Why should fathers not be given custody especially if the child wants to be with him?
Snapshot
  • I have met several fathers whose kids wish to be with them, adore them madly but because of a very biased system, they are deprived of being with their own children.

    “...our courts are turning this society into a fatherless society. If you see how fathers are made to literally beg for a few hours to spend with their own children, you would hate it. No parent deserves to suffer like that.”

Early this month, a friend shared a video with me, the kind of which I have never seen before. I rarely watch videos forwarded on WhatsApp but this one was not just a forward but a desperate plea from a child. It immediately caught my attention. You rarely see children shooting their own video to send an SOS to the world.

As I saw the video and heard this child, I felt my stomach churn. Her words, her emotions, her pain, her helplessness and her fears were all so palpable. As I started enquiring more, I realised this was a saga that has become a painful reality in many homes - a reality where doting fathers are dubbed as kidnappers of their own children in aftermath of a marriage breakdown.

The Case In The Shared Video

This video was of Meher Bharucha, granddaughter of Dr Kiran Bedi, a celebrated IPS officer of India who is retired and now serving as Lt Governor of Puducherry.

Barely 11, Meher’s confidence is piercing and her diction flawless. She knows what she is saying and means every word of it. Her love for her father crosses the digital boundaries and enters straight into your heart.

Expressing herself in clear sentences, not mincing any words, Meher says in the video “My name is Meher Bharucha, daughter of Ruzbeh Bharucha, and the only granddaughter of Kiran Bedi. Kiran nani, why are you using your police influence to harass daddy and his friends? Why are you doing that? Nobody has kidnapped me. I'm with my daddy, I'll show you.” Meher takes the phone camera to her unsuspecting father who perhaps doesn’t know she is shooting a video like that and comes back to the room where she is shooting this video.

She continues “You saw that? I'm with my daddy. Nobody has hurt me or harassed me in any way. I just want to be with my daddy and live happily. I am very happy, I am very safe, and nobody has hurt me or harassed me. Mamma why aren't you getting it? Daddy and me don't want to live with you. We do not want to live with you, we want to be away from you. I'm really ashamed of being your daughter mamma, I'm really ashamed. And I'm really ashamed of being a granddaughter of Dr Kiran Bedi - the only one, that too. Why don't you all think? About somebody's, about your own daughter's well being? If we do not want to live with you, why are you forcing us? Why are you harassing daddy and his friends, for no reason. Nani, why are you using your police influence? Why? Nani, when I had called you when mamma was throwing chappals on daddy, spitting on him and hitting on him and fighting with him, you told me that this matter is between daddy and mummy, I don't want to get involved with it. Why are you getting involved now? Why are you using your police influence now? It's too late, right? Why? Anyways, I'm fine, I am happy, and I am safe with my daddy. And nobody has hurt me or harassed me, you just saw. Nobody has kidnapped me either. I am living with my daddy.”

In this two and a half minute video, Meher makes it very clear that she wants to stay with her father and not her mother and denies that she has been kidnapped or anything like that.

Meher’s video testimony showed how scared the child is for her father and his friends given how powerful her grandmother is and how the police must be exercising undue pressure on them at the behest of a former top cop. Strangely, Dr Bedi responded to Meher on her video on Youtube, character assassinating her son-in-law, calling him a tantric and his disciples and friends as tantric women. She didn’t address allegations of domestic violence on Ruzbeh by her daughter at all.

In the immediate aftermath of this video going viral, a family court in Pune, which is hearing an ongoing divorce case between Ruzbeh Bharucha and Saina Bedi, passed an order asking Meher to remove the video from Youtube. While the little one abided by the order, I came across several videos posted thereafter on Youtube indulging in further demonisation of Ruzbeh Bharucha through various allegations sans any evidence – all too common when a man has to be broken down.

