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Home > 2022 > A “family matter”? Caste-patriarchy-politics nexus in a case of illegal (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

A “family matter”? Caste-patriarchy-politics nexus in a case of illegal adoption in Kerala | Kalyani Menon Sen, Nivedita Menon, JM Rugma, Cynthia Stephen, Enakshi Ganguly

Friday 11 March 2022, by Cynthia Stephen, Enakshi Ganguly, JM Rugma, Kalyani Menon Sen, Nivedita Menon


I. Background

This note is a product of our effort to investigate the “Kerala illegal adoption case” where a new-born infant was forcibly snatched and handed over to an adoption agency by the mother’s family, against the mother’s will and without her consent. When all her attempts to recover the child through appeals to the authorities failed, the mother Anupama Chandran started a fast outside the State Secretariat and took her story to the media. Activists and women’s groups joined her protest and the case was widely covered in the national and international media.

URLs to reportage:

It was at this point that friends in Kerala reached out to us and shared their concerns about the garbled and inaccurate reports about the case being circulated in different circles. They asked if we could organise an independent fact-finding on the case to establish the sequence of events and highlight the issues and concerns that Anupama’s struggle had raised for feminists. We agreed that the case raised questions that went beyond Kerala and had long-term implications for our own activism and advocacy of women’s and children’s rights. Given the sharply polarised positions and contradictory reports in the public domain, we felt that it was important to establish the facts of the case by speaking directly to the concerned parties. Our intention was to identify critical instances of rights violation at various levels, and draw out lessons for activists and institutional actors.

By the time we launched our effort, Anupama had won her battle in the Family Court and had reclaimed her baby. However, she continues to pursue a criminal case against her parents and family, Shiju Khan, the General Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samithi (the Kerala State Council for Child Welfare, the designated Special Adoption Agency of the state government) and Adv N Sunanda, Chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee (Thiruvananthapuram district) for colluding in the abduction and illegal adoption of her son. The case had by then become an embarrassment for the State government, with unconfirmed reports in the media that a government enquiry had found major illegalities by the concerned CWC and the Shishu Kshema Samithi. Our attempts to speak to the officials concerned — the Chairperson of the Kerala Commission for the Protection of Child Rights; the Secretary Women and Child Development; the Director Women’s Development; the Chairperson of the District Child Welfare Committee; the General Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samithi — were all stonewalled. We could not gain access to any of them.

In the end, we were able to speak to only a handful of people — Anupama and her partner Ajith; independent journalist KK Shahina; Advocate J Sandhya (former member of the Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights); MLA and feminist activist KK Rema of the Revolutionary Marxist Party, and feminist activists PE Usha and J Devika who supported Anupama in her struggle. These conversations yielded detailed information on the sequence of events and the underlying motivations of Anupama’s father, along with a panoramic view of the ways in which different institutional actors colluded to subvert the laws. the underlying motivations of Anupama’s father and his associates.

Given that we could not ascertain the views of any of the institutional actors, our effort falls short of the minimum standards for a fact-finding exercise. Nevertheless, we feel that it is important for us to record our impressions and insights. We hope this note will add some value to the ongoing discussions on the case and its aftermath.

II. The story

The following summary of the case has been constructed from our conversations with Anupama and Ajith, information provided by activists and legal experts, and statements made to the media by those involved.

The struggle of a 22-year-old mother, Anupama S Chandran, in Kerala, a state that is supposedly one of the most-progressive in the country caught national attention when Anupama started a hunger strike in front of the Secretariat in Tivandrum. 

Anupama, a student leader of SFI, was in a relationship with Ajith, a member and local leader of DYFI. In April 2020, Anupama became pregnant. She did not reveal her condition to her parents as she knew that they would not accept her relationship with a married man, and feared their reaction. She managed to hide her pregnancy from her family for eight months. When she finally told her family, they were furious and refused to accept the relationship. They objected to Ajith not only because he was married but because of his being a Dalit. They pressurised Anupama to abort the baby despite knowing the risks. 

When Anupama refused to abort the baby and declared her intention of going to live with Ajith, her parents kept her under house arrest. They confined her to a locked room, took away her phone and stopped her from contacting Ajith or any of her friends. They also subjected her to verbal abuse, beatings and continuous harassment. She was taken to a hospital in Malappuram to try and get the pregnancy terminated, but the doctor ruled out this option. 

During this time, Anupama contracted Covid and had to stay in the isolation centre. She contacted Ajith on a borrowed phone and he went to Malapparum to pick her up. Her family changed their tune, begged the couple to wait for few more days until her sister’s wedding was solemnised, after which they could live together as they wished. Anupama agreed to this and went back to her home with her parents. But once they had her in their custody, Anupama’s parents began abusing her again, worse than before. 

In the month of October, Anupama contracted Covid again and was admitted to a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram. On 19 October 2020, Anupama gave birth to a baby boy. Mother and child were discharged three days later on 22 October 2020. 

