By Kul Bhushan
Dreaming of a good life in Britain, Satwant Kaur landed at Heathrow to start her new life with her husband, far removed from her village in Punjab. She found him waiting at the airport entrance. Visibly happy, he took her suitcase and passport telling her to wait while he fetched his car. He never returned.
The distraught bride waited and waited. In tears, she sought the help of some Sikh staff at Heathrow. She had no idea of her husband's address. Nowhere to go, the Sikhs took her to the nearest gurudwara at Southhall. The community tried to locate her husband without success. Then they re-applied for her passport, raised money for her ticket and arranged for her to return home. For no fault of hers, Satwant Kaur is abandoned.
This is just one of the 15,000 marriages of NRI grooms and Indian brides that turned dreams into nightmares. The often repeated tragedy: an NRI boy lands in Punjab, marries a local girl, pockets the cash dowry and leaves for Britain – never doing anything to get his wife over who waits in vain. Often, these new brides find after their arrival in Britain, the US or Canada that their husbands have already got a local 'live in' or a wife and children too. When challenged, they claim their parents forced them to marry an Indian hoping he would give up his live-in partner or divorce his wife.
The anguished NRI widows and their furious parents suffer with NRI marriage frauds. To address these problems, a workshop was held recently by the Ministry of Overseas Indians, the National Commission for Women (NCW) and NGOs in Chandigarh. Many horror stories of NRI widows were related and a number of solutions were discussed. Punjab has 15,000 such registered cases and NRI husbands have abandoned an estimated 30,000 Indian women. The workshop was shocked to learn that 1,200 women from Punjab are living in shelters across Britain.
The NRI marriage racket also involves Indian grooms. Many young men see their marriage with an NRI girl a passport to the good life abroad. These growing numbers of 'passport weddings' enjoin an Indian and a NRI holding British, American and Canadian citizenships.
NCW chairperson Girija Vyas called for establishing women's cells in Indian embassies abroad to tackle the offences in NRI weddings. She pointed out the need to enhance support systems for women trapped in distress situations in alien lands. The State Department had long ago issued an advisory on US citizens of Indian origin who came to India to marry but were charged with crimes related to dowry. The Canadian embassy has also citied a growing number of Indo-Canadians involved in martial frauds and dowry abuse. The British high commission in India has been dealing with such cases for a long time.
The Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs fully recognises the urgent need to safeguard unsuspecting brides and their parents seeking marriage alliances with overseas Indians.
The ministry is developing policies for gender and marriage issues; setting up an advisory group and overseas Indian centres in the US, the Gulf and Malaysia to provide legal, medical and social counselling for victims of failed marriages besides a helpline.
The ministry has published a booklet on 'Marriages to Overseas Indians', offering guidelines to avoid these matrimonial horrors. But the publication has been roundly criticized in the NRI world, especially the US. A spokesperson for the Save Indian Family Movement in the US maintained that the booklet suggests that NRIs are cruel, arrogant and frauds. Moreover, it only mentions women's rights but not any rights for men.
The NCW has committed itself to drafting comprehensive legislation to tackle offences in NRI marriages by November. This will be done after more regional workshops to be organised in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and New Delhi to cover the special circumstances in these states. These laws will have teeth only if they can be enforced in foreign countries of the spouses of NRI marriages – mainly Britain, Canada and the US. So bilateral treaties need to be signed with these countries.
In the meantime the marriages go on. A practical solution is for the prospective Indian brides or grooms to make inquiries about the martial status and bona fides of the spouses with overseas Indian associations, cultural bodies, sports and women's clubs — if their database is publicized in India. This way NRI leaders can turn the tide for brides like Satwant Kaur.
(A media consultant to a UN Agency, Kul Bhushan previously worked abroad as a newspaper editor and has travelled to over 55 countries. He lives in New Delhi and can be contacted at: [email protected])
Copyright Indo-Asian News Service