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Dishonor And Abandon

The word is out in India: Marry an NRI at your own peril...

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  • Harpreet Kaur of Gurdaspur married Manjit Singh on April 26, 2000. After staying with his bride for just two months, he left for California and never returned. He has since remarried and lives in the U.S. under a new name. Harpreet has been abandoned by her in-laws.
  • Ravinder Kaur of Hathur in Ludhiana was married to Kulwant Singh Chehal and lived with him for just three months before he left for Singapore. She gave birth to a son and he returned once more, again impregnating her. Since then he has moved to Canada, and married a local woman. In 1995, he visited and absconded with the children. He had handed Ravinder an envelope, which was supposed to contain her travel documents. Inside were blank sheets of paper. Ravinder has not seen her sons for eight years.
  • Harmesh Kaur from Amritsar, a lecturer at Guru Nanak National College in Hoshiarpur married Kamal Pradeep Singh, who taught at Khalsa College. After they had a child, Singh left for the United States as an illegal immigrant. For three years he did not contact her. Then he came up with a scheme for obtaining Canadian citizenship by marrying a Canadian citizen. He asked her for a false divorce, to enable him to acquire citizenship papers and then send for her. Harmesh happily gave him the divorce, only to find that it was a real divorce and she and her son have never heard from him again.

 

These are three of hundreds of stories of abandoned brides reported in the Indian press in the past few years. For some Indians, the word NRI has become a four-letter word because it brought only grief to their families. Lying, cheating, false promises and escalating dowry demands are just some of the problems Indian brides have faced, not to mention quickie divorces, desertion and abduction of children. Indeed, many languish in their home villages, waiting for the call from America that never comes.

Indeed, so titanic is the problem that its effects are being felt in Indian towns and villages too. The National Commission for Women (NCW) in New Delhi recently identified desertions of women by NRIs as one of the most serious gender issues in Punjab. It proposed a draft convention on custody of children and distribution of property from such failed marriages.

"The necessity for the convention arises from the fact that NRI marriages are becoming more and more common. In Punjab, there is an NRI marriage in every third or fourth house," according to NCW Chairperson Poornima Advani. The NCW estimates the number of women deserted by NRIs in Punjab alone at between 10,000 to 15,000 and recently recommended establishing a special cell for problems related to NRI marriages in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and some Indian embassies have added welfare officers to assist Indian women caught up in bad marriages overseas.

When things don't work out in a cross-country marriage, the woman from India is especially vulnerable. She is in a new country, alone and dependent on her husband's family, without any support system to fall back on.

Marriage to an IT professional brought Roshini from New Delhi to New York. She was pursuing a degree in college, and her new husband had told her she could continue her studies in the U.S. "But when I came here, he suddenly changed," recalls Roshini, whose name has been altered to protect her identity.

"He started abusing me by name calling, pushing me around and not even letting me talk to my parents in India. He basically isolated me from everyone."

This man whom she was just getting to know was so violent that he could be sitting next to her and slap her for no reason, and even hit her with a slipper and threatened her with a hammer. One morning, as she slept, he came and kicked her on the back: "I was scared for my life and that's when I called the police. I got an order of protection and then I contacted Sakhi."

Today Roshini is divorced, and thanks to Sakhi, has a good job and a new life. "Many abused immigrant women feel very isolated in the United States," says Purvi Shah, director of Sakhi. "For women who have no other support system outside her abuser or abuser's family, Sakhi becomes a vital bridge to the courts, the police, and other systems."

Nor is Roshini's story unique - it's occurring all over the United States and there are no less than 22 organizations working within the South Asian community to address these issues. Groups like Manavi in New Jersey, Apna Ghar in Chicago and Raksha in Atlanta have all seen the ugly underside of outsourced marriages. Says Dr. Shamita Das Dasgupta, co-founder of Manavi, "Obviously there is a need and all the organizations are totally swamped. Even then you know that it's only the tip of the iceberg."

For those women who manage to make it to America, there's no guarantee that they will live a life here. Dasgupta recalls a woman who went to India to visit family and was unable to return because her husband's sister tore up her passport and visa while she was with her in-laws in India: "So it's often a collusion between the abusive husband and his family who decide she can be just left there. A lot of the men are afraid of divorcing the women in America because laws here might give the women a lot of the properties in the settlement. Nor do they want to pay child support.

"A lot of time these women are being tortured by their in-laws, many times they have no financial support. Whether it's the greed for dowry or social pressures to marry, men have married these women and then abandoned them."

Nor is it just village women in this situation: well-educated, urban women are also finding themselves trapped. The Indian media have widely reported on women who after spending a few idyllic months with their new grooms in India, have never seen them again. They've been abused by in-laws and have had to face dowry demands. In many cases, their in-laws have thrown them out and the men have remarried abroad.

NRIs are being seen as Non-Reliant Indians, and one finds asteady drumbeat of stories relating the anguish of "holiday wives" - women whom NRIs marry while visiting India, enjoy and then abandon. There is a lot of heartbreak with divorce decrees being sent in from foreign courts, Canadian or American wives turning up in the mix, and in some cases these women lose the only thing they have - their children. There have been cases of NRI husbands abducting their offspring, leaving the abandoned wives with absolutely nothing.

 
Dasgupta has travelled frequently to India and has met with large numbers of abandoned women in the Punjab, Delhi, South India and in Calcutta. The U.S. State Department is attentive to the problem and Dasgupta was asked to conduct seminars at American Centers in three major Indian cities, which were attended by women's NGOs as well as women who had been abandoned by their NRI husbands.

While visiting Punjab, Dasgupta met many such women and their families. She particularly remembers the poignant case of Reetika, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. The girl is 10 years old and has never met her NRI father. Her mother was pregnant when the father left for the United States and they have never heard from him again. Says Dasgupta, "This girl has grown up with the mother and the grandfather, without any knowledge or sight of the father, without any support from him. She knows her father is somewhere in the world but he has never contacted her. For her, that's her life, her reality."

America is a place for reinvention, of creating a new identity. Some NRI bridegrooms take it to the limit, padding their resumes and bank balances, creating a person that doesn't exist. Often in the background are hidden girl friends or wives in America.

According to a report by Indo-Asian News Service, the parents of Gurmeet Singh and Balwinder Singh, who are based in Chicago, advertised in Indian matrimonial columns seeking brides for their two NRI sons. They forgot to mention one small, inconvenient detail - the older son Gurmeet was already married! He had married Chandigarh resident Jasdeep Kaur on January 18, 1998. The two even had a child.

In order to facilitate her migration to the U.S., Jasdeep alleges, the family arranged a fake court marriage with Balwinder, the younger brother who was a green card holder. While in the U.S. she was abused and tortured by her husband and his family, with dowry demands of Rs. 1 million. She returned to India in March 2001. After seeing the advertisement for brides for the two brothers in the newspapers, she petitioned the courts there and the two brothers have been restrained from marrying by the court. Her mother Baljit Kaur said they went to court so that other girls would not get cheated like their daughter.  

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NRI | Magazine | February 2005

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