On the journey back home, Anupama, her mother, sister and the baby were in one car, while her father, her sister’s fiance and a friend of the family followed in another car. Anupama was in pain from the stitches and groggy from the pain medication she had been given. The baby was in her mother’s lap. She was jolted awake when the car stopped by the roadside. Her father yanked open the door, snatched the baby from her mother’s lap and pushed Anupama when she tried to take the baby back. Despite being in pain, she got out of the car and started screaming for help. Her father slapped her, dragged and pushed her back into the car and drove away with the baby in the other car. All this happened in full public view, but no one intervened. 

Anupama’s mother pacified her by telling her that the baby was being taken to a relative who would take care of him and bring him back after her sister’s marriage. Anupama was first kept in the isolated house of a family friend and then taken to her maternal grandmother’s house in Thodupuzha. There too, she was not allowed to contact Ajith or her friends. 

Anupama was brought back to Trivandrum a few days before her sister’s wedding and was taken along in visits to friends and relatives to give the invitation cards, so as to create the impression that everything was normal and no suspicions were raised. Anupama complied only because she hoped that she would get her baby back after the wedding and would be free to go and live with Ajith. She kept on asking about her baby and was reassured with the promise that he would be returned to her as soon as the wedding was over. 

Soon after the wedding, Anupama’s father asked her to sign a document without letting her read the contents. When she refused to sign, she was assaulted by her father and forced to sign. Her mother told her later that this was some document related to family property. 

Soon after this, Anupama made another unsuccessful attempt to escape and was once again taken to her grandmother’s house and imprisoned there, growing increasingly worried, depressed and unwell. Finally in March 2020, she managed to escape and contact Ajith. 

The couple started living together in Ajith’s home. They tried desperately to trace their baby but could not find any details about him. On 19 April 2021, Anupama approached the Peroorkada police station and filed a complaint against her parents for taking away her baby, and sought the help of the police to locate him. She also made a complaint with the District Child Welfare Committee (CWC) through video conference. The CWC heard her out but stated that they could not take any action until the police locatedthe child. 

Anupama and Ajith met the DGP who ordered the police to register a case under the Juvenile Justice Act [1]However, this was not done and the DGP’s office did not respond to further enquiries. A complaint was also made to the Chief Minister of Kerala. No action was taken on any of these complaints. 

In July, the police informed Anupama that her father Jayachandran had confirmed that he had handed over the baby for adoption, and had produced a “consent letter” signed by her. This was presumably the document that Anupama was forced to sign without having read it.

 In the month of July, while Anupama was approaching everyone possible and trying to locate her baby, the details of the childappeared on the website of Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) as available for adoption. In August, well before the required two month waiting period, a five-member adoption committee decided to give the baby for temporary foster care to a couple in Andhra Pradesh. 

It was only at this point that Anupama’s father revealed that he had given away the child to the Shishu Kshema Samithi, the state adoption agency. Anupama went to the agency in search of her baby, and was shown another baby who she was sure was not her son. She asked for a DNA test, which was conducted after considerable delay on 30 September 2021. The results came a week later and confirmed that the child was not Anupama’s. 

On 15 October 2021, Anupama appeared in a programme on the Asianet TV channel and narrated her story. The programme created a furore and the state government found itself under scrutiny from the national and international media. Finally, six months after Anupama filed her complaint, the Peroorkada police station registered a complaint under Section 461 of IPC on 18 October. Soon after this, the Kerala State Women’s Commission also registered a case. 

It was at this point that it came to light that the Shishu Kshema Samithi had received two babies on 23 October 2020, and that adoption procedures were underway for one of them. Alerted by a lawyer, Anupama and Ajith appeared in the family court with a plea for a stay on the adoption proceedings. The court granted a stay and directed the CWC to bring the baby back for DNA testing. The child was brought back on 21 November and bio samples from Anupama, Ajith and the baby were collected and sent for testing. The test results came back on 23 November and confirmed that Anupama and Ajith were the biological parents of the child. The child was presented in the family court the next day, and handed over to his parents. 

Timeline of events

15 April 2021: Anupama petitions the Peroorkkada Police Station to help her retrieve her certificates from her family. No action has been taken to date on this. (complaint no. 277/DPT/P5/2021, Peroorkkada Police Station).

19 April 2021: Anupama complains to the Peroorkada police about the abduction of her baby by her parents. The police later took her statement. It has not moved forward at all. (complaint no. 280/DPTN/PS/2021)

22 April 2021: Anupama submits complaint to the Child Welfare Committee Chairperson through a video call (under pandemic conditions) (CWC Chairperson Adv Sunanda, CWC member Dhanya Shine, and office staff Lekshmi were present). A day was fixed for Anupama to make a complaint directly. Under pandemic conditions, she called the CWC Chairperson to shift the date, when the latter claimed that nothing could be done at the CWC and that she had to approach the police.

29 Apr 2021 : Anupama petitions the DGP requesting him to take action, complaining about the baby-snatching. The Peroorkkada police took her statement after being directed to do so by the DGP’s office. But no FIR is filed.

12 July 2021 :Anupama requests the CM to help locate her missing child (complaint no CMO -21033375).

Last week of July 2021 : Anupama and Ajith visit the ACP’s office several times, give details about the case and request help. 

