When a marriage falls apart it’s the children who become first casualty of the crisis. Away from the secrecy of living rooms, couples fight for the guardianship rights of their children inside courtrooms. Saima Bhat visits the court in the middle of the action to report the rotting marriage and its drastic impact on children
Inside raucous-filled courtroom, a consoling voice resonates: “Don’t cry, beta! He is not going to take you away. Ye mobile waley papa hai (He is your father, whom you see on mobile phone).” It is a young mother, Shahnaz, comforting her three-year-old daughter Maira, sitting uncomfortably in her father’s lap after a gap of more than one year. The couple is at Srinagar’s district court complex to decide the fate of their toddler.
Maira is still inconsolable. Her screams amplify the courtroom commotion. She is behaving as if she is with a stranger, not father. The time gap has probably obscured father’s image from her tender mind. Nearby, Shahnaz sits forlorn, her eyes brimming with tears. Lost in thoughts, she is perhaps recollecting how the marital dispute devoured their marriage soon after daughter’s birth.
That was a year ago. And since then, the logger-headedness has been forcing the young couple – Shahnaz (28) and Ajaz Ahmad (34) – to repeatedly date the courtroom for guardianship of their child.
But life was never a freaked out experience for the couple when they married. Such was the level of their compatibility that Shahnaz, a management graduate besides a software engineer, sacrificed her job for the sake of marriage. It was a ‘perfect’ marriage before she sensed growing rebukes and mocks from her unmarried sister-in-law and mother-in-law. It was getting on her nerves, but she endured the insult in silence. Then came a time, when she couldn’t take it anymore.
When all this was happening, her husband, a government employee, was behaving like a ‘deaf ear’, doing nothing to undo the crisis. Amid the mounting disturbance, she got pregnant. Even then, she senses ‘no mercy’ from her in-law’s side.
Then, she went to her parent’s home for the customary child birth and returned only to face another suffering phase. As her husband remained indifferent to her worsening state, she decided to walk away with their daughter.
Back in the courtroom. Ajaz takes out Maira in his lap to buy her a chocolate. But the move doesn’t go well with his brother-in-law and father-in law. The duo snatch Maira from his arms, triggering chaos in the courtroom. Situation assumes normalcy after Munsif judge intervenes, sending the in-laws out and the couple along their daughter in a separate room to talk.
Minutes later, avoiding eye contact, the couple starts arguing before the judge.
“I am ready to solve the dispute and live normally with my husband,” begins Shahnaz.
“She has lost my trust,” Ajaz dismisses her. “How could she leave me alone when we were not having problems with each other?”
“He is doing it just to get away from monthly installments he has to pay for me and my daughter’s maintenance,” Shahnaz retorts.
Amid the raging argument, Maira continues playing with her father’s mobile phone. The judge recommends the case for mediation, sensing the couple has a ‘chance’ of getting together, again. But as the couple continues verbal attack, Maira starts crying, again.
Far away from the arguing couple, Srinagar’s district court is busy handling surging guardianship cases. At least 20 such cases have been listed with the 1st Principal and District judge and the chief judicial magistrate. The courtroom officials don’t keep it a ‘guarded secret’, asserting that guardianship cases have increased manifold in last one decade.
“My 10 years of courtroom experience tells me,” says Nisar Ahmad, an official in district court, “that in majority of these cases, husbands file cases just to trouble their wives. Otherwise everybody knows, only a mother is a legal guardian for an infant.”
To stress this point, Advocate Ajaz Dhar, invokes the Guardian and Wards Act, which stresses on the ‘welfare’ of a child. This ‘welfare’ is a broader term including the better education for a child, his/her mental, physical and emotional care. All these factors are predominantly interconnected with each other, Ajaz says. “Besides, age and gender of a child also play important role in deciding with whom the custody of a child should be given.”
Meanwhile, raucous rages on in the courtroom amid mounting rush.
Sitting calmly amid stringent voices, advocate Gazanfar Ali is busy handling a different guardianship case. He is an old handler of such cases and knows their fate like back of his hand. But there is such one case, he probably, had a hard time to deal with. That was the famous ‘Ibrahim’s Case’, wherein the court decided the verdict in step-mother’s favour!
“You might think it is strange,” clears advocate Ali, “but we accepted that decision happily.”
