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Scores of women duped by NRI hus­bands are now mo­bil­is­ing them­selves to get jus­tice

“Till date, we’ve as­sisted in get­ting 75 pass­ports sus­pended,” says 30­year­old Rupin­der Kaur (cen­tre), an MBA from Am­rit­sar aban­doned a week after her mar­riage to a Cana­dian na­tional in 2015. With her are Sheenu Mit­tal (in black) and Am­rit Pal Kaur

IN MAY 2018, THE RE­GIONAL PASS­PORT OF­FI­CER (RPO) at Chandigarh sus­pended the pass­port is­sued to Rahul Chauhan, an as­sis­tant sub-in­spec­tor of the Haryana Po­lice who went AWOL in Septem­ber 2017. In­ter­est­ingly, though, ‘de­sert­ing the force’ wasn’t the rea­son why RPO Sibash Kabi­raj acted against the ASI. Mar­ried in 2012, the po­lice­man aban­doned his wife be­fore flee­ing to Mex­ico to en­ter the US il­le­gally through its south­ern bor­der. Un­aware of what was hap­pen­ing, Reena Mehla (maiden sur­name) con­tin­ued talk­ing to Chauhan on What­sApp till her in-laws re­vealed that their son had fled the coun­try and would have noth­ing more to do with her.

Chauhan’s was the first pass­port to be re­voked on the ba­sis of a com­plaint brought by an ‘aban­doned bride’—one among thou­sands left to fend for them­selves in Pun­jab, Haryana, Te­lan­gana, Ker­ala and other states. Since May, Kabi­raj says, his of­fice alone has im­pounded the pass­ports of some 75 NRI spouses, is­sued show­cause no­tices to scores of tru­ant grooms as well as sev­eral fam­ily mem­bers charged with mat­ri­mo­nial abuse. Still, he ad­mits that “what’s been done is no more than a drop in a huge cesspool of de­ceit­ful mar­riages”.

Kabi­raj says “there are be­tween 25,000 and 30,000 aban­doned brides in Pun­jab and Haryana alone”. Other es­ti­mates, in­clud­ing num­bers put out by the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Women (NCW) and the Union min­istry for women and child de­vel­op­ment (WCD), have put the num­ber

at 40,000-plus. And these are not even of­fi­cial sur­vey num­bers. These are based on what was put out in the early 2000s by for­mer Union min­is­ter Bal­want Singh Ramoowalia and Chandi­garhbased lawyer Daljit Kaur.

Chauhan, who has now suc­ceeded in reg­is­ter­ing him­self as an ‘il­le­gal alien’ and sought po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in the US premised on ‘threats from his wife and her fam­ily’, no longer has a valid In­dian pass­port. Yet, he will be al­lowed to stay on for at least two more years ICE or the US Im­mi­gra­tions and Cus­toms En­force­ment po­lice are able to in­ves­ti­gate his claims.

The Chandigarh RPO’s suc­cess in im­pound­ing the pass­ports of ab­scond­ing NRI spouses is thanks to an un­tir­ing cam­paign ini­ti­ated by a small group of young women, all vic­tims of mar­i­tal fraud where spouses— NRIs or In­di­ans who have be­come cit­i­zens else­where—duped them of sub­stan­tial sums.

Hav­ing un­suc­cess­fully pur­sued jus­tice for years, Reena, who is from Mun­dri in Haryana’s Kaithal dis­trict, met up with three other NRI brides—Am­rit Pal Kaur of Budhlada, Ru­pali Gupta from Bathinda and Yas­meen Kaur of Kharar (all in Pun­jab)—at the of­fices of the Pun­jab NRI Com­mis­sion in Chandigarh. The com­ing to­gether hap­pened after Ru­pali, who was de­serted by her Sur­rey (Canada)-based NRI spouse just three months into their wed­ding in Septem­ber 2017, tweeted her an­guish to ex­ter­nal af­fairs min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj and WCD min­is­ter Maneka Gandhi in De­cem­ber 2017. En­cour­aged by Swaraj’s pub­lic re­sponse on Twit­ter, many oth­ers fol­lowed suit in shar­ing their sto­ries on so­cial me­dia.

“It brought us all to­gether,” says Am­rit, re­call­ing an “in­de­scrib­able” sense of re­lief at dis­cov­er­ing that she was not alone in her strug­gle. To­day, there are hun­dreds of NRI brides who are part of #To­geth­erWeCan—an ex­pand­ing so­cial me­dia net­work that in­cludes a What­sApp group, a blogspot and a Face­book page. It is slowly be­com­ing a sort of pres­sure group that is find­ing a voice and pri­or­ity re­sponse from the ex­ter­nal af­fairs and WCD min­istries.