Aug 7- 10 : From their visits to the ACP’s office, they get to know that their child was placed in the foundling cradle at the Shishu Kshema Samithi (the Kerala State Council for Child Welfare, designated by the state as a Special Adoption Agency). They were able to find out there was another male child there at the time when Anupama’s baby was received there.

11 Aug 2021 : On the basis of this info, they seek a DNA test of the babies in the Shishu Kshema Samithi, applying to the Child welfare committee (Appl. no 647/2021) but they said that only one child could be subjected to the test, because the other baby was given up for adoption.

7 Sept 2021: Anupama seeks information about her complaint to the CWC through RTI. She received a reply saying that her complaint has been heard on video call but a complaint was not formally registered. It claimed that she had been asked to give a written complaint but had not done it. It also revealed that permission for a DNA test on the baby Edison Pele was being sought.

7 Sept 2021 : Anupama seeks by RTI the status of her complaint at the Shishu Kshema Samithi. Also, about (1) the number of male infants received between 22 Oct 2020 to 23 Oct 2020 (2) the time they were received. (3) the circumstances under which they were received? (4) about infants who have been adopted from here. No response was received to this request.

7 Sept 2021: Anupama files an RTI at the Peroorkada police station seeking to know if the FIR on her complaint had been registered, whether any action had been taken on the order sent from the CM’s office, and asking for a copy of the so-called “consent papers” produced by her parents to support their claim that she voluntarily gave the baby away.

19 Sept 2021: Anupama receives a letter from the Peroorkada police station directing her to seek redress from the Child Welfare Committee or a court of law.

3 Oct 2021: RTI response from the police station: (1) No FIR was registered (2) It was suggested that the matter should be settled in court (3) no copy of the document was received in the police station.

 10 Oct 2021: Anupama requests the help of the new DGP to find her missing baby (Petition No 136273/2021/PHQ.)

11 Oct 2021: Anupama and Ajith informed that the DNA of the baby at the Shishu Kshema Samithi (Edison Pele) did not match theirs.

15 Oct: Anupama appeals to the State Information Officer about her unanswered queries to the Shishu Kshema Samithi. 

16 Oct 2021: Anupama and Ajith request the CWC to conduct a DNA test on the other baby given up for adoption from the CWC, detailing the abduction. The CWC refused to accept the complaint, claiming that it was unable to do anything until the police traced the baby.

16 Oct 2021: Anupama and Ajith meet the Director ICPS (Integrated Child Protection Scheme) with the request to help them find their missing baby. The request was accepted.

18 Oct 2021 : The police file an FIR based on direction from the new DGP. FIR 1842/2021. Accused include Jayachandran, Smitha (parents), Anju and Arun (sister and brother in law), Ramesh and Anilkumar (friends of Jayachandran)

18 Oct 2021: Anupama and Ajith complain to the Women’s Commission and the Child Rights Commission. Anupama gave her statement at the Women’s Commission.

22 Oct 2021: The SIO ordered the Shishu Kshema Samithi and CWC to provide the documents to the SIO within a stipulated deadline (7 and 10 days respectively).

22 Oct 2021: Anupama submitted a detailed complaint to the Health Minister. The Minister Veena George ordered an inquiry into the matter by the Director DWC (TV Anupama, IAS). The report has been submitted but not yet made public or acted on.

1 Nov 2021: Anupama requests the General Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samithi to implead in the petition to quash adoption proceedings in the family court.

1 Nov 2021: The family court suspends adoption procedure, orders a DNA test on the baby

2 Nov 2021: Anupama files complaint at the Child Rights Commission praying that the child’s custody should be with the Kerala government till the test and results, and that she was worried about its safety. The petition was accepted.

7 Nov 2021: Anupama gets a notice from the Sreekaryam police station.

17 Nov 2021: Govt passes order to bring the child back to Kerala and conduct the DNA test within five days.

23 Nov 2021 : DNA test confirms biological parentage. 

24 Nov. 2021 : Baby Aidan rejoins his parents on 25 Nov.

III. Violations and illegalities

Anupama’s story is a saga of violations of the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed to her by the Constitution and the law. The listing below, while no means comprehensive, is based on information given to us by Anupama and Ajith, statements to the media by the concerned parties and documents in the public domain.

