NEW DELHI:It’s been five years that Daggubatti Pritam (name changed), a software engineer from Hyderabad who has been in Ohio, USA, for over a decade, last met his daughter, who will turn six this July.Pritam’s wife left him along with their daughter in early 2013 and decided never to go back. She later moved to Delhi Guardian’s Court and got the custody rights.
Pritam has been knocking the doors of Indian courts for last four years with little success as India does not recognise what is internationally known as ‘parental abduction’ as a crime.When the Narendra Modi government set up a committee under Punjab and Haryana High Court judge Rajesh Bindal to look into inter-country removal and retention of children, it rekindled Pritam’s hopes of seeing his daughter again.
But the committee’s report, submitted recently to the Union Women and Child Development Ministry, has dashed the hopes of Pritam and others like him.
Though the committee has recognised, for the first time, ‘parental abduction’ as an offence, it has taken a very “women-centric” approach. It has recommended a central authority to deal with such cases, but has also said that all such cases should be seen in the “Indian context where children are meant to be integral part of mothers”.
The Bindal panel report has now been made public for inviting suggestions and feedback. The committee has not commented on whether to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, even though it was one of the terms of references.
The Convention, which came into force in 1983, protects children from unilateral removal by a parent in case of inter-country marital disputes and is meant to establish procedures to ensure their prompt return to their state of habitual residence or where the couple was earlier living where a custody battle is to be fought.
India is not a signatory to the Convention, although 98 countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are. Activists say that in the absence of a law on the issue, many NRI parents—mothers in over 80 per cent of the cases—unilaterally relocate to India with the child, causing mental agony to both the child and the other parent.
“Such an act is simply known as parental abduction internationally, but Indian courts, due to the absence of a law, treat mothers as natural guardians. As a result, people like me are simply deprived of having access to our children for life,” Pritam told The Sunday Standard from Ohio.
“When I heard that the government had taken some steps to make a law on the issue, I felt a glimmer of hope. But going by the tone of the recommendations, there is not much that I expect now,” he said.Sources said the panel was formed under pressure from the US following a meeting between Modi and former US President Barack Obama. It was suggested that the recommendations of the panel would form the basis for a draft law.
Though statistics on parental abduction cases are inadequate, Jyoti Batra, a Delhi-based activist, said Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab and Haryana account for the largest share of such cases.
The US has termed India as a “non-compliant country which does not adhere to any protocols”. In its annual report on ‘International Child Abduction 2017’, the US State Department said 66 per cent of requests made in 2016 for the return of abducted children remained unresolved for over a year. From 74 cases at the start of 2015, it rose to 101 at the end of 2016. The UK, too, lists India as a country with second highest numbers of “parental abductors”.
For Pritam and many others like him, committee’s report has come only as a fresh blow, but some do see hope. “This is the beginning of a new jurisprudence on parental abduction. The law will evolve gradually and find statutory colour,” said Anil Malhotra, a Chandigarh-based family law practitioner who was a member of the Bindal panel and has co-authored a book, India, Inter-country Parental Child
Removal and the Law.