Through the rains and steamy heat of November, day and night, Anupama S Chandran sat by the gates of the Kerala state secretariat. She refused to eat, drink or be moved. Her single demand was written on a placard: “Give me my baby.”
The story of Chandran’s fight to get back her child, who was snatched from her by her own family days after he was born and put up for adoption without her knowledge, is one that has been greeted with both horror and a sad familiarity in India.
In a society that remains split by the fault lines of caste, Chandran’s ordeal exposed the cruelties still inflicted upon women who dare to cross those lines.
Chandran, the daughter of a local leader from the Communist party of India, was a 19-year-old student when she fell for Ajith Kumar. Each was involved in leftwing political activism. He was 10 years older and previously married, but it was a friendship that gradually grew closer until they realised they had fallen in love.
‘It completely broke me’
Kerala is widely considered one of India’s most progressive states. It has the country’s highest literacy rate, exceeding 96% – 92% for women – as well as its highest life expectancy and lowest child mortality rates.
But caste, the ancient social hierarchy derived from Hindu scripture that is determined at birth, still remains potent, particularly when it comes to marriage. In 2020, a lower-caste man was murdered in the Palakkad district of Kerala for marrying a woman of a higher caste. Her father carried out the killing with an axe. It is a similar story across India; even as society shifts and modernises, just over 5% of marriages are cross-caste.
Chandran had never given much thought to Kumar’s caste, and she presumed her family would not either. Kumar was a Dalit, the lowest caste, formerly referred to as “untouchables”, and she was from a powerful upper caste. “I always thought that my family members were communist and differences of caste, class and religion would not matter to them,” said Chandran. “But I was wrong. My parents were horrid, they would use very bad words for Ajith’s caste and they adamantly tried to separate me from him.”
When they realised she was pregnant, she and Kumar were elated. They decided to name the baby Aiden, meaning “little fire”. Chandran said she always knew that having a baby out of wedlock with a divorced man from a lower caste would not be without difficulty. But she was not prepared for the nightmare that followed.
For over seven months she hid her pregnancy from her family. But when she broke the news, they were horrified. “I was extremely saddened when my sister told me to abort my baby, saying it was just a ‘lump of flesh’,” she said.
Chandran alleges that her parents then kept her a prisoner in the house, forbidding her from contacting Kumar or friends, and subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. She said they took her to a hospital in Mallapuram and tried to get her to terminate what they told her was an “illegitimate” pregnancy, but she refused.
Days before her older sister was due to get married, Chandran said, she was taken by her family to a local hospital where, she alleges, she underwent a caesarean section against her will. On 19 October 2020, her child was born. The family have denied any interference in the pregnancy.
Chandran was allowed three brief but treasured days with her son in hospital before they took him away, assuring her it was only so that he would be kept hidden at the house of a relative and that the presence of a baby born out of wedlock “did not cause a problem at my sister’s marriage”, she said. She added: “They even promised to return the baby to me after the wedding of my sister.”
Standing at the roadside, her caesarean wound still sore, Chandran held on tightly to her son, refusing to let him go. But she alleges that her parents slapped her and wrenched the boy from her arms.
Chandan continued to be held captive, and though she would sob and beg for news of her baby, she was given none. After she contacted Kumar, she says, the family called the police and then locked her in her grandparents’ house more than 124 miles away.
“When I forcefully persisted in my queries about my son, my family members became very angry and told me I should commit suicide or they would get me admitted to a mental asylum,” she said. “That’s when they categorically told me for the first time that I was not going to get my son again.”
She eventually escaped from the house and reached Kumar. The pair were desperate, with no idea where their son was. They began with the police, but Chandran found that “all they were concerned about was the feelings of my parents” and she says they refused to investigate. “The fact that my baby had been missing for so many months was not an issue for the police at all,” she said. “They were just worried about any problems my father [a prominent local politician] might face in coming to the police station.”
Pleas and complaints to the state child welfare committee (CWC), the Kerala state police chief, senior CPM leaders and the chief minister’s office, were also fruitless, with politicians and police repeatedly telling her it was a matter for her family, she said.
Chandran and Kumar allege that her father’s political connections meant no one would touch the case. One state minister told the media that Chandran’s parents “had done what any parents would do”.
Eventually, Chandran’s father spoke to the police, confirming that the baby had been put up for adoption. Initially it seemed all was lost; the adoption paperwork had been completed, she was told, and the baby had been handed over to new parents. “It completely broke me. I lost all hopes of finding my son,” she said.
‘Every day is like a celebration’
Finally, Chandran began a hunger strike outside the child welfare committee office on 11 November. As a media firestorm began to build around her, and Kerala’s political opposition termed it “an honour crime executed collectively by the state machinery”, the police finally began to take action.
Over the course of two weeks, a police case against her family was filed and the courts halted the adoption of the baby, whom, it emerged, had been sent to a foster family in a neighbouring state. After a DNA test proved Kumar and Chandran were the baby’s parents, on 24 November, more than 13 months after he was taken, the courts ordered that baby Aiden be returned to them.
It was the first time Kumar had set eyes on his son. “Every day is like a celebration for us now. It feels very nice to touch and hold my son, to take him out and play with me. Now the baby has begun to recognise us,” he said. Chandran said she was “elated beyond words … I am still so excited whenever I look at him”.
Chandran’s father, S Jayachandran, denied that relatives had abused her in any way or taken the baby against her will. Speaking to local media, he said: “The decision to hand over the baby was taken collectively even before the baby was born as we had no other option. Anupama also wanted to avoid the baby to get away from the embarrassment of giving birth to a baby out of wedlock.”
The couple say that though they now have their baby again, their fight for justice is not over. They are pushing for legal action against Chandran’s family for kidnapping and wrongful confinement. She said: “I stopped loving [the family] even before I left their home. [For a year] they denied my baby his right to be looked after by his mother and have mother’s milk, and Ajith the right to be a father.”
She added: “I am trying to forget those painful days. I am trying to forget the worst year of my life.”