  • Although she is an adult, Anupama’s parents denied her the right to choose her own partner and live her own life. Her attempt to exercise her autonomy was punished by her parents, who kept her in close confinement and under constant surveillance. Her phone was taken away and she was not allowed to communicate with anyone.
  • Anupama was subjected to severe mental and physical abuse by her father and mother while in their custody. Her sister and sister’s fiance colluded in these abuses.
  • Anupama’s parents attempted to force her to abort her child even though Anupama was eight months pregnant, despite knowing that an abortion at such a late stage is illegal and puts the life of the mother at risk.
  • Anupama’s baby was forcibly snatched away from her by her father, which amounts to kidnapping under Section 461 of IPC.
  • The baby was given away for adoption against Anupama’s wishes. Anupama was forced to sign on the so-called “consent letter” that her father had concocted without being allowed to read the contents.
  • The Shishu Kshema Samithi and the CWC colluded to accept the baby from Jayachandran, in clear violation of Section 7(7) of the Adoption Act, which specifies that in the case of a child born to an unmarried mother who is an adult, only the mother can surrender the child. The CWC went ahead with the adoption procedure on the basis of the so-called “consent letter” submitted by Jayachandran.
  • Anupama’s signature on the application for the child’s birth certificate was forged. The details including the name and address of the father were false. The sex of the child was shown as “female”. Corrections were hastily made in the records when the discrepancy was discovered.
  • Anupama’s father Jayachandran and Shiju Khan, the General Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samithi, made false statements to the media about the surrender of the child. Jayachandran stated that he had personally “handed over” the child to Shiju Khan. However, in interviews and statements to the press, Shiju Khan claimed that the child had been found in the electronic cradle (“Amma thottil” where babies can be anonymously placed) and was therefore an abandoned child. When it was pointed out that the electronic cradle was closed for repairs on the day of the surrender, he changed his statement and said that the child had been handed over with Anupama’s consent. When it was pointed out that, far from abandoning the baby or consenting to surrendering him, Anupama was demanding that he be restored to her, Shiju Khan refused to comment and stopped speaking to the press.
  • The adoption proceedings of Anupama’s baby were fast-tracked despite the fact that Anupama’s father had no locus standi to surrender the child on behalf of his daughter. The law [2] is clear that only the parents (or only the mother in the case of a single mother) can surrender the child. The adoption agency is required to present the surrendering parent and child before the CWC within 24 hours of receiving the child. The adoption agency and the CWC are required to counsel the mother and make all possible efforts to persuade her not to surrender the child. If these efforts fail, the mother is required to sign the surrender form in the presence of at least two members of the CWC. The adoption process can go ahead only after a mandatory two-month “reconsideration period”. None of these steps was followed. The Shishu Kshema Samithi and the CWC are accountable for these deliberate and blatant violations of the official guidelines on adoption. [3]
  • The CWC allowed the adoption proceedings to continue despite already having received a complaint from Anupama, giving her an online hearing and telling her that they could not intervene unless the baby was traced by the police. Anupama has produced documentary proof to counter the CWC Chairperson’s statement to the media that Anupama did not give her a written complaint. [4] The affidavit filed by the CWC in the family court, declaring that the baby was “free for adoption” was therefore a wilful misrepresentation.
  • The baby was hurriedly sent out of Kerala even though both the CWC and the Shishu Kshema Samithi were aware that Anupama had filed a police complaint and was seeking to reclaim her child.
  • The report of the official enquiry into the case carried out by DWCD has not been placed in the public domain. Requests under the RTI Act from Anupama, Ajith and social activists have all been denied. In a written reply to a starred question in the Kerala Assembly on 22 February 2022, Minister Veena George stated that the report could not be shared since it contains details of an ongoing case and personal details of the concerned parties. [5]
  • No action has been taken so far against any of the officials named in Anupama’s FIR and complaints, even though proof of their illegal actions is now available in the public domain.
  • Ajith was repeatedly summoned to the police station, threatened with false cases and pressurised to break off his relationship with Anupama. This amounts to mental torture and harassment while in custody.
  • Several defamatory articles with allegations against the couple were published and widely circulated on social media. Sexist and casteist language and concocted allegations were freely shared in print and on TV.
  • Ajith was subjected to casteist abuse, cyber-bullying and sexist and casteist trolling on social media. False stories and allegations about his personal life were widely disseminated without giving him an opportunity to respond.

IV. The evidence

Along with copies of complaints, FIRs and court orders, the most telling piece of evidence in this case is the video recording of a panel discussion on Asianet TV [6] aired on 15 October 2021. Anupama related her story, giving graphic details of how her father, aided and abetted by her mother and sister, forcibly snatched her baby and held her captive while mobilising his party contacts to rush through the adoption process without the valid paperwork.

About 26 minutes into the programme, Anupama’s father himself phoned the anchor and demanded to be allowed to give his version. For the next 15 minutes, Jayachandran incriminates himself, admitting that he had handed over the baby for adoption, stating that an “illegal” baby had no place in a decent family, claiming that he had acted in Anupama’s best interests since she was incapable of looking after a baby, responding aggressively to the anchor’s polite reminder that Anupama was an adult, and ranting at Anupama, accusing her of disgracing the family. Jayachandran’s sense of patriarchal entitlement and notions of “morality”, his outrage that anyone would dare to question his actions, his disregard for the law and due process, his contemptuous refusal to admit any wrong-doing, his chilling statement that he could have “disposed off” the child if he had wanted to - are all on uncontrolled display. Even without Anupama’s impressively firm and measured responses, Jayachandran’s performance amounts to a public validation of Anupama’s account of what she endured at his hands.

The intervention by Advocate Nazir Chaliyam, a member of the KSCPCR (Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights) was also a powerful vindication of Anupama’s stand. Listing each of the illegalities and violations that Jayachandran had admitted to, he was unambiguous in holding both the CWC and the Shishu Kshema Samithi accountable for violating the legal process.

V. Institutional collusion

Perhaps the most egregious element of the case is the way in which state institutions charged with the care and protection of children colluded with Jayachandran to perpetrate a series of blatant violations of the laws they are tasked with enforcing.

