Gandhis vs a Swedish nurse: The murky secrets of international adoptions

by 10 September 2012

Why are the descendants of the Father of the Nation trying to keep an Indian adoptee from finding out who was her birth mother?

Mihir Srivastava’s cover story for Open Magazine about the tangled web of international adoptions tries to shed light on many dark family secrets but the story of Rebeckah Saudamini Arnes, a 34-year-old nurse from Sweden sticks out because of the Gandhi name.

Arnes was adopted by a Swedish couple but when she tried to find out about her birth mother she hit a roadblock. Her adoption was facilitated by Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and later by Tushar Gandhi, his great-grandson through the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.

Arun Gandhi, who has allegedly threatened Rebeckah against trying to find her biological mother. Reuters.

But Arnes and her boyfriend Johann Berggren allege that the Gandhis have been less than helpful in her quest to uncover her roots.

The main issue, of course, is birth mother confidentiality. Arun Gandhi told her in an email that the father and mother have a right to privacy and that information cannot be divulged until they waive that right.

But then it gets more intriguing.

Arun Gandhi wrote to Arnes: ‘You must remember: you are assuming that your mother lives in poverty and destitution. That is not so. Anyone who could go to a private nursing home for delivery has to be upper middle class.’

When she persisted it started getting uglier.

Tushar Gandhi to Arnes: I am going to write to the Indian embassy in Stockholm requesting never to give you a visa to come to India, and believe me they will listen to me.

And it didn’t stop there. Gandhi went on to call Arnes her birth mother’s “curse not her offspring” and a “curse on her fate since the day you took root in her womb”.

The Gandhi name jumps out of this story but what Srivastava is writing about are the enormous bureaucratic hurdles adoptees face trying to ferret out their history from within our paper raj. In a culture that often gives short shrift to privacy, adoption is still shrouded in so much stigma that privacy laws kick into high gear when it comes to protecting the parents’ identity.

The debate over whether the right to know is a right at all is a tricky one. But Srivastava’s article is worth a read because it points to some things that often get left out of adoption stories.

The international adoption story is usually written as the story of the child, almost always a girl child, born in abject poverty, abandoned at the doors of an orphanage who gets a chance at another life abroad. Srivastava complicates that story by suggesting, as in Arnes’ case, that sometimes a child is given up for reasons other than poverty.

The adoption racket, whereby foreign adoption agencies are accused of basically being in the business of legalized child trafficking has been getting quite a bit of attention these days. But activists say some of the government response has been counterproductive. When India’s Central Adoption Resource Authorty (CARA) bans third-party searches on adoption histories, who is it really protecting? The child who might want to know his family medical history or the agency that facilitated the adoption or the birth parents?

The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions tries to address some of those concerns  by setting standards to try and create a clear bright line between adoption and trafficking. That might eliminate stories such as the one that happened to Cha Jung Hee. An eight-year-old Korean girl was adopted by an American family in 1966. Her passport said Cha Jung Hee but the girl knew she was not the person the family thought they were adopting. She had been switched since that girl had left the orphanage and the orphanage did not want to lose the sponsorship money, 15 dollars a month, the adoptive family was sending on her behalf. That girl eventually went back to South Korea as a grown woman to find out what happened to the real Cha Jung Hee and made a documentary about it. Adoption was so huge in Korea after  World War II there was a national programme on television trying to reunite missing children with their birth parents. That’s nowhere on the cards in India. But the bureaucracy that shrouded Cha Jung Hee’s case is as opaque as the one in India.

But tracking down a birth parent is often quite a traumatic experience for all sides concerned. In her 2010 novel Secret Daughter, Shilpi  Gowda traces the impact of a child given up for adoption on both the family that takes her in and the family which gives her up. When the child, as a young woman, tries to uncover the truth she is forced to question an old adage we take for granted. Is blood really thicker than water, especially the water you have grown up drinking your entire life?

However whether one is ready to actually know the answers one seeks is way down the road for the adoptees Srivastava profiles. As the stories of Arnes and some of the other adoptees in Open show, it’s not clear if  these Indian-born children even have a right to ask these questions in the first place.

You can read Mihir Srivastva’s entire article here in Open Magazine.