In the famous ‘Ibrahim’s Case’, Ibrahim was dead. His first wife had deserted him and their baby boy. After remarrying, his second wife took care of that child. But when Ibrahim died, his first wife returned and claimed that she was the biological mother of the child and hence the legal heir of the property.
“She was right as per the law,” continues the advocate, “but we pleaded the case on behalf of Ibrahim’s second wife. That case proved that mother isn’t always the best guardian of a child.” As the legal action ensued, Ibrahim’s second wife ended up availing the custody of her stepson.
But then, not every guardianship case meets the fate of the ‘Ibrahim Case’. And when it doesn’t, it fears to have the fate of the Budgam Case, wherein two siblings despite having parents had to spent a decade of their growing years in different orphanages.
Today, 17-year-old Sameer Ahmad of Budgam’s Khansahib can tell you with firmness: what does it mean to hail from the fractured family!
He is no orphan. Yet, he had to live almost ten years of his life in different orphanages of Srinagar.
Behind the ordeal was no signature poverty, but the ‘crestfallen’ change. His was a happy family of four before one evening, Sameer’s father returned home cradling a baby girl. He informed his wife that he had adopted the girl to fill the void of girl child in their family. But his lies didn’t last long. As he frequently started turning up late at home, his wife grew suspicious. Within days, she knew the secret.
The revelation that her husband had married another woman from neighbouring village and that he was the biological father of the girl he brought home threatened their marriage.
As the word spread, some village elders decided that Sameer’s parents should divorce each other. But nobody could decide the fate of their two children. They were finally sent to custody of their ailing grandparents, who failed to nurture them. Then, their father stepped in, taking them to his new home where they had to live with the ‘abusive’ stepmother.
The stepmother proved vicious. She had no nerves to bear the kids’ way of living. On her dictates, the father also turned abusive and began whipping his kids. “We would be beaten up every day as if it was a part of our meals,” says Sameer. “Work or no work, we’ll get beaten for sure.”
After their grandfather got a whiff of the ruthless beatings, he brought them home and called their biological mother, who weaves carpet for living. The mother was delighted to get the custody of her sons, but her former husband instead admitted them in Srinagar’s Alamdar orphanage. Their ill luck continued trailing them at the orphanage as well.
On their first day, Sameer recalls, the orphanage caretakers hung students upside down with ceiling before beating them up. “It was like every stream had become colder than earlier,” he says. In desperation, the brother fled.
Within days, they were admitted in another orphanage, Dalgate’s Shah-i-Jeelan, which proved ‘worse than the earlier one’. But they decided to stay put to avoid their irate father’s wrath.
But the brothers were “picking up” number of bad habits at the orphanage. They started smoking sans any scolding from the authorities. They resorted to copying to pass exams. “When orphanage staff used to abuse my mother,” Sameer says, “I would react angrily.” When all this was happening, his family was busy in their lives. “And when they had time, they used to beat me.”
During that period, Sameer was the default mother of his younger brother, Zubair, who used to crave for his mother at night. Amid self-consoling, they would watch helplessly how students in orphanages go home twice or thrice a year. But they had no proper address to go. Sometimes they used to go to grandfather’s house, sometimes to mother’s or very seldom to their father’s. “Nobody used to call or visit us in orphanage,” Sameer says. “We were simply abandoned lots.”
Shortly another jolt came. Their orphanage, Shah-i-Jeelan, was closed down because of a ‘scandal’ and students were sent home without their last qualifying exam certificate. The abrupt way out made it difficult for Sameer to get admission in any school for Class 9. His brother Zubair was admitted in another hostel in Srinagar.
After failing to avail admission, Sameer started working as a labourer, a mason, painter, domestic helper. Presently, he calls himself as a trained painter and is somewhat satisfied as his mother is living with him.
Now, he no more longs for his lost childhood. “Initially I did. I used to weep all night. But now it doesn’t matter. I have become emotionally dead.” Had there been no dispute in guardianship of these Budgam brothers, things would have been entirely different, like it would have been for somebody like Shaista.
Now, in her late twenties, Shaista was just three-year-old and her brother Faisal was one, when their parents filed for divorce. The court decided the siblings would stay with their mother. Father was directed to provide them money for their maintenance till they attain puberty. The final word on custody remained with the court on children’s desire.
While growing up, the siblings were getting disturbed over the persistent absence of their parents at usual teacher-parent meet. It was a silent suffering. It took them years to muster courage to ask their mother: “Where is our father?” The mother could only shed a tear or two over the disturbing question she was anticipating for years.
