NEW DELHI — It was a child custody dispute that the Indian government had turned into a major diplomatic incident, but this week it has turned into a major embarrassment.

The children under care of Norwegian social workers are shown in photos held up by their maternal grandparents at a demonstration outside the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The children’s parents alleged they had been removed from their care because of “cultural differences,” mainly because they ate with their hands and slept in the same bed as their parents. The media was swift to accuse the Norwegians of racism, and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs leapt to the couple’s defense.

A special envoy was sent to Norway in February to discuss the issue with the government there, the Indian foreign minister called up his counterpart in Oslo, and a series of statements and strong demarches (diplomatic protests) were issued to Norwegian authorities. Indian politicians joined protests outside the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi.

But this week the Indian government retreated “with Norway egg on its face,” the Indian Express newspaper reported, as new facts about the case emerged. 

With the child’s father, Anurup Bhattacharya, reportedly saying he had filed for divorce and accusing his wife Sagarika of beating him and having a “serious psychological problem,” the Indian government said it could no longer “interfere.” Diplomats put off a planned visit to Norway.

“We would have carried on but unfortunately it’s become a personal matter between husband and wife,” said junior foreign minister Preneet Kaur.

Sagarika responded to her husband’s accusations on Friday, reportedly accusing him of “torturing” her. 

Bound by confidentiality laws, Norwegian child welfare authorities had been largely silent throughout the saga, but eventually agreed to hand over the children, aged one and three, to their uncle. But this week they said they no longer believed that was in the children’s best interests.

The Indian media, which had done so much to stoke outrage over the case, then rounded on the government. In an editorial entitled “Flying in the face of facts” the Hindustan Times accused the government on Friday of failing to do its homework. 

“The main concern should have been the welfare of the children rather than scoring as diplomatic victory over Norway,” it wrote. “At no point did Indian officials produce any concrete evidence of racial bias, yet the charge was freely bandied about and lapped up by the public.”

“This type of knee-jerk reaction can be seen in many cases involving Indians abroad,” it wrote.