  • In his call to the Asianet programme, Jayachandran stated that he consulted Shiju Khan, the Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samithi about handing over the baby and speeding up the proceedings so as to get him adopted as soon as possible.
  • Although the court filings speak of the baby being placed in the electronic cradle (and thus classified as an abandoned child) Jayachandran stated that he personally handed over the child to Shiju Khan with a notarised “surrender letter” purportedly signed by Anupama.
  • Shiju Khan accepted the baby and started adoption proceedings even though the registration certificate of the Shishu Kshema Samithi had expired and was no longer valid. This has been confirmed in the reply to an RTI query filed with the DWC by a civil society activist. The certificate presented during the custody hearing pertains to another centre (Kollam), This was a deliberate effort to mislead the court and strongly suggests that Shiju Khan was aware of the illegality of his actions.
  • Anupama and Ajith went to the Shishu Kshema Samithi office in Trivandrum on to enquire about the whereabouts of the child surrendered by Jayachandran. As required by the rules, they signed the Visitors Register. When this register was produced in court during the hearing of Anupama’s plea for a stay on adoption proceedings, the page where Anupama and Ajith’s visit was recorded had been torn out. Once again, this confirms that Shiju Khan was aware of his culpability and was trying to cover up by tampering with the records.
  • In the Asianet interview as well as in her interview with us, Anupama described the way in which the police had tried to deflect blame from her father. At first, they refused to file an FIR based on her complaint against her parents for keeping her in confinement, trying to force her to have an abortion, subjecting her to physical and mental violence and kidnapping her baby. When media attention forced the police to move on the FIR, they have been dragging their feet on recording statements and have not proceeded with the investigation. They make their loyalties clear by the deference and respect they give Jayachandran.
  • In her statement on Asianet, Anupama also described an incident where she was approached by two policewomen in plain clothes who asked her to sign a statement confirming that Ajith was a married man. When she refused to sign the statement, they left saying that they she was in a “disturbed state of mind”. She suspects that this incident was engineered by her father to support his claim that Anupama was mentally unfit.
  • In the same interview, Anupama described an attempt by Public Prosecutor Advocate Geena Kumari to intimidate her into breaking off with Ajith. This PP, who is also a party functionary, called her on her father’s phone and claimed that Ajith (accompanied by his ex-wife), was in her office and wanted to break off his relationship with Anupama. A few days later, she called Ajith and tried to convince him that Anupama wanted to break off her relationship with him. Anupama and Ajith also told us about these incidents and confirmed that this PP is a close associate of Jayachandran.
  • It is noteworthy that neither Advocate Geena Kumari or the police officials named by Anupama in this programme have denied these charges or responded to queries from the media.

These demonstrations of solidarity and support for Jaychandran are nothing surprising. It is now well-accepted that, despite its much-publicised history of social reform, progressive political movements and impressive development indicators, Kerala continues to be a deeply conservative, sexist and casteist society. Notions of family honour and caste purity are as powerful here as it is in other parts of the country. Anger at Anupama’s and Ajith’s “immoral behaviour” have united those on opposite sides of political and generational divides. Various commentators from the Culture Minister to middle-class housewives on family WhatsApp groups have jumped into the free-for-all to condemn the couple while justifying and condoning Jayachandran’s actions. These moral judgements invoke familiar Malayali tropes: Anupama’s distinguished lineage as the grand-daughter of a much-respected leader of the CPM to the “sanctity” of Ajith’s first marriage, Anupama’s neglect of her filial duty in choosing Ajith against her parents’ wishes, and the social stigma that she and her “illegal” child will create for her family.

A recent study of child rights institutions in Kerala [7] cites several instances to underline their “patriarchy plus” character, where systemic misogyny, caste and class biases, religious and political interests come together to protect and reinforce the impunity of power-holders. The infamous Robin Vadakkanchery case demonstrates the power of this solidarity.

In February 2019, a Special POCSO Court in Kannur sentenced Mathew Vadakancherry (formerly Fr Robin Vadakancherry, a parish priest) to 20 years in prison for the rape of a 16-year old schoolgirl. 

Vadakkanchery’s colleagues went to extraordinary lengths to “manage” the situation and avoid a scandal. The girl’s parents were persuaded to keep her pregnancy secret until the baby was born. The delivery was carried out in a private hospital, with Vadakkanchery making a large donation to cover the costs. Immediately after the birth, a group of nuns, claiming to have permission from the CWC Chairman, took away the newborn to an orphanage in Trichur. The girl was discharged and returned home with her parents. 

When Childline (acting on information from the hospital) contacted the girl, she initially accused her father of raping her. It was only when he was arrested and interrogated that the father finally named Vadakkanchery as the abuser. Vadakkanchery was arrested as he was about to board a flight to Canada.

The case went through several ups and downs, with the victim and her parents turning hostile in court, claiming that the relationship was consensual. Conviction was obtained on the basis of evidence given by the hospital staff and a DNA test that confirmed paternity.