The siblings never mentioned their father, until one day he came to their school. That day young Shaista was delighted to know that she too has a father. But her happiness shortly ended when her father asked her not to inform anybody about their meeting. She promised and the meeting became a routine.
For Shaista, maintaining the secret proved a tough task. “Why your father comes to your school repeatedly to meet you?” her friends began asking. She would come up with smartest excuses to play down her mates’ curiosity. But back home, when her mother found her satchel packed with chocolates and money one day, she received the first beating from her mother. Even then, she didn’t confess meetings with her father.
The meetings continued till she attained puberty. As the case was reopened in the court, she expressed desire to stay with her father, who used to fulfill her every wish. “But then something was missing,” Shaista says. “I used to miss my mother very much.” Ultimately, she realised that her father’s love was driven with the motive to show her mother in poor light. And that’s why, he used to fulfill her every demand.
“It pinched me,” Shaista says. “Now, I was living in a fear: what if I return to my mother and what if, she doesn’t accept me?” Slowly her mind was getting disturbed with these fearful thoughts, until one day she fainted.
When she regained her consciousness, she found herself lying on hospital bed. The first sight appeared a dream to her. She saw her parents together, probably, for the first time in years. The couple’s union ended once again, after she became healthy and returned to her mother.
Many such cases are keeping the district court busy these days. One of the intriguing cases, taken up for pleading revolves around custody of an autistic child.
The eight-year-old Mumin has arrived with his mother, Kulsuma. Unable to make sense of things around him, Mumin was deserted by his father a few years back on grounds of his medical condition.
Notwithstanding the brazen move, Kulsum filed a case in court, demanding maintenance fees for their child. For three months, the father paid some minimal amount, but later he stopped it and even changed his residential address to avoid legal notices.
Amid growing troubles for his mother, Mumin remains trapped in his own world. He can’t talk or walk. He keeps crawling all the time. In the name of toy, his maternal uncle’s bike keys spread smile on his face. But now, the same uncle and to-be-groom wants him out of the home. Why? Because he doesn’t want any “trouble” for himself in the run-up to his married life!
Away from the courtroom commotion, the single parents are turning up at Srinagar’s SMHS to treat their wards’ mental troubles. Dr Arshid Hussain, the senior psychiatrist of valley, is busy handling such cases. While taking a moment from his practice, the medico asserts a child of single parent can develop serious signs of psychological problems in later stage of their lives.
“I know a 70-year-old person, who had been living a healthy life with his single parent all his life,” Dr Hussain said. “But now, he has developed signs of mistrust with his wife. He doesn’t trust relations. He has developed certain problems at his workplace as well. Such people can’t even enjoy the childhood of their children.”
The conflicting guardianship leads to mental state known as ‘psychological devastation’, the medico says. “If you see animals they also remain together till their child needs them,” Dr Hussain says, “then why can’t human when it is important for the development of their child?”
But perhaps not many care about expert opinion. Not at least the parents of two siblings – eight-year-old, Radia and five-year-old, Sadia.
These days, the only time the two siblings meet is during their school lunch break. During the 30-min long meeting, they sit, talk, laugh and play. Radia lives with her father while Sadia with her mother. The doctor couple is living separately from last four years when they fought over household issues. Mehnaz, the mother, left her husband’s place and started to live with her parents. Left with their father, Waqar, kids gave tough time to him.
After a month, Mehnaz filed a complaint with police accusing her father-in-law of abducting her daughters. She also sought custody of them. The court gave younger daughter to Mehnaz, while elder was retained by the father.
Soon after the sibling separation, the couple had to meet in courtroom to have glimpse of their daughters. The meeting always witnessed ugly scenes as the couple hurls abuses on each other while pleading their case. Last month, court decided that two sisters should meet on every Sunday.
But the judge while seeing the two little girls dropped his pen and asked them to come closer. He claims to have witnessed the pain in the eyes of both sisters, which their parents were unable to see. He gave them a candy and advised parents, “Bachun ko alag mat karo (Don’t separate your children).”
Now the family meets every Sunday from 10am to 6pm. When they depart, it is painful to see the two siblings holding hands for a while, gloom on their faces and a question: “Can we stay together forever?”
Sadly, even the court can’t answer that question!