New Delhi: It was Zuby's maternal uncle, a cousin on her mother's side who set up the match. The NRI groom was a naturalised US citizen with a villa in UAE, comfortably settled and earning well. The uncle vouched for the man's character. And thus, though he was older and demanded dowry, Zuby Zaidi at 26 years was married off to Syed Ali Murtaza, a.k.a Samar, a.k.a Sam.
It wasn't until she left her Lucknow home for UAE, two months after her wedding in 2014, that she realised something was wrong. She soon learned that her husband was much older than what was previously advertised, wore a wig, and had a wife in the US. When she objected and refused to ask her father for more money, Sam and his parents cooked up a plan to confine and