It’s tough to find a Mrs Kramer in real life. Or so many Indian fathers, who want primary custody of their minor child, would say. These dads contest the general view that mothers are best suited for the caregiver’s role, and want the law to be open about the fact that in many cases the father may be a better custodian.
“A man can also multitask between domestic work, business and taking care of the family,” says Bangalore-based stockbroker Kumar Jahgirdar, who has been fighting for primary custody of his 13-year-old daughter for almost nine years now. “Giving a father visitation rights, like spending one hour a week in the park or meeting the child in the mother’s presence, are not fair,” he adds. While such views have already formed support groups of fathers on the Internet, Jahgirdar has gone a step ahead. Last month, he founded Child Rights Initiative for Shared Parenting (CRISP), an organisation that aims to “fight for a child’s right to have access to both parents”. Over 200 fathers are already said to have joined him.
Jahgirdar’s initiative may strike a chord among many divorced fathers in India. “The courts are much more in favour of the mother,” says Supreme Court lawyer Geeta Luthra. “But you cannot negate the father’s role completely, especially in cases where the mother has gone abroad, or there are psychological reasons to be considered.” The gender of the child is also often held significant by the court in granting custody of a female child to the mother. “But a girl child is safer with her father and a stepmother than with her mother and a stepfather,” says Naveen (surname withheld on request), who counts himself “more fortunate than most”. Naveen, who has had full custody of his 13-year-old daughter for three years now, believes his is a rare case. “I don’t know any other single divorced father, whereas I know of many single mothers,” he says.
Men like him feel that since mothers too are working outside home now, they aren’t any closer to their children than fathers. “Ultimately, the most important thing is that both parents should be able to spend equal quality time with the child,” says Jahgirdar, who, after reaching the Supreme Court twice, now gets to spend 110 days a year with his daughter, including weekends and vacations. The court denied him custody because there was no female member in his house. But now that Jahgirdar has got remarried, he has filed a fresh application. “Chetana (his ex-wife) has two small children from her second marriage, whereas we don’t have any so far,” he says. But isn’t such a prolonged court battle unfair to the child? Jahgirdar maintains that his daughter has always taken a neutral stand. “She can’t decide between her two eyes, no?”
That’s probably the most unpleasant part of the whole affair. “If the child can decide, there is no need for the judge,” says Jahgirdar. But then few cases can get as murky as a custody battle. “Sometimes, when the bickering gets too nasty, you have to bring in the child,” admits Mehak Sethi, senior legal officer with Lawyers Collective, while conceding that it’s a tough step to take. Suffering parents, however, get almost vitriolic on the question of asking a child to choose between the two. “Does the judiciary realise that its prime goal is to rule keeping in mind the welfare of the child and that children are not always the best judge of their welfare, especially minors and alienated children?” says an entry in the blog of a father fighting for his children’s custody.
The child’s happiness should indeed be the focus of all parties concerned. But embittered fathers feel that pro-women laws often blur the fact that the child may be better off with them. “Is there a ministry entirely for children?” asks Jahgirdar. “There is a ministry of women and child development. The focus should be on the child’s welfare, and sometimes children can be nurtured outside a woman’s shadow too.”