Both the Bishop and the Chairman of the Wayanad CWC (also a priest) were informed of the case by Childline at the same time as the police complaint was filed. However, no action was taken until Vadakkanchery was arrested, at which point a formal statement suspending him from the priesthood was issued by the church authorities. After his conviction, Vadakkanchery was formally defrocked by the Pope on the recommendation of the concerned church authorities in Kerala. 

Vadakkanchery is now serving his prison sentence. The six other accused in the case — the CWC Chairman (also a priest) who did not act even when informed about the complaint, the nuns who removed the baby from the hospital and the nuns who ran the orphanage — were acquitted of charges of conspiracy and forgery of documents. Despite statements from the police that the acquittal would be challenged, no appeal has been filed by the state. No action has been taken to review irregularities in the functioning of the orphanage or the CWC.

The parallels with Anupama’s case are starkly obvious. Her struggle to hold her father and his supporters accountable for their misdeeds will be a long hard one, with no guarantee of success.

V. Patriarchy and caste

This entire scenario played out on the canvas of an apparent pact of silence across political lines. The silence of political leaders on Jayachandran’s high handedness and the subversion of public institutions to protect political interests reflects the upper caste and patriarchal social contract in Kerala. Opposition parties that otherwise leap to condemn the CPM on non-issues, made no attempt to make political capital of a situation in which every legal safeguard of women and children’s rights was being breached with impunity.

It is depressingly obvious that in progressive and Left-ruled Kerala as much as in any other part of the country, no political party dares to challenge the citadels of caste and patriarchy. There is a silent consensus on some non-negotiable principles: first, that a relationship outside marriage is an unforgivable sin; second, that pregnancy outside marriage is the greatest possible shame for the family; and third, that a relationship between a savarna woman and a Dalit man is the ultimate crime. These beliefs are seen as so fundamental to the preservation of Malayali society, that even strangers take it upon themselves to preach to those who step out of line. For instance, Anupama told us how a nurse at the hospital sermonised her on her duty to obey her parents and break off her “illegal” relationship with a man from a caste so much below her own.

Ajith has spoken eloquently about his caste identity being central to this case. [8] Generally, most middle-class families know that the best way to deal with an unmarried daughter’s pregnancy is by arranging a quick marriage with the man concerned. But in this case the man is a Dalit — a fact that Anupama’s father could not tolerate. Ajith’s caste was flung at her repeatedly by her father, who threatened to kick her in the stomach to get rid of the “stain on the family honour”. It seems Anupama’s family found the thought of a Dalit son-in-law so unbearable that they were willing to deliberately get rid of their own first-born grandchild. Jayachandran’s defence of his actions as the only rational and even humane choice has been sympathetically received by a large section of self-proclaimed “respectable” Malayalis.

Anupama’s father is following in the footsteps of a long line of privileged upper-caste patriarchs who have preserved the family honour by getting rid of “illegal” children whose existence is an inconvenient reminder of their own failure to control their womenfolk. It is bitterly ironic that, in going to such extremes to escape the shame of a grandchild born out of an extra-marital relationship with a Dalit man, Anupama’s parents are now faced with far greater shame and public ignominy as perpetrators of criminal actions that implicate the state government and the party to which they are so loyal.

VI. The power of the party

The “takeover” of institutions by the ruling Left Front comes up for comment in almost all reports on Anupama’s case, and was mentioned by everyone we spoke to.

It is important to note that appointments to the State Commission and CWCs have always been “political” in the sense that they are made by the government of the day. As noted in the report cited earlier [9], activists and child rights professionals have alleged that the selection process is being subverted and people with little or no orientation or experience of work on child rights have been appointed as Chairpersons and members of CWCs. There have been numerous instances where the actions and public statements of these individuals have embarrassed the government. The most recent example is the Walayar case, where the lawyer for the accused was appointed as the chairperson of the Palakkad CWC and continued to appear for his client even after joining the post, refusing to resign until a public outcry forced his removal. [10]

Although both the UDF and the LDF stand accused of “political capture” of child rights institutions in order to weaponise them against their political opponents, the Left parties with their strong grassroots presence and disciplined cadre are arguably more successful in operationalising this culture of “cell rule” at the local level. [11] It is this culture that enables a senior party member to claim without irony that “the party decided to give the child to Anupama”. [12] We recall the outcry over the statement by a former Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission (also member of the CPM Central Committee): “I may be the Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, but I am from the communist party. No other party, other than mine, will take stern action in cases against women....Our party is a court and a police station." [13] In another case, a woman officer who was being sexually harassed by a colleague preferred to take her complaint to the party Local Committee rather than to her superiors. The party treated it as an internal issue — a dispute between comrades rather than a serious offence.

Given this history, it is depressing but not surprising that neither the party nor the government has taken any action against any of the people named in Anupama’s FIR. Jayachandran and Shiju Khan both hold senior posts in the district-level hierarchy. Public Prosecutor Geena Kumari is a party member and a close associate of Jayachandran. Although some local newspapers reported that Jayachandran has been removed from his position on the District Committee at the demand of women members, we were informed that the order (if there is one) has not been implemented.

