Last month there were heightened emotions on the issue of an Indian couple being prosecuted in Norway for allegedly maltreating their child. Indian culture vs. Norwegian culture is the prime focus of debate whereas the moot point should be a more critical question: 'Who owns the child?' the family or the society.
To answer this question, we need to go back in history and see what changed in the Nordic societies that altered their culture. Is it possible that a threat to human extinction in some of these countries transferred the ownership of a child from the family to the state?
Sweden, the Nordic neighbour of Norway is a well documented case of such an instance. In the early 20th century, Sweden faced the prospects of declining population. In an illustration of simple straight forward thinking, they banned the sale of contraceptives. But this did not stem the fall in population. By 1930s the fertility rate fell from four children per women at the turn of the century to less than two, which is needed for maintaining the current level of population. As the fears of declining population looked to crystallise, a counterintuitive proposal was made by Gunnar Myrdal and Alva Myrdal in their book The Crisis of Population Question.
In this book, they advocated a number of measures for family planning including promoting the sale of contraceptives and providing free pre-natal care, childcare and education services. Their objective was to promote child-bearing as a conscious choice rather than accident. This is best captured in the popular slogan of that time, 'Love without children is better than children without love.' The Swedish government accepted these suggestions and put them into practice in the 1930s.
With the society investing more and more in a child, the responsibility for child rearing too was influenced by the emerging discourse, where physical punishments coercive in nature are discarded in favour of persuasive non-coercive dialogues. Seen dispassionately, this seems a move in the right direction.
But yet, why is there such a furor in India? Does it reflect a society that is yet to reach the maturity levels seen in Nordic countries? To answer this question we need to see a few related problems and the attitude of our society towards it.
Wife-beating is one such issue. I once asked a mixed group of people gathered for a social get-together, if wife-beating was a family problem or a social problem. To make this question concrete, I asked them if in their neighbourhood when they came across a family where they saw or "heard" wife-beating what action they would take. Would they intervene by ringing the door bell to cause distraction with an intention to stop it, as a popular public interest advertisement suggests or would they ignore it saying it is a personal family problem.
More than 90% answered that this is a personal family problem and we should leave the family alone to resolve the issue and not interfere.
• Children abused on the tube Less than 10% present, which is just a handful of individuals said they would personally intervene, with some going to the extent of calling the police to get the perpetrator arrested. This was the reaction with regard to a reasonably well settled issue of violence against women, where in most progressive societies criminal action is taken against the perpetuator of violence.
Moving to a less controversial issue, I asked them if they would intervene if their maid-servant did not send her child to school. Almost unanimously the answer was yes. They would intervene and 'advice' their maid-servant to correct her ways. With some even suggesting that they would incentivise their maid-servant by paying the child's school fees for the initial period.
I was tempted to ask, if this too was not a personal family problem in which they were interfering. But my concern for maintaining amicable social relationship prevented me from asking.
Returning to the case of the Indian couple facing a jail term in Norway, can we restate the issue? Is it a case of Norwegians looking at a corporeal punishment-free life for children like we view compulsory education? And likewise do they view penalties for domestic violence as an enforceable universal right while we Indians continue to view the same as a family problem?
I believe Indian society lags the Nordic societies by a few decades in the sphere of social consciousness. A dipstick of our social consciousness indicates that we have today whole heartedly accepted universal education for all children. And while a large section of our population is also accepting that violence against women should be prevented, though only a small minority acts on their belief to prevent it.
On the issue of parental authority to resort to corporeal punishment, this is a matter still hotly debated in large sections of our society.
If we accept my hypothesis, then an integral part of the visa process for Indian families going abroad is to educate Indian families on the differences in culture and the need to leave back at home some of our traditional beliefs like 'spare the rod and spoil the child'.