BRIDE AND PREJUDICE
THOUSANDS OF WOMEN EVERY YEAR, ESPECIALLY IN PUNJAB AND HARYANA, FALL PREY TO MARITAL FRAUD BY NRI SPOUSES. THEY ARE NOW FIGHTING BACK By Asit Jolly
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