Two weeks later, Meher’s apprehensions eventually became true as the Pune police picked up her father and her at six in the evening from Bombay. As I came to know about this and reached out to the Pune police, I was informed by ACP Bhanupratap Barge, who is handling this case, that since they have received a missing, kidnapping complaint by Meher’s mother, they are only doing their duty. When I told him it was injustice to a little child who wants to be with her father, he rudely told me he was doing “Justice.”

It was clear on whose behest was the entire police machinery set in motion, despite a child herself saying out loud in public that she is with her father and not missing or kidnapped. But nothing matters in front of an adult woman’s plea in this country I believe and perceptions are strictly against fathers.

While Pune police told me that they have picked up Ruzbeh and Meher to produce the child in front of the Child Welfare Commission, when I asked them if they have any orders to do so, they remained quiet. It is unbelievable how police flouted so many rules in this process just because, as sources tell me unofficially, there was “pressure from the top.”

Thankfully, eventually they took Meher’s statement and let the child remain with her father. Not because they were inclined to do so but because their detaining created a furore on social media and the public started asking legitimate questions to which they did not have any credible answers. Meher is now scheduled to give her testimony in front of the Court.

Alienation – Fathers At The Receiving End

I haven’t gone into the details of the Ruzbeh Bharucha-Saina Bedi matrimonial dispute so I cannot write anything about the faults of either of the parents here, but, as I understand from all the testimonies and videos and comments available on social media, it is amply clear that the child is extremely attached to her father and wants to remain with him.

This is not an one-off case. I have met several fathers whose kids wish to be with them, adore them madly but because of a very biased system, they are deprived of being with their own children. I remember meeting a young 9-year-old boy during the screening of my documentary in Bangalore, who had tears in his eyes when I asked him with whom he wanted to be. His answer: “My father!” But the courts have allowed only a few visitations to his father. Such fathers often painfully describe themselves as 'visiting fathers'.

The plight of fathers who are forced to keep away from their children because they had disputes with their wife is shockingly unbelievable in India. From being called ‘Uncle’ by their own children, to travelling hundreds of kilometres in the hope of getting a glimpse of their child only to be told by the mother that the child is unavailable for absolutely frivolous reasons and being able to do nothing about it, to being arrested from the spot for allegedly trying to ‘abuse’ the child just because the mother said so, to being arrested on kidnapping charges, I have heard horror stories from many fathers about the way they are treated by the system because they could not keep their marriage intact or worse because they had criminal cases filed by the wife.

The Children Are The Victims

The child is usually the one who becomes the biggest victim in such situations but there is little attention given to what the child really wants in these matters, with the parents trying to influence the system to their advantage by any or all means. The common stereotype that seeps through all entities involved in such disputes is that the best option for the child is in being with the mother and hence the sorry plight of the fathers as mentioned above.

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What Counsellors Say

Dr. Rakesh Kapur, a child's rights expert and someone who has been championing shared parenting for long, makes an important observation in the Meher Bharucha case. He says, “The way the police picked up an eleven-year-old child despite knowing well that the child is in the safe hands of her father is ridiculous to say the least. If a child had to literally be in hiding with the father because they feared undue pressure from the police, it is nothing but child abuse.”

“Sadly the police force in India is least sensitized to child rights and child psychology.” He continues, “They treat such cases as just another case, causing immense trauma to the child involved. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in this case, if the child was with the mother, and, had the father filed a missing complaint, the police would not have dared to pick up the mother and child late in the evening, without producing their identities and they would not have forced them to travel from one destination to another. What makes this case unique is that Meher had already expressed her wish and informed about her well-being through social media. The way the police have behaved despite that is unheard of and extremely troublesome.”

Tejsingh Gaikwad, who is himself fighting for the custody of his daughter for years and has been actively campaigning for a concept called ‘Equal Equanimous Shared Parenting (EESP)‘, reiterates that the biggest bane in such matters is the police. He says he was charged with kidnapping and abduction of his own daughter, by his wife, when he took her to meet his maternal grandmother. Police blindly registered a complaint against him despite being informed by him that he was taking the child for a visit.

