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Abandoned and angry
Hapless holiday wives of Punjab knock
at the doors of courts for justice
By Vijaya Pushkarna
I encountered 'holiday wives' for the first time on a bleak January morning of 2001. I was in the office of Gaurav Yadav, then superintendent of police of Jalandhar. Two young girls, accompanied by elderly men, came in to see him. While the girls sat with downcast eyes, the old men told him how they had been ditched by their NRI husbands. They sounded angry and anguished.
Ravinder's two sons were 'stolen' by her NRI husband who tricked her at the airport and flew away with them. She has not seen them for the past eight years.
A social activist later told me that Doaba region had many such unfortunate young women. NRIs married them while holidaying in their native villages and went back to foreign lands after using them. Many were ditched at the end of the holidays. Others were looked after for a while and then dumped unceremoniously. Some women had to witness their husbands gallivanting with new brides later ('Holiday wives', The Week, Feb. 4, 2001).
The most tragic tales were of women who kept on waiting year after year for their husbands to return. Some of them greyed, grew weak but still clung on to the naive hope.
I revisited the holiday wives this October. It was a sobering experience. Things had changed, in some cases for the worse. Earlier, the women were informally disowned. Now they are getting divorce decrees from foreign courts. The phenomenon is not confined to Doaba but has spread all over Punjab. The most depressing revelation was this: young women were still walking to the NRI marriage trap despite countless stories of jilted women staring at their face.
The bright side was that some of the women were coming out with their stories, demanding solutions and seeking justice.
Many are well-educated and should not, ideally, have walked into the trap. Harmesh Kaur from Amritsar was a lecturer at Guru Nanak National College in Hoshiarpur in 1990, when she married Kamal Pradeep Singh, who taught at the nearby Khalsa College. When their son Sarvpreet was six months old, Kamal went abroad, taking the long, lonely and dangerous route of illegal immigrants. She lost touch with him for almost three years. Suddenly in 1993, he surfaced; there was a flurry of phone calls, cheques and gifts. Kamal told Harmesh that he was underground and trying to get political asylum. She tried to organise all kinds of evidence to prove his non-existent affinity to the Khalistan separatist movement. This was meant to make asylum-seeking easier.
Harmesh Kaur has come into terms with her abandonment. But her son Sarvpreet is not able to forgive his father for leaving him and his mother.
While she was getting ready to join him abroad, she got a call saying that Kamal's vehicle had run over a person and he was in jail. After 18 months of silence, Harmesh heard from Kamal again. He had devised a new plan. He would marry a Canadian to get citizenship, divorce her and then send for Harmesh and the child. But first, she will have to give him a "false divorce."
"I did it happily," said Harmesh. "I ran around and got a divorce by mutual consent." Soon the phone calls, cheques and gifts stopped. Kamal's parents curtly told Harmesh that the divorce was for real. "I learnt that he had married another woman," said Harmesh, who is now the principal of a government school.
Harmesh decided to stop it at that. She did not pine for her lost husband or go to court but picked up the threads of her life. "I started my life anew thinking I had married an unemployed landless man, who is now dead," she said.
Other abandoned wives are also showing rare pluck. Rajwant Kaur, a school dropout, was pregnant when her husband, Kulwinder Bisla, left for Germany. When her son Diljot was a few days old, she received a divorce notice. Her in-laws were already ill-treating her. She complained to the police. Through a court intervention, Rajwant managed to get the assurance that some land and money belonging to her husband would be transferred to Diljot's name, said her lawyer Daljit Kaur. "When she came to me, she told me that if I won her case, I would be winning the cases of other women like her."
Rajwant's husband has now agreed to take her to Germany. Is she jittery? "Everything will be all right once I get there," said a confident Rajwant. "I will get unemployment allowance till I get a small-time job." Despite her harsh experience, Rajwant does not believe that NRI marriages are wrong. "I know dozens of friends who are doing well abroad," she said. "Only three or four are facing problems."
