Anupama’s struggle exposes Kerala’s medieval mindset towards unwed mothers

Kerala society is more interested in discussing how Anupama's baby was conceived, than examining the troubling connivance of the state in flouting adoption laws.
Kerala mother Anupama Chandran sitting in protest
Kerala mother Anupama Chandran sitting in protest
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An uphill battle fought by 23-year-old Anupama Chandran came to a bittersweet end on November 23, Wednesday. For the past one year, the Kerala woman has been running from pillar to post to find her son who was given away for adoption by her family, without her consent. In a culture where motherhood is usually glorified and venerated, the story should have triggered a wave of sympathy and goodwill for the young woman. But that isn't the case because Anupama did not become a mother according to the moral codes prescribed by a society deeply entrenched in patriarchal ideas about women, sexuality, and agency.

Social media is full of comments targeting Anupama for bearing a child outside wedlock, that too with a man who was already married. From deeming her an unfit mother to claiming that the Andhra couple who had fostered the baby would have made better parents, the avalanche of judgment is only growing. In contrast, there is very little criticism for Anupama's family who deceived the young woman and indulged in a cruel act of betrayal that has had repercussions on not only the biological parents and the baby but also the foster parents. More troubling is the willingness to look past the serious lapses in the adoption procedure and what looks like the active connivance of the state in keeping Anupama away from her baby.

Anyone who writes in support of Anupama or expresses happiness that the mother finally found her child, is being asked if they support infidelity, if they don't feel bad for Ajith's (Anupama's partner) first wife whom he has now divorced, if they are not thinking about the plight of Anupama's family that had to face the prospect of an unwed mother in their home. According to a 2020 survey conducted by Gleeden, India's first extramarital dating app (yes, it exists), 55% of married Indians have cheated on their spouse at some point in their marriage. This isn't a fact worthy of celebration, romanticisation, or glorification. It is simply a fact that points to the reality of marriage in Indian society, and says loudly that extramarital affairs happen all the time. And while an extramarital affair can be considered grounds for divorce, it's not a criminal offence. To put it in plainspeak, what happened between Ajith and Anupama is neither unique nor rare; it would have never made the headlines if not for what Anupama's family did.

Anupama's father, Jayachandran, is a local leader of the ruling CPI(M) party in Kerala (this is also why much of the social media anger is coming from supporters of the party).  According to Anupama, her family objected to her relationship with Ajith also because he's Dalit. In the many interviews she has given, she has said that the family took away the baby from her on the promise that the child will be returned after her sister's wedding. The sister's wedding became a tool of emotional blackmail because we live in a society where the notion of honour is closely tied to exercising control over women's bodies. What would people say if the sister of the bride was an unwed mom? Worse, her unwed partner is from a Dalit caste? How can the family hold its head high with such a 'shameful' secret? Which family would want a bride from such a home? It is because many people following this story closely identify with these questions that we're seeing such a backlash against Anupama.

This isn't an isolated instance. We have seen such responses in many cases where a woman goes against her family, and makes decisions that are not considered morally upright by society, even if these are not illegal choices. For example, when Pranay, a Dalit man in Telangana, was brutally murdered by assasins hired by his wife's father, there was a tidal wave of sympathy for the accused who came from a dominant caste. Even media channels painted the horrific crime as the sad consequence of a 'father's love'. Within the Indian family system, a woman is always expected to be under the control of either her father, brother, husband or some other male relative. When she dares to step out of this circle, she is punished, and the punishment, however extreme, is repeatedly justified by the society around her.

The violence committed against a woman by her family is almost always considered to be a 'family issue'. In Anupama's case, it is being said that Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, too, knew what was happening but decided not to intervene. The entire state apparatus — from the police to the government and the adoption agencies — was hostile to Anupama because of her father's political affiliations and the fact that her family's plight drew more sympathy than her own. It is only because she refused to back down that the baby was finally found.

The law is cognizant of the situation that an unmarried mother is likely to face. According to adoption rules, when a child is born out of wedlock, only the mother can surrender the child, and if the mother is a minor, the Deed of Surrender should be signed by an accompanying adult as the witness. Further, the parent who wants to surrender the child should also be provided counseling over a period of time to make sure that they are taking the irrevocable decision after duly considering all factors. We need to pause for a moment and register this. The fact that the law exists is not an encouragement for women to put themselves in such trying circumstances. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that such situations arise and people in those situations need protection mandated by law, because society is likely to be far less understanding and more eager to deprive them of their rights.

The issue here is that Anupama's right over her child was not respected by anyone involved in this conspiracy. The law was flouted repeatedly, with primacy being given to moral codes. This is what must concern us as citizens because the issue isn't limited to Anupama's circumstances; it points to larger questions about misuse of state power and lack of accountability. How the baby was conceived is, frankly, not our problem. Beyond satisfying a base, salacious interest, it has no impact on how any of us conduct our lives.

Yes, this is a story with many sides, but not all sides matter to the public and neither are all sides equally relevant. The question is not even 'who shall cast the first stone' but 'why do you think it's your business to cast it'.

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