What happened inside the RSS’ Arogya Bharti “designer baby” camp held in Kolkata?

A High Court order prohibiting it was ignored

What happened inside the RSS’ Arogya Bharti “designer baby” camp held in Kolkata?
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Note: For all those trying to claim that Arogya Bharti is not a part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the State Secretary of the RSS, Jishnu Basu, has gone on record defending the Kolkata “Garbha Sanskar” workshop by RSS and the Arogya Bharti along with other RSS members.  

A news report on the “Garbha Sanskar” workshop by an English daily caught the attention of the Chairperson of West Bengal Commission For Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR), Professor Ananya Chakraborty.  She immediately filed a PIL against the organisers in Kolkata High Court, describing the workshop as discriminatory and unscientific. The High Court ordered the organisers to return the fee of Rs 500 they were charging each couple for counselling and told to limit themselves to holding a lecture by  Dr Karishna Narvin from Jamnagar, Gujrat. The lecture was ordered to be videographed and presented before the Court.

There were protests by women and child rights activists, both online and offline. On the first day of the event, May 6, when Professor Chakraborty went to the venue accompanied by a few activists and officials, the organisers did not allow her to enter the venue – although the court order had stated that the event was to be open to the public.

The next day when I visited the venue at “Ekal Bhaban” at Bhawanipur area Kolkata, which notably falls under the constituency of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, it was still under strict security by the organisers. The iron gate was closed and only those with a token which had been given the day before were allowed to enter. A couple who was entering the venue said that the previous day’s workshop was quite a satisfactory experience and they were there to attend the counselling. On much persuasion, I was allowed to go up to the reception area where a person representing Arogya Bharti was seated. He refused to provide any information on the details of the counselling session. There was news though, that doctors were counselling couples, despite the court order prohibiting to do that. Repeated visits to the venue at different times of the day did not change the situation.

One of the local shopkeepers said, “We saw the previous day’s incident (where a gynaecologist was not allowed entry into the venue) and guessed that something wrong was happening there. But we did not show any interest, as you know Abhishek’s residence is here.” (Abhishek Bandopadhyay is the Chief Minister’s Nephew & Trinamool Congress Youth Leader) The Councilor of Ward 73 which “Ekal Bhaban” falls under, Ratan Malakar was completely unaware of the Garbha Sanskar. He claimed, “You will not find the Bharatiya Janata Party here”.

I spoke to the West Bengal contact of Arogya Bharti, Budhhadev Mandol, as provided on their official website. He said, “I will not be able to share any information on this particular event as I’m an unmarried man! I have no knowledge. Better you talk to Mrs Jayasree Rakhshit as she is a mother of children and holds an important post (sadly, her mobile was switched off)”. When asked what he thinks about the protests at the venue, Mandol said, “What they are doing is rather illegal. They are making a big deal out of a small thing. I’m not an expert, who can comment on it. But as far as I know Ayurveda is a science which we were promoting during pregnancy and we have started this initiative for the last one-one & half year.”

Dr Ramesh Gautam, National General Secretary of Arogya Bharti strongly stood by their belief that it was a question of long-lived tradition, customs and knowledge of India. “We teach a child what is right and wrong after birth. But in this process, the child will learn from the mother’s womb. We will tell the mothers what to eat, listen, read, how to behave, what should be their yoga module during pregnancy to have a good child. We will do it through Ayurveda. It is for their physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual development.” When asked what was meant by “best” child, Gupta said, “Best is a superlative term & there is nothing wrong in using this term for an unborn child as we look to have the best in our lives, it is about wholesome development. We are not at all indicating to the height, skin colour or beauty of the child. Best is not a negative word.”  When asked about his views on the protest in Kolkata, he said, “The political atmosphere in Bengal now is such that if you talk anything about Indian culture you will be attacked”.

The two-day workshop and counselling “Garbha Sanskar” in Kolkata – for future parents to give birth to the “Best” Child, as announced and organised by Arogya Bharti, the health and family welfare wing of RSS in the South Kolkata office of the RSS. The announcement and advertisements (which clearly state that the organisation is part of the RSS) clearly described that the two-day workshop will be on reforms of child bearing and counselling of couples on “how to have a good child”. As D-day grew closer, the language of the ads changed to “best child” and examples of geniuses and celebrities symbolising this “best”-ness surfaced. Unsurprisingly, these were mostly men who had become the “best” through the traditional Indian practice of Ayurveda.

One of the ads in social media reads, “Weeds may grow in garden without attention, but to have a beautiful flower one needs proper planning and regular attention….The traditional Indian practice to have a good child is gradually becoming extinct and society is suffering from the subsequent poisonous result”. It was not clear what was meant by “weeds”.

Activists and protesters have claimed that this notion of giving birth to a good child reminded them of Nazi Germany’s eugenics programme.  They have also stated their shock at the official site where the male preference is quite evident.  Tinku Khanna from Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organisation headed by Ruchira Gupta, who was involved in the protest said, “This Garbha Sanskar was encouraging the aspiration for having a male child. We, from the human rights standpoint, don’t want that at any cost. It was violating the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994.”

The Chairperson of West Bengal Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, Ananya Chakraborty, was at the forefront of protesting this “designer baby” campaign. Chakraborty has already has filed an FIR against the organisers. She also went to the venue on the first day to listen to the lecture.  She said, “I’ll not speak in detail as the case is sub judice. But I know that they have flouted the court order by continuing counselling of couples. We are waiting to see what video recording they provide. I thought this was a very critical case and as the Chairperson of WBCPCR, I felt the urge to start the protest and file the PIL.”

Shampa Sengupta, who works in the disability sector for decades points to a more relevant aspect of exclusion. According to her, the announcement of a workshop which can deliver “good” or “best” children is directly excluding special children. In her opinion, “The idea of best is relative. We now have a new Disability Act passed in India ensuring disabled persons live a life of dignity. This ‘Garbha Sanskar’ encourages a process of elimination. Normally, special children face unwanted behavior from the society. This idea of best child will only increase that. People from the disability movement should protest hugely against this workshop.”

The very premise of this workshop promising a “designer baby” is alarming. This was capitulated by the secretive manner of the organisers, coupled with their aggression in not allowing people to enter the venue. Designer babies or not, this “Garbha Sanskar” has opened a debate on the mindset dominated by gender discrimination, misogyny, patriarchy and exclusion of an organisation closely related to the party ruling the country. It is cause for worry.

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