That is too optimistic a view. One just has to look at the cold statistics. Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, president of the Lok Bhalai Party, which has taken up the cause of the abandoned women, said that every village in the Doaba region had three or four women like Rajwant and Harmesh. According to him, there were about 15,000 such women in Punjab.
Ramoowalia said greed for dowry was one reason for the marriages. There were also the parental greed and the brides' desire to make it big in foreign lands. "The victims are the innocent women of Punjab," he said.
Some of them are in a pitiable state. Ravinder Kaur of Hathur village in Ludhiana lost even her children to her truant husband Kulwant Singh Chehal. He had come from Singapore to marry her and left after spending three months with her. When their son Mandeep was a year old, he came down again and she became pregnant once more. He soon shifted to Canada and married a Canadian. When he came home the next time, the village panchayat forced him to sign a stamp paper promising Ravinder a monthly allowance. In 1995, he pretended to make amends and told Ravinder that he would take her to Canada. At the airport, he asked her to wait while "I show the children around." When her children and husband did not turn up for over three hours, she made inquiries about the flight. It had taken off. She opened the envelope Kulwant had given her. It was supposed to contain her travel papers. There were a few blank sheets.
After Rajwant moved court, her husband and in-laws agreed to
take her to Germany. Despite her harsh experience, she does not
believe that NRI marriages are wrong.
"It is more than eight years since I saw my sons," she sobbed. "The outrageous thing is that he again promised to take me to Canada. When he came down in 2000, I went to the police. He then produced the copy of a divorce decree. I did not know I was divorced." She spends her lonely days looking at the photograph of her boys, framed and kept along with their toys and pictures of gods in her one-room outhouse.
Ravinder was promised Rs 5 lakh by her in-laws if she "reconciled." This meant agreeing to a divorce under Indian law. "Where can I go?" she asked. "Can I be a burden on my brother? Who will marry me at this age? I have lost everything."
This prospect of spending a lonely life terrifies these women. So they adjust to a demeaning life. Jagdeesh Kaur of Hari Nau is a typical case. Her husband was in Canada. During holidays, he would take her to Bhatinda or Moga and put her up in a hotel. Last year, he told her that he was tired of her and was divorcing her to marry somebody else. When she decided to go to court, her father-in-law taunted her that by the time the case was settled, she would be too old to remarry.
The Lok Bhalai Party has moved court for 1,100 such women and have managed to get compensation for some of them. "The families of NRIs play along," said Ramoowalia. "If the law provides for the immediate arrest of these relatives, many such decep-tions will stop." He had written to the state government suggesting many ways to curb the marriage menace.
"In the 18th century, there was a Jassa Singh Ahluwalia who vowed to fast until he found the kidnapped daughter of a Brahmin," said Ramoowalia. "He did it in eight hours. This is part of the Sikh tradition. That is how our system should be. Surely, a hukamnama from the Akal Takht will make most people think twice before deceiving women like this."
Until such knightly values are resurrected, women will continue to be cheated. Many of them are reconciled to their fate. But not their children. Harmesh's son Sarvpreet wants to meet his father. "I want to see him once, just to ask him why he left us," he said. "When my friends ask me what my father does, I feel sad, and hurt. I tell them he is dead."
To tame the groom
Measures suggested by social activists and political
parties to curb the marriage menace
* Passports of NRIs who abandon wives should be cancelled.
* An international marriage law should be passed, fixing maintenance, child custody and jurisdiction.
* Property of NRIs in India should go to the wife immediately after marriage.
* If an abandoned wife lodges an FIR, police should act on it immediately and should not create unnecessary delays.
* Ex-parte divorce decrees should be treated as violation of law.
* Fast track courts should be set up to dispense quick justice.
* Verification by a senior police officer necessary for registering such a marriage.
* The NRI and his immediate relatives should be made to sign affidavits on the groom's status before the wedding takes place. Any FIR against the NRI should automatically include the names of these relatives.
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