NEW DELHI – At a time when Indian women have been assaulted by so-called “moral police” for going to pubs, Sabra Ahmadzai , a 20-year-old Afghan, is being championed by women’s groups for pursuing her rights. Two years ago, Ahmadzai married an Indian army doctor who was assigned to a Kabul military hospital. Twenty days after the marriage, he returned to India, vowing to come back for her. But after leaving, he informed Ahmadzai he had a wife and children back home and was never going to return.
She decided to go to India and file a criminal complaint against him.
Her case has become a cause célèbre – featured in daily newspapers and on TV in both India and Afghanistan. She has met with India’s home affairs minister and Afghanistan’s ambassador to India.
A recent demonstration by her supporters blocked traffic for five hours here.
This is a very conservative country, slow to change. Dowry, female bondage and forced prostitution are common in some parts of India, especially rural areas. But a growing middle class is rethinking traditional attitudes.
Ahmadzai’s dark eyes smoulder as she tells her story, sitting in a quiet corner of the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus here.
Two years ago, she married Maj. Chandrashekhar Pant just before he was reassigned to India but promised he would return.
Six months later, in July 2007, Ahmadzai says he phoned to say he already had a wife – and two children.
“He told me I was young and beautiful and should go ahead and get married again.”
In Kabul, she was scorned – even though village elders and her family had approved of her marriage to the physician.
“After he left, women said I was a stigma and should take poison,” Ahmadzai says. “Boys said they would marry me for 20 days, too. I decided to do something about it.”
So on Nov. 30, Ahmadzai borrowed $3,300 and boarded a plane to India to find Pant.
Over the past two months, her case has been keenly watched and has stoked furious debates both about women’s rights and the conduct of Indian soldiers abroad.
“People say there’s no more need for a women’s movement, but cases like Sabra’s remind us we have a raison d’être,” says Kavita Krishnan, general secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “This is still a country where a chief minister recently stood up and criticized women who go to pubs. And it’s still a place where the army protects its own against a woman like Sabra.”
Sitting on a low brick wall outside her guesthouse, Ahmadzai explains she met the 40-year-old Pant when she was helping out as a translator at the hospital where he worked.
“This man three times came to my family to ask to marry me,” she says.
“The first time, my father said it would not be right for me to marry outside our religion.”
Pant pledged to convert to Islam and changed his name to Himmat Khan to appease Ahmadzai’s father.
“My family eventually said I should do this because he had treated so many of our sick children and this was the right thing to do,” Ahmadzai continues.
Knitting her brow, she tells of the day she found her husband in the Himalayan town of Pithoragarh, a two-day trip from Delhi.
“When he called me to say he had a wife, he had told me where he was posted and that’s the only information I had to find him.
“I got off the bus in Pithoragarh and went to the army hospital. When finally I found him, he was totally surprised. He rushed me out so I wouldn’t speak to anyone else.”
Pant took Ahmadzai to his home and the two began negotiations.
She gave him three choices: she could move in with his family in India; his Indian family could move with them to Kabul; or he could travel to Kabul and grant her a divorce.
“He said no to all three and just wanted to give me some money,” Ahmadzai says, brushing her hair from her face.
Days later, she filed a police complaint. Under Indian law, Pant faces as many as 10 years in prison if convicted if bigamy.
Pant has denied he ever married Ahmadzai and said the wedding photos and videos she has provided are photo-shopped fakes.
Gen. Deepak Kapoor said at a press conference last month that there are discrepancies: Ahmadzai says the wedding took place in December 2006, but Pant was in Afghanistan from January to November of that year.
Ahmadzai says the army misinterpreted the wedding date from the Islamic calendar date she provided.
“They are doing what they can to protect their soldier,” she says.
“But this will not go away. I will get justice.”
Feb 22, 2009,Rick Westhead, www.thestar.com