KOLKATA // In the western state of Gujarat last week a court granted custody of an 18-year-old Hindu girl to a 66-year-old Muslim man who had brought her up as his daughter after finding her abandoned at a railway station 13 years ago. Sarfaraz Qadri had been forcibly separated from Varsha Patel by police earlier this year in a case that touched on sectarian tensions. "Munni [Ms Patel] is Hindu while I am Muslim - that's why police tried to take her away," said Mr Qadri, after being reunited with his adopted daughter.
"I loved her as a father loves his child and so I was sure I would win. I knew she was originally from a Hindu family. I never enforced Islam on her because it's against the Prophet's teachings. However, she is an adult now and she is free to choose her religion." In April, a lower court ruled Mr Qadri was holding Ms Patel illegally and she was sent to a women's shelter while he was jailed. Released from jail in August, Mr Qadri petitioned a higher court for custody of Ms Patel. Last week the higher court in Bharuch overturned the lower court's verdict in favour of Mr Qadri and Ms Patel returned to her adoptive father.
"Mr Qadri is a good man and despite many handicaps in his life, he took his best possible care to raise the child. The girl is happy with her foster father and wants to return to him," the judge said in his ruling. Ms Patel was elated at the verdict. "He [Mr Qadri] is all I have on this earth - how can I leave him? For six months those cruel people took my father away from me. I cried every day praying to return to my father He took care of me in the role of a father as well as mother - he is more than my father."
Ms Patel was originally found on a railway platform by a beggar woman when she was three after seemingly being deserted by her mother. The woman looked after her for more than a year before she too disappeared. Mr Qadri, a magician and acrobat, found Ms Patel crying and searching for her adoptive mother on the same platform in Itarsi town in Madhya Pradesh state. After a lengthy but fruitless search for the girl's mother he brought her to his home in Gujarat. According to Mr Qadri, he and the child continued to search for Ms Patel's mother for the next four days but could not trace her. He eventually decided to bring her up as his daughter. The child told him her biological father was named Jagdish Patel, but did not know where he lived. "I did not have the idea to take the lost child to the police. I could not leave the helpless child alone on the platform and so I took her to my home," said Mr Qadri in his appeal. Mr Qadri began raising Ms Patel as his daughter at his home in Tankaria village in Gujarat's Bharuch district. In 1981 two of Mr Qadri's sons drowned in a well and that same day his seven-year-old daughter, who was suffering from leukaemia, also died. The death of all three children prompted their mother to commit suicide the next morning. Mr Qadri did not marry again and lived alone, travelling occasionally to perform in shows. "Despite the fact there was no one else at home to look after her, I decided to raise Munni [the name Ms Patel gave to Mr Qadri on first meeting him] as my daughter. Neighbours in my village suggested marrying a woman who could take care of her. But I was not sure I could find a woman who would love her as much as I did. So I ignored neighbours' ideas and stayed home mostly to take care of her," Mr Qadri said. "One year later, a financial crisis forced me to travel again for my shows. I tried to place her in an English medium boarding school, but she was so strongly attached to me that she began crying at the school and soon dropped out. She had been deserted by her biological and adopted mothers in the past and was seriously afraid of losing me the same way. So I took her along on my work trips." For 13 years all was fine between Mr Qadri and his adopted daughter. But troubled started earlier this year when a young boy and his sister ran away from their home in Tankaria village and began living with Mr Qadri, who had moved with Ms Patel to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, to learn acrobatics and magic from him. On the trail of the runaway brother and sister police raided Mr Qadri's house in April. While the two were returned to their parents, Mr Qadri was arrested for having brought Ms Patel to his home without taking her to police. The case caused a sensation in Gujarat, taking on sectarian tones in a state where Hindus and Muslims are sharply divided. But social activists have welcomed the verdict and said it could have a reconciling effect on Hindu and Muslim communities. "In this [communally] polarised society Mr Qadri has set a shining example of communal harmony introducing the family's religion as humanity - much above a narrower [religious] identity of a Hindu or Muslim," said Pinagapani Manorama, a Chennai-based child rights campaigner. firstname.lastname@example.org