- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

— After 2 ½-year-old Muslim child Shaikh Muzaffar disappeared during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in India’s western state of Gujarat, his parents eventually stopped searching for him, believing he was among the more than 1,000 people killed.

Six years later, they discovered he was still alive, and last month DNA tests confirmed that he was indeed their child.

They also found that he had been living with a Hindu family, who had given him a Hindu name, Vivek Vikram Patni. A police constable who found the child in the aftermath of the riots had taken him home and given him to his relatives.

However, a municipal court in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, last month refused an appeal by the child’s biological parents, Shaikh Mohammed Salim and Jaibunnisa, for the return of their child.

While testifying in court, the 8 ½-year-old child ignored his biological parents and said Meena Patni was his mother.

In front of the judge, when Mrs. Shaikh called him “Muzaffar” and introduced herself to him as his mother, he replied that his name was Vivek and turned to Mrs. Patni. As Mrs. Shaikh burst into tears, seeking to hold her son, the confused and frightened child held Mrs. Patni tightly around her neck and began crying.

Although the court dismissed the Muslim couple’s plea because of the child’s strong emotional attachment to Mrs. Patni, whom the child had seen as his mother for six years, the ruling has stirred up a controversy on a national level.

The case has turned more sensational in Gujarat in the state’s communally volatile background, where most Hindus and Muslims live in a sharply polarized society, especially after 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots.

Although the ruling of the court favors the foster mother, some social activists argue that denial of custody of a child to his biological parents is unfair.

Bombay-based activist Teesta Setalvad of the rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace, which has been fighting for Gujarat’s more than 400 missing riot victims, said her organization will challenge the verdict in the High Court this month.

“It is a case of illegal confinement. Natural justice demands that the boy be reunited with its biological parents at the earliest. Though we do not want to shock the child, but the fact remains that his original parents want to have their son back who was lost in tragic circumstances,” Ms. Setalvad said.

“At least 428 people went missing during the riots and police never bothered to take any action to trace them. The missing of Muzaffar’s, too, was reported to the police. But police did not bother to advertise about the missing boy. The police failed to do its duty again by not searching for the parents [after the boy was reportedly found by a policeman during riots].

“Police constable Praveen Patni, who was fully aware of the broad daylight massacre at Gulbarga Society [an Ahmedabad housing colony where 70 Muslims were believed to be killed by armed Hindu rioters], found the child and unilaterally committed the unlawful and criminal act of handing him over to his relatives.

“Are the Gujarat police even going to bother to prosecute this policeman on charges of illegal abduction and kidnapping of the child? We have decided to approach the High Court over the illegality committed by the police force, including the constable, in this case.”

Bachi Karkaria, noted columnist, said the child must be helped to return to his original identity.

“It has been a very hard time for Salim and Jaibunnisa. Loss, hope and then rejection [by the verdict of the court]. Can any parent live with this? … Biological parents have first rights; in this case the only rights.”

Some other activists, considering the complexity of the situation, find it hard to take any side.

“We understand that it is very hard for a mother to forgo the rights of her own child. But we should take a look at the story from the other side as well,” said Ahmedabad-based veteran social activist Ila Bhatt.

“Meena Patni, despite being a poor woman, decided to adopt the child. From the circumstances she was sure it was a Muslim child. She perhaps thought his parents had been killed in the riot and he was an orphan.

“Her warm-hearted act must be taken in account before delivering a verdict in this case. … In fact, it is difficult to say which verdict could have suited the best in this situation.”

Madras-based child rights campaigner Pinagapani Manorama believes the child should stay with his foster mother simply because he is not mentally mature enough to adapt himself to the new situation of the custody of his biological parents.

“We should take a decision in the supreme interest of the child, and none else. In this unique situation a child of this age will be traumatizing confused if he is sent to live with his biological parents and forced to believe that Jaibunnisa is his mother, after knowing Meena Patni as his mother and growing with her from the age of as young as almost 2,” Ms. Manorama said.

“Jaibunnisa should not be introduced to the child as his real mother until he is mature enough to understand the difference between a biological mother and foster mother. He will not be able to understand the significance of the biological relationship in the next 10 or 12 years, I think. The parents should wait patiently until he grows enough to accept them as his real parents.”

Mrs. Manorama also added that the child should be allowed to grow freely with Mrs. Patni now and none of the two families should attach their rights to him.

“In this communally polarized society perhaps one day Muzaffar Vivek’s life will stand out as a bold example of harmony between the two communities [Hindus and Muslims] when he would probably introduce his religion as humanity - much above a narrower religious identity of a Hindu or Muslim,” Mrs. Manorama said.

Legal activist Gitanath Ganguly in Calcutta believes the court gave the right verdict.

“The welfare of a child is the paramount consideration by the court. The court observed, the child was growing among Patnis under their best physical and mental support and gave the verdict naturally in favor of the foster mother.”

However, the child’s birth mother Jaibunnisa believes she has been meted out an unfair treatment by the court.

“I am thankful to Meena Patni that she took great care of my little child for long years. But my son should be returned to me now. I cannot wait to get him back in family,” said Jaibunnisa, who was crying loudly.

“I saw him in the court after six long years and then the court took him away from me. Is it a fair decision? Please try to understand the pain I am going through after being separated from my son this way.”

Muzaffar’s father, who is a factory worker said, “When Mrs. Patni took Muzaffar from the police she promised to return him to his parents if they were found. She is doing it wrong by holding him in her custody now. It is impossible for us to part with our son. We shall knock every judicial door to get back our son.”

But Mrs. Patni, a widow who sells vegetables and fish on the street, said it would be very difficult for her to part with Vivek.

“He is dearer to me than my other kids. I want to keep him. I send him to school and I want him to study as far as he wants. I am working hard for him. … For so long years he has grown up as my shadow. How can I part with him now? Is he not my son?”

Muzaffar-now-Vivek held Mrs. Patni tightly as he said he will always live with her. “When I grow up I shall become a policeman, earn money and support my mother [Mrs Patni].”

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