In contrast, Ajith was removed from his party position as soon as his relationship with Anupama came to light without any notice, explanation or due process. Ajith’s father, also a member of the CPM local committee, has been sidelined and excluded from discussions. Ajith’s party colleagues boycott and ignore him, at least in public.

It was only when Anupama’s case began to be covered in the national and international media that the Secretary Department of Women and Child Development ordered an enquiry into the roles of the Shishu Kshema Samithi and the CWC. The media were assured that the report of the enquiry, carried out by the Director WCD, would be made public. This has not been done. Asianet and several newspapers carried reports on the findings of the enquiry, highlighting several major legal and procedural violations by the CWC and the Shishu Kshema Samithi [14]. Officials have refused to confirm the veracity or otherwise of these supposed extracts from the enquiry report. Anupama’s request for a copy of the report was denied on the ridiculous grounds that since the report contained details of the adoption, sharing it would violate the baby’s privacy. An RTI query from a civil society activity was rejected on similar grounds. When we contacted the Director WCD for an interview, she declined to speak to us about the enquiry or the case, citing civil service rules on confidentiality of internal proceedings.

We are tempted to conclude that the enquiry did in fact find serious violations, and has been kept under wraps to avoid any further embarrassment for the government and for the Chief Minister personally, since he is the President of the Shishu Kshema Samiti.

Anupama shared recordings of several conversations with PK Srimathi (“Srimathi Teacher”), a National Committee member, former MP and former Health Minister, appealing for her help to bring the issue to the notice of the Chief Minister. Although sympathetic to Anupama’s situation, Srimathi Teacher said she had spoken to the CM who was aware of the situation and was of the view that it was a family dispute, best resolved within the family. She herself pleaded her helplessness to go against the CM’s opinion and intervene in a “family dispute”. Meanwhile, male leaders (most notably the Culture Minister) [15] continued to make obnoxious and sexist comments in public and troll Ajith on social media.

KK Rema, of the Revolutionary Marxist Party, a feminist activist and MLA sees the CPM as a typical Malayali family where patriarchs keep firm control of the reins while maintaining the facade of women’s autonomy. Rema and her husband TP Chandrasekharan started their political lives with the CPM but broke away and formed the RMP in protest against the party’s unwillingness to act against the “murder politics” in the State. Chandrasekharan himself was brutally stabbed to death in 2012. Three CPM activists were among the 11 people eventually convicted for the murder. Rema, the only politician who took a strong public stand in support of Anupama and Ajith, gave all credit to Anupama for standing firm in the face of intimidation from the party patriarchs. She was not surprised at the silence of women leaders nor that Dalit leaders in the party have taken stands against Ajith and Anupama based on the “immorality” of their relationship rather than any real understanding of the legal issues involved. Rema feels that if Ajith had been an upper-caste man, his relationship with Anupama would not have attracted so much hostility. She described how, when she wanted to table a question on the case in the Assembly, she was advised to frame her intervention around Anupama’s rights as a mother and avoid mentioning Ajith since that would attract a hostile reaction across party lines.

We note that Anupama has thanked the chairperson of the Trivandrum CWC for giving her a hearing and ordering DNA tests for the two children in the custody of the Shishu Kshema Samithi. She has also thanked the chairperson of the State Commission for ordering that she should be allowed to meet her son after he was brought back from Telangana. In the present scenario, these seemingly routine actions and humane responses from these functionaries deserve to be recognised as exceptional.

We also appreciate the Kerala State Women’s Commission for taking suo motu cognisance of the case and asking the state police chief to submit a report on action taken on Anupama’s complaint to the Peroorkada police station. [16] We contrast this with the silence from the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights. It is significant that these bodies, that are usually quick off the mark in reacting to issues in states ruled by opposition parties, have chosen not intervened to protect the rights of a single mother and the child born from her relationship with a Dalit Christian man. As one TV commentator said only half jokingly, Ajith is lucky that a case of “love jihad” has not been filed against him.

VII. Breaking the silence

“Anupama’s case has brought to light three faultlines that threaten the gains Kerala is widely seen to have made in the past few decades. One, the imperilled right of an adult woman to choose her partner and raise her child. Two, the influence of institutions such as caste and family in shaping society’s attitudes towards choices made by individuals. Three, the ability of a ruling party to dictate the functioning of public institutions and subvert due process.”

This case has revealed the rot at the heart of state agencies such as the Shishu Kshema
Samithi (officially designated as the Special Adoption Agency for Kerala) and the Child Welfare Committees. As institutions tasked with ensuring child rights, it is hard to believe that the violations and illegalities we have listed were done in good faith. There is more than enough evidence that the rules and norms laid down for adoption were knowingly and wilfully violated by both these bodies.

The silence of the government tells its own story. Minister Veena George, who has repeatedly defended the Shishu Kshema Samithi and the CWC in Assembly and the media, has now stated [17] that action will be taken based on the official enquiry report, while refusing to disclose the findings of the report or name those who have been indicted. This stance will become progressively harder to sustain, given that more and more instances of deliberate wrongdoing are coming to light despite efforts at whitewashing.

Anupama’s parents seem to have read the signals that their actions will not stand scrutiny: they have failed to appear before the court that is hearing Anupama’s case of domestic violence, despite being summoned on three successive dates.

