the police did not enforce it, leaving the children with their uncle and grandfather. In December 2012, Sagarika approached the Calcutta High Court.
In January 2013, Justice Dipankar Dutta ruled that Sagarika should get custody of the two children while allowing their uncle and grandfather to have visitation privileges. “It should be painful for the uncle and grandfather but they should accept it for the larger interest. They had taken care of the children according to requirement,” said Dutta.
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In 2022, Sagarika Chakraborty’s autobiography, “The Journey Of A Mother” was published. The upcoming film is based on this book, with Rani playing Sagarika’s character.