“Such an attitude of the police has a really adverse impact on children. My daughter used to ask me why the police pick me up. I couldn’t explain it to her. It is traumatising for a child to see his/her father being handled by police in that way,” he laments.

Tej hasn’t seen his daughter for two years now as his case continues in the Bombay High Court. When asked why, he says he refuses to beg for time for his own child anymore. “Fathers are not beggars. They are natural guardians. But our courts are turning this society into a fatherless society. If you see how fathers are made to literally beg for a few hours to spend with their own children, you would hate it. No parent deserves to suffer like that.”

“As per our own research with a sample size of 380 such cases, we have found that it is the mother who is given the custody in 98 per cent cases. The rest 2 per cent are mostly cases wherein the mother has herself abandoned the child. Otherwise courts are extremely inclined towards giving custody to the mother, regardless of the wishes of the child. There are so many fathers who have come to me stating that criminal charges have been filed against them just because they tried to see their child. It’s just so sad. We are pushing for EESP so that both parents have equal access to the child and there’s no alienation of any parent,” he explains.

Insensitivity Of The Courts And The Police

Insensitivity of the courts and the police towards the safety and well-being of a child in matrimonial disputes by giving in to the stereotypes, has led to some extremely disturbing events in the past. I remember a case from Pune itself where a teenage boy, Chaitanya Balpande, was beaten to death by his own mother and her lover. The hapless father in this case had previously pleaded with the courts to let the child be with him but his pleas weren’t entertained. The courts denied him custody even though Chaitanya had stated multiple times that he wants to be with his father. But the poor boy was killed highlighting that there could be fatal consequences for the insensitivity shown by courts.

Children Traumatised To Extract More Alimony

A few days ago, another video surfaced on social media where a mother was seen beating up her child brutally in order to get more maintenance from the father. It emerged that she would regularly send such videos to the father to traumatise him and pressurise him into giving money. In another case, a father had taken to social media to post pictures of his few-month-old girl child who suffered a fracture and burns, claiming his wife and in-laws are torturing the child.

Although such examples are in plenty, our mainstream media rarely picks them up. There has almost been no coverage of the Meher Bharucha case as well, understandably as it concerns someone as powerful as Ms Bedi.

Effect Of Skewed Custody Battles On Children

Asha Jain, a child counsellor from Delhi who has been counselling children who have suffered any kind of abuse in their lives opines that such children are left with scars difficult to heal. They start looking at relationships in a very negative manner and develop a sense of fear for life. They develop hate towards marriage and are scared of relationships. “It is so important for parents to deal with such situations in a mature way so that it doesn’t end up scarring their own child forever,” she advises.

A Study On What Children Of Custody Battles Have To Say

As per the research* conducted by Tejsingh Gaikwad, 85 per cent of children caught in custody battles are substantially alienated from the father and the paternal family, more than 46 per cent of female children and 37 per cent of male children state that they are intentionally alienated from their fathers when litigation starts in the court, more than 73 per cent of the children hold their mother responsible for the less time they get to spend with their father, most children hate to live with single parent and wish to have quality time and open access to both the parents and, a majority of children find the court atmosphere extremely hostile and the court proceedings cumbersome and lengthy.

Additionally, 84 per cent of the children who grow up without fathers show grievance against the ‘system’ that they were not given enough opportunity to be parented by their fathers.

Even though the sample size of this study is extremely small, these results are startling and shocking and certainly call for deeper analysis of these issues by the state. There is a dire need for child welfare commissions to think about regular visits to children who are caught in marital disputes staying with one parent alone, to assess their growth at all levels – physically, emotionally and mentally, and to ensure that the child is not being abused as was the case with Chaitanya Balpande.

Whoever is the custodian – the father or the mother – the state should ensure that the custodial parent is parenting the child in the best possible environment. Last but not the least, it is time for a dedicated child ministry that exclusively looks after the concerns of such children.

*This research is ongoing and hasn’t been published yet.

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