But the real tri­umph is hap­pen­ing at the RPO in Chandigarh’s Sec­tor 34 com­mer­cial hub. In March, Am­rit and a few other girls met RPO Kabi­raj to ask him to in­voke the ex­ist­ing pro­vi­sions of the In­dian Pass­port Act, 1967, to sus­pend pass­ports of NRI spouses de­clared ab­scon­ders or pro­claimed of­fend­ers (POs) by the po­lice.

Kabi­raj, an IPS of­fi­cer on cen­tral dep­u­ta­tion to the Union min­istry for ex­ter­nal af­fairs (MEA), spot­ted an op­por­tu­nity. Sec­tion 10(3) of the Act man­dates the sus­pen­sion of the pass­port of POs who have jumped bail and in­di­vid­u­als against whom there are court war­rants. It was a means to

force the tru­ant hus­bands back to In­dia. “Sus­pen­sion of a pass­port means re­vo­ca­tion of all visas and hence the le­gal grounds to stay on in a for­eign coun­try,” says the of­fi­cer, who has also been push­ing In­dian mis­sions abroad to act.

Since they lacked the re­sources, Kabi­raj of­fered the girls a work­ing space and a ded­i­cated tele­phone helpline, be­sides ba­sic train­ing on how to process com­plaints. “Ev­ery case needs 80-100 pages of file work and these girls have taken to the job like fish to wa­ter,” he says.

Work­ing pro bono and liv­ing in pay­ing guest ac­com­mo­da­tion and on mod­est bud­gets, the girls are com­mit­ted to help­ing out other vic­tims like them­selves. To­day, Room No. 305 on the third floor at the RPO is buzzing. Sit­ting around desks, the young women pore over files, col­lat­ing in­for­ma­tion, mak­ing en­tries in reg­is­ters and an­swer­ing phone calls. They have helped scores of women col­lect the nec­es­sary doc­u­ments—copies of FIRs, bank state­ments as proof of cash given as dowry, copy of the spouse’s pass­port, his over­seas em­ploy­ment de­tails and copies of look-out cir­cu­lars (LOCs) is­sued by the po­lice. The group metic­u­lously main­tains files till they are ready to go to Kabi­raj for sus­pen­sion of pass­ports.

“Till date, we have as­sisted in get­ting 75 pass­ports sus­pended,” says 30-year-old Rupin­der Kaur, an MBA from Am­rit­sar who was aban­doned just a week after her mar­riage to an Ot­tawa-based Cana­dian na­tional in 2015. There are an­other 16 files await­ing copies of the LOC from the Pun­jab or Haryana po­lice, be­sides scores of other cases per­tain­ing to tru­ant NRIs in Aus­tralia, Canada, the US, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Ger­many and the UK. Be­sides pro­cess­ing the grow­ing pa­per­work, Reena says the cell serves as a coun­selling cen­tre for vic­tims. “The girls find they have a place where they get a sym­pa­thetic hear­ing,” she says. It helps that the vol­un­teers have re­serves of em­pa­thy drawn from sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences.

Not far away, in Mo­hali, the Pun­jab po­lice’s NRI wing is re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing all cases per­tain­ing to aban­doned brides. The ex­tent of the cri­sis is ev­i­dent as Pun­jab is the only state with 15 ded­i­cated NRI po­lice sta­tions in the dis­tricts and as­sis­tant in­spec­tor gen­eral (AIG) rank of­fi­cers in Am­rit­sar, Ja­land­har, Lud­hi­ana and Pa­tiala. It’s also the only state to have a ded­i­cated NRI Com­mis­sion, headed by a re­tired high court judge. Even so, in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been la­bo­ri­ous and time-con­sum­ing.

Ish­war Singh, the ad­di­tional di­rec­tor gen­eral of po­lice (ADGP) head­ing the wing, says it’s be­cause the ac­cused are in­vari­ably miss­ing, and their lo­ca­tions abroad of­ten un­known. De­spite the con­straints, the NRI wing has is­sued 624 LOCs since 2016 and have de­clared 324 NRIs and In­di­ans hold­ing for­eign pass­ports as POs. It has also served some 91 court sum­mons through po­lice and ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties in other coun­tries. Singh, how­ever, ad­mits that it has been slow go­ing given the flood of cases.

Am­rit al­leges that per­son­nel at NRI po­lice sta­tions are slow and of­ten in­sen­si­tive in deal­ing with vic­tims. “They even refuse to hand over copies of LOCs for weeks, claim­ing it’s a con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ment that can only be given to an of­fi­cial au­thor­ity,” she says. This means that the ac­cused of­ten get the time to make an easy get­away. Or suf­fer like Amarinder Kaur of Fate­hgarh Sahib. Re­fused a copy of the LOC even after she in­formed the NRI wing of his im­mi­nent work visa re­newal in Italy, she says, “He would have been re­fused an ex­ten­sion had the Ital­ian im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties been alerted on time.”

