24 November 2021
A mother's year-long search for her missing baby in India came to an end on Wednesday when a court handed over the child to her. Soutik Biswas and Ashraf Padanna report on a scandal which has caused outrage and whipped up a political storm.
For more than two weeks now, a couple has been protesting outside an adoption agency in the southern state of Kerala, demanding the return of their missing child.
Amid pounding rains and under the glare of cameras, they have camped under a tarp on a thrumming thoroughfare in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum). When night falls, the couple retire to a Suzuki minivan, parked alongside the road.
The woman holds up a placard, saying "Give me my baby". She says her family gave away her child for adoption without her consent, an accusation that her father denies.
On 19 October last year, Anupama S Chandran, gave birth to a boy, weighing about 2kg (4.4 pounds), in a local hospital.
The 22-year-old activist had braved social stigma by having a child out of wedlock with her already-married boyfriend, Ajith Kumar Baby, 34, who worked as a public relations officer in a hospital.
The relationship and the pregnancy had whipped up a storm in the woman's family.
Having a child out of wedlock is anathema in India. Making matters more fraught was the fact that Anupama belongs to a dominant caste compared to Ajith, who's a Dalit (formerly untouchables), who languish at the bottom of India's rigid caste hierarchy. Inter-caste and inter-faith marriages are frowned upon.
Yet both Anupama and Ajith hailed from what many Indians would regard as middle class, progressive families.
Both families were staunch supporters of the state's ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) - Kerala is a traditional redoubt of parliamentary Communism.
Anupama's father, a bank manager, was also a local party leader, while her grandparents had been prominent trade unionists and municipal councillors.
A physics graduate, Anupama, was the first woman to head the students' union of Communist party in her college. Ajith was a leader of the party's youth wing.
They had grown up up in the same neighbourhood and met while working for the Communist party. Three years ago, they began living together. Ajith said he was separated from his wife by then - the couple had no children. "It was not love at first sight or anything. We began as friends. Then eventually we decided to live together," Anupama said.
Last year, Anupama became pregnant and the couple decided to have the baby. "We never had doubts about having the baby. We were ready to become parents," she said. She broke the news to her "shocked" parents a month-and-a-half before she delivered. They persuaded her to return home to prepare for her pregnancy and forbade her to keep in touch with Ajith.
When Anupama was discharged from the hospital, her parents arrived to take her and the child home. They told her she would stay at a friend's place and return home after the marriage of Anupama's sister, which was three months away. They said they didn't want inquisitive guests asking about a new-born in the house.
She claims that her father took the baby away on a car-ride back from hospital. "He told me he was taking the child to a safer place where I could meet him later," she said.
"My bundle of joy just disappeared."
Over the next few months, they shuttled her between two homes before taking her to her grandmother's home, some 200km (124 miles) away from the city.
When she returned home to attend her sister's wedding in February this year, she called Ajith and told him that their son was missing. Anupama said her parents had put her child up for adoption. She finally left their home in March and began living with Ajith and his parents. They also began looking for their child.
It turned out to be an ordeal.
At the hospital, they found that their child's birth certificate contained the name of an unknown man - not Ajith - as the father. The police initially refused to register their complaint of a missing baby. Instead they told her they were investigating a complaint made by her father about Anupama "going missing" from her parent's home.
In August, the police sprang a surprise on the couple. They said her father had informed them that Anupama had voluntarily given up the child for adoption.
The distraught couple now registered complaints with the ruling party, the chief minister, the adoption agency and the state's police chief. They also filed a police complaint against the state's minister of culture Saji Cheriyan for allegedly defaming Anupama after he told a news channel that "her parents have done what everyone will do".
Last month, Anupama and Ajith also went on news networks, narrating their experience. Politicians and officials finally sat up and took notice. Opposition lawmakers raised a stink in the state assembly, saying this was an example of an "honour crime". "It was an honour crime executed collectively by the state machinery," said KK Rema, a female opposition legislator.
Anupama's father, S Jayachandran, has defended his actions. "When something like this happens in our home, how do we handle it? I left the baby at the place where Anupama wanted him to be. She had no wherewithal to protect the child. We can't do it either," he told a news network.
"Anupama says the baby's father is a man who has a wife. How can I leave my daughter and her child with him? Anupama was not keeping well after giving birth. So I entrusted the child with an adoption agency to look after it."
Mr Jayachandran wondered how the family could keep an "illegal child". He said he handed over the infant to the adoption agency only after taking the advice of the Communist party and a lawyer. When the anchor asked him if he had anything to tell his daughter, he said: "I don't want to hear anything from her."
Following the uproar, the police registered cases against six people, including Anupama's parents, sister and brother-in-law. They face charges of wrongful confinement, kidnapping and forgery: all have denied the allegations.
A court ordered DNA tests on a baby the adoption agency had handed over to a foster couple in Andhra Pradesh state in August this year. The infant was taken back from the adoptive parents and bought back to Trivandrum.
On Tuesday evening, Anupama and Ajith were told that their DNA matched with that of the baby. And they finally saw him briefly at a home for children run by a charity. They say they will continue their protest until the people responsible for "trafficking" the baby are punished.
The court heard the DNA evidence on Wednesday, and handed over the infant to the parents.
It has been a very tough year, say the couple. Anupama has worried incessantly about her child, who is more than a year old now.
"Isn't it my right to choose with whom I should live and have a child?"