In a significant ruling last week, the Family Court held that the Shishu Kshema Samithi lacks the statutory recognition necessary for functioning as an adoption agency. [18] In its order issued last week, the court noted that the adoption facilitation agencies required the mandatory recognition under Section 65 (1) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 and Rule 23 (2) of the Adoption Regulations, 2017. Rejecting the contention that its registration under Section 41 (1) of the Act, 2015 as a child care institution and a specialised adoption agency was sufficient, the court noted that recognition under the Adoption Regulations is provided only after conducting a detailed inquiry into the internal structure and other facilities of the agency. The court noted that no such inspection and thorough verification of records are mandated for registration under the Act.

This ruling is an indictment of the state government for its failure to provide oversight and ensure compliance with the law in its own institutions. One could argue that the Chief Minister in his role as the President of the Shishu Kshema Samiti cannot be expected to concern himself with such details. However, the same cannot be said of the Secretary and Director of the Social Justice Department who are members of the Executive Committee. It is hard to believe that they were completely ignorant of the lapses in statutory compliances pointed out by the court.

While the charges of conspiracy and collusion between a senior functionary of the ruling party and power-holders in government institutions must be investigated and proved in a court of law, it is incumbent on the state government to accept that it has failed in setting up oversight and accountability mechanisms on child rights. This is not the first instance where these systemic weaknesses have been exposed and critiqued, but this is arguably the most comprehensive public demonstration of the state government’s callous disregard for accountability and the rule of law.

In this situation, there is only one ethical option available to the Kerala government: a humble acknowledgement of failures in its duty of oversight and accountability, immediate steps to remedy the miscarriage of justice in Anupama’s case, hold the violators accountable for their actions, and ensure complete transparency in the process.

We therefore urge the government to immediately make public the report of the official enquiry into the case. All those named in the report as having participated in illegalities and violations of rights and laws should be removed from their posts pending the findings of a judicial enquiry into their actions.

This case also puts CWCs under the spotlight. The government can no longer ignore the questions being raised on the selection and appointment of CWCs and complaints on the functioning of these bodies from aggrieved parties. We welcome the initiative taken by the State Commission to initiate a district-wise review of CWC functioning, and would urge that independent experts and and civil society representatives be invited to contribute to the process. We hope the review will give due weightage to the statements and information submitted to the Chairperson by Anupama and Ajith, and will take into account findings of previous studies [19]. We look forward to the results of this review and hope that it will lead to rigorous mechanisms for oversight, monitoring and capacity-strengthening of CWCs.

We also welcome the initiative by the State Commission to launch a campaign to build sensitivity and responsiveness to children’s rights and needs at the panchayat level. We urge the Commission to undertake a parallel effort to all institutions dealing with children’s rights, so as to ensure a common understanding of rights and how they can be translated into practice on the ground.

The shameful casteist hounding and harassment of Ajith on social media calls for a strong and unequivocal response. In parallel with legal action by Ajith himself, we urge the State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to take suo motu cognisance and institute proceedings against the offenders. An explicit message of zero tolerance needs to go out, backed by action against Anupama’s father, family and other individuals who, confident in their impunity, have put their casteist and sexist biases on public display.

We salute Anupama for her courage and determination in refusing to accept that the return of her child is the closure to her case. We note that without her relentless pursuit of justice, there would have been very little possibility of holding the government to account on any of the issues raised by her case. We look forward to strong judgements in her favour in the cases she is pursuing against her parents and the individuals who colluded with them, including the Secretary of the Shishu Kshema Samiti, the chairperson of the CWC and the SHO of the Peroorkada police station. We hope the court awards her exemplary damages and compensation in recognition of the suffering she has been subjected to by state institutions.

We hope that the debates, dialogues and soul-searching that Anupama’s story has sparked off in official circles, in the media and in family circles in Kerala will help others to speak out about their experiences at the intersections of caste, patriarchy and politics. Activists who have supported Anupama in her struggle are trying to initiate public conversations on these issues. We stand with them and are committed to taking these conversations and dialogues forward in our own spheres of work and activism.

(Authors: Prof Nivedita Menon (JNU); Feminist scholar, writer, activist. ; Cynthia Stephen. Activist on Dalit rights and women’s rights, writer, social policy researcher and independent journalist. ; Enakshi Ganguly. Researcher and activist on women’s and children’s rights, founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights. ; JM Rugma, lawyer and legal researcher ; Kalyani Menon Sen. Independent researcher and feminist activist )

[1 Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act, 2015)

[2Section 35 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

[3Adoption Regulations 2017

[4Interview to Asianet

[7Menon-Sen, Kalyani and PE Usha, 2020. In the best interests of the child? An institutional analysis of POCSO implementation in Kerala. Gender At Work, June 2020

[9Menon-Sen, Kalyani and PE Usha, 2020. In the best interests of the child? An institutional analysis of POCSO implementation in Kerala. Gender At Work, June 2020

[17Minister’s written reply to a starred question from Dr AK Munir, 4 March 2022.

[19For instance, the study of institutional mechanisms for POCSO implementation in Kerala cited earlier

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