That said, the RPO at Chandigarh is the only pass­port of­fice that has ac­tively

“There are any­where be­tween 25,000 and 30,000 aban­doned brides in Pun­jab and Haryana alone,” says RPO Sibash Kabi­raj, seen here with the vic­tim-vol­un­teers who track the cases in Room No. 305 at the Chandigarh pass­port of­fice

taken to re­vok­ing the pass­ports of tru­ant NRI spouses. The RPO in Delhi has also sus­pended seven pass­ports this year, but vic­tims say the of­fice is chary about tak­ing such ac­tion. In­sid­ers say most of­fi­cers don’t want to be drawn into a process of pro­tracted court hear­ings in cases that could go on for years.

Smita Ku­daisya, a Delhi-based vic­tim who is part of To­geth­erWeCan, says “the RPO [in Delhi] is in­vari­ably dis­mis­sive and in­sists re­vo­ca­tion of a pass­port is far too com­pli­cated a pro­ce­dure”. Ku­daisya, who main­tains the group’s blog, also says that WCD min­is­ter Maneka Gandhi “is ev­i­dently mis­in­formed that pass­port sus­pen­sion has be­come a reg­u­lar thing at all RPOs”.

This is de­spite the rec­om­men­da­tions of a nine-per­son MEA com­mit­tee set up in 2017. Headed by re­tired jus­tice Arvind K. Goel, the panel ad­vised sev­eral changes, in­clud­ing is­su­ing LOCs and im­pound­ing pass­ports of spouses who had fled the coun­try. Based on this, the gov­ern­ment also set up an In­te­grated Nodal Agency (INA), headed by WCD sec­re­tary Rakesh Sri­vas­tava, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the for­eign and home min­istries to fast-track cases.

On the ground, though, lit­tle is hap­pen­ing ex­cept in Chandigarh. Ab­scond­ing grooms have even been charged un­der non-bail­able sec­tions of the In­dian Pe­nal Code, in­clud­ing 498(A), 420, 406 and 120(B), but the au­thor­i­ties haven’t is­sued LOCs in a ma­jor­ity of the cases. In­sid­ers say the Union law min­istry is not in sync with the WCD min­istry on im­pound­ing of such pass­ports. Ear­lier, it had also ob­jected to the MEA pro­posal to post on the min­istry web­site in­for­ma­tion on sum­mons against NRI grooms.

Mean­while, the MEA is said to be work­ing on a num­ber of pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing an amend­ment of the Pass­port Act to al­low for the sus­pen­sion of pass­ports of NRIs who fail to regis­ter their mar­riage within a stip­u­lated pe­riod. Also un­der con­sid­er­a­tion is a pro­vi­sion to manda­to­rily in­clude the wife’s de­tails on an NRI hus­band’s pass­port.

Though reg­is­tra­tion of mar­riages has been com­pul­sory in Pun­jab since 2012 (2007 for Haryana), it has been im­pos­si­ble to im­ple­ment. Chandi­garhbased fam­ily law ex­pert Anil Mal­ho­tra says, “Man­dat­ing mar­riage reg­is­tra­tions has no mean­ing un­less there are con­comi­tant amend­ments to the Hindu Mar­riage Act (HMA) and other per­sonal laws.” For in­stance, he says, the ab­sence of reg­is­tra­tion does not in­val­i­date the mar­riage un­der the HMA. “Only the per­for­mance of cus­tom­ary rites is com­pul­sory,” Mal­ho­tra points out. Which is why fam­i­lies keen to see their daugh­ters mar­ry­ing NRI grooms do not in­sist on reg­is­ter­ing the mar­riage. The lawyer points out the ob­vi­ous: “There can be no res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lem un­less there is an over­rid­ing cen­tral law that makes reg­is­tra­tion com­pul­sory un­der the HMA and other re­li­gious per­sonal laws.”

Hap­pily, the To­geth­erWeCan sis­ter­hood across In­dia isn’t wait­ing for the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide so­lu­tions. They are de­mand­ing change. Ku­daisya and oth­ers have drafted a set of pro­pos­als which, if im­ple­mented, could over­turn the skewed bal­ance of power against women in NRI mar­riages.

It’s a fairly com­pre­hen­sive list that could set fu­ture SOPs (stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures) for the po­lice and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies. “The gov­ern­ment first needs to recog­nise that this is not a ‘dis­pute’ but in fact mar­i­tal fraud,” says Am­rit. Key among their de­mands is the in­sti­tu­tion of ‘rape’ charges in cases where the woman is aban­doned within days or a few months. They also want grooms and their fam­i­lies charged with ‘mur­der’ if the stress of be­ing aban­doned re­sults in mis­car­riages. It’s one way ahead. But will Delhi em­bark on a path never taken be­fore?

“The gov­ern­ment needs to recog­nise that this is not a ‘dis­pute’ but in fact mar­i­tal fraud,” says Am­rit Pal Kaur (right), seen here at the Chandigarh pass­port of­fice with her col­leagues

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