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Forgotten brides

Between January 2016 and November 2018, as many as 4,189 complaints of distraught Indian women whose NRI spouses had abandoned them were handled by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Last Updated : 30 June 2024, 03:40 IST

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In the past seven years, ever since she founded the Abb Nahi Social Welfare Society in Punjab, Satwinder Kaur has been emphasising the significance of meticulous verification for individuals contemplating marriage to a Non-Resident Indian (NRI). She exhorts people and families to double-check every detail and to keep an eye on the sometimes unpleasant but practical facts. Satwinder highlights the importance of keeping track of the NRI spouse’s employer’s records and all marital documents, among other crucial safety measures.

Between January 2016 and November 2018, as many as 4,189 complaints of distraught Indian women whose NRI spouses had abandoned them were handled by the Ministry of External Affairs, which includes the Indian Missions overseas. Married women being deserted by their NRI husbands has become a major societal issue, mostly in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, but it is also a trend in Haryana, Delhi, Kerala, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. According to a study titled Desertion of Married Women by Non-Resident Indians in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, conducted by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development, the Lok Bhalai Party estimated that over the past few years, there have been at least 1,500 cases of abandoned wives in Punjab alone. These forsaken women end up as unwanted dependents on their parents and in-laws, and if they become pregnant and have kids, their suffering is exacerbated even more.

Citing the same report, advocate Manan Aggarwal says, “Many immigrants from Jagtial Mandal, located in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, move to the Gulf. “Fifteen police stations in this area record between 50 to 70 occurrences of marital desertion each month. Soon after their nuptials, many young men find the means to move to the Gulf. They frequently accuse their wives of infidelity and leave them after they land jobs and start making money. 

Brides often stay with their parents after marriage until their husbands can accompany them. By fabricating stories about their morality, the in-laws harass the women throughout this time. The husbands flee from their wives in favour of apparently more attractive and wealthy partners as a result of these claims. The majority of abandoned women report these incidents to the police in the hope of receiving counselling and reconciliation instead of making complaints against their spouses.

Legal provisions

Hyderabad-based advocate Shravan Patel lists various legal actions that an NRI spouse who has been abandoned can take:

♦ If an NRI spouse abandons a person in India, they should instantly file a complaint or First Information Report (FIR) at the closest police station, addressing cases of cruelty, under Section 498A of the IPC.

♦ Section 188 of the CrPC allows for the pursuit of offences committed overseas, broadening the scope of available legal remedies. The first port of call for local authorities should be made for persons who are being harassed or abandoned abroad.

♦ In times of need, getting assistance from a variety of organisations — including the Indian Embassy or consulate, community welfare officers, the spouse’s workplace, local Indian associations, and nearby friends and relatives — can provide crucial support and direction.

Compulsory registration of marriages

A historic law to control the registration of weddings involving NRIs was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2019 by Sushma Swaraj, the then-minister of external affairs. The Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Law and Justice collaborated to create this legislative endeavour, which aimed to increase responsibility and shield Indian women from being taken advantage of by their non-resident Indian spouses.

The bill imposed many important reforms, including mandatory NRI marriage registration, revisions to the 1967 Passports Act, and adjustments to the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Regardless of where the marriage was performed — in India or overseas — it has to be registered within 30 days to improve the enforcement of the rights of the abandoned spouse under different family laws.

Furthermore, the modification to the Passports Act was created to provide the Passport Authority the agency to confiscate or cancel an NRI’s passport if they didn’t register their marriage within the allotted time. The goal of the proposed CrPC amendments was to give courts the ability to issue summons and warrants via a special website that is run by the Ministry of External Affairs. These amendments also made it possible to attach properties owned by NRIs who disobeyed court orders and were deemed proclaimed offenders.

The Ministry of External Affairs’ response to multiple complaints from Indian nationals, especially women, who had been abandoned or mistreated by their NRI spouses catalysed the creation of this bill. The bill’s goal in establishing these regulations was to dissuade spouse harassment by offering significant protection and assistance to Indian women married to non-resident Indians across the globe. The bill hasn’t yet been signed into law, though.

Strengthening law

“No legal barriers are preventing Indian women from marrying NRIs,” says advocate Rouble Chhabra. “Nevertheless, possible misuse is a cause for concern. Increasing the effectiveness of registration and legal frameworks helps shield women from arranged marriages and guarantees that they have options when faced with problems such as desertion. Marriages are lawful in and of themselves; the protections need to be strengthened. Women who are left behind by NRI spouses encounter a multifaceted range of challenges, such as psychological distress, pecuniary loss, and the difficulty of manoeuvering through dual legal systems,” adds Rouble.

Neeraja Saraph vs Jayant Saraph (1994) 6 SCC 461 is a relevant case in which the appellant’s wife wed a software developer who worked in the US. She got her husband’s NRI petition for annulment of marriage, filed in a US court, while she was still waiting on her visa to join him. She sued, claiming she had been abused mentally and emotionally. She also quit her work before moving to the United States. An order for Rs 22 lakh was granted by the trial court. In response to an appeal, the High Court suspended the decree’s operation until it was resolved, provided that a deposit of Rs 1 lakh was made with the court. Following the wife’s additional appeal, the Supreme Court modified the High Court’s order in her favour by increasing the deposit amount to Rs 3 lakh.

Chhabra emphasises that even if the order was restricted to an interim application, this case shows that a wife can sue for damages in these kinds of circumstances. Notable are the court’s obiter observations, which address, among other things, the viability of laws protecting women’s interests. Among the recommendations were:

♦ Prohibiting foreign courts from nullifying marriages between Indian women and NRIs even if the union took place in India.

♦ Giving the widow a sufficient amount of alimony from the husband’s assets, both in India and elsewhere.

♦ Similar to Section 44-A of the Civil Procedure Code, which renders foreign decrees enforceable as though they were issued by that court, this provision also establishes the executability of Indian court decrees in other courts, both through reciprocal agreements and based on comity.

The psychological toll

“The plight of these women abandoned by their NRI husbands is a deeply concerning issue that highlights not only the legal and financial challenges they face but also the emotional and psychological turmoil they endure,” says psychologist and Emoneeds co-founder Dr Neerja Agarwal. Psychologically speaking, emotions of betrayal, rejection, and worthlessness are just a few of the emotional reactions that can result from abandonment. These women are coping not just with the end of their marriage but also with the loss of their social status and financial stability.”

The shame associated with abandonment and the uncertainty about their future can cause serious mental health issues like anxiety, despair, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, the absence of assistance and legal options increases their sense of stress and powerlessness, making it harder for these women to deal with their circumstances.

Psychologists need to offer these women both practical and emotional options to help them deal with their situation. This could involve assisting them in obtaining financial and legal support as well as counselling to help them deal with their feelings. Furthermore, promoting awareness of the problem and dispelling the myths surrounding abandonment can aid in fostering an atmosphere that is more encouraging for these women to start again.

Coordinated efforts are needed to address the complex problem of NRI marital desertion from a legal, psychological, and societal standpoint.

Society can better protect and support these vulnerable women and make sure they do not have to go through such traumatic situations alone by strengthening legal safeguards, offering physical and emotional support, and increasing awareness.

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Published 30 June 2024, 03:40 IST

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