“I did not even get time to grieve after my wife died of breast cancer in September last year. I was too busy fighting for my daughter, Sarita, whose husband left her,” says Jalandhar resident Jai Gopal, a lump forming in his throat.
For the 29-year-old girl, the cancer has stayed on, in their marriage. Her husband Saurabh Dharna, who works at a casino in Melbourne, now wants to have nothing to do with her.
The two had tied the knot in May 2015. “After learning about my mother’s illness, he got me medically examined thrice in Amritsar and once in Jalandhar. Following her death, he accompanied me to India but left after 20 days. He later told me I could also get cancer someday,” says Sarita.
Though her family filed a case at the NRI cell in Jalandhar, there has been no hearing so far.
Jai Gopal was among the few parents who accompanied their daughters to a national seminar on NRI marriages, co-hosted by the National Commission for Women and Punjab State Women Commission, in Chandigarh on Thursday.
For others like Phagwara farmer Kulwinder Singh, the wait for their daughters’ visa papers culminated in divorce. “They call daughters ‘nanhi chaan’ in Punjab, but that’s about it. I had to approach the Punjab and Haryana high court to procure bail for my child, Rajwinder, after she was arrested for refusing to vacate her husband’s house,” he says.
The 28-year-old woman says her husband, Pradeep Singh, returned to the United States a week into their marriage in 2013. He returned after over two years to buy a house in Phagwara, and things seemed fine even then.
“After a few months, I was still staying in the Phagwara house when he sent the divorce papers along. A few days later, he sent some goons over to make me vacate the property. I approached the local station house officer, who told me to take Rs 8 lakh as compensation and leave the house. I stayed put, and eventually wound up spending four days behind bars on false charges of cheating, stealing and criminal trespass,” recalls Rajwinder.
However, not all the daughters are lucky enough to have such understanding parents. Manpreet Kaur (28), for instance, had to deal with familial opposition before taking the fight to her husband.
“My husband, Tajvir Singh, lives in the US,” she relates. “He went back after our marriage in January last year and returned in June. We went touring Maldives and Sri Lanka, but he simply wouldn’t consummate the wedding. When I questioned his behaviour, he sent me divorce papers in March. When I told my father about this, he reprimanded me for questioning my husband. He said I should have thought about my younger siblings first.”
Ironically, deserted wives are the ones who face social stigma, and even being in a position of power gives them little leverage. One of the women, who identified herself as an assistant sub-inspector, claims she had to approach the inspector general of police to get an FIR filed against the groom and his family.
And then there are men who desert their wives after procuring foreign visas. Satwinder Kaur, a 38-year-old woman from Ludhiana, says her husband left for Ukraine after proclaiming that she was incapable of bearing a child. “My father retired from the Army, and my brother is posted on the China border. If the daughters and sisters of Armymen cannot get justice, who can?” she asks.
Another woman from Hoshiarpur says she will always be haunted by the “holiday wife” tag. Identifying her husband as a train driver in the UK, the 30-year-old says: “After we tied the knot in 2014, he went back. Later, my husband told me over the phone that he already has a wife and two children – aged 20 and 12 – in the UK, and he had only come to Punjab on holiday.”
It’s with tears in her eyes that the woman describes the sad situation her family is in. “I lost my mother to cancer in February this year, and my father is too old. I worked mornings in a school and nights at a hospital to pay for her treatment. I filed a case against my husband two years ago, but the hearings keep getting postponed. I can’t be certain if even my own lawyer is on my side,” she says.
Punjab women commission chairperson Paramjit Kaur Landran admits that abandoned wives can “grow old” fighting such cases. “But it is not easy to get NRI grooms extradited. An NRI commission has been set up to help them obtain legal aid. Our role is to counsel them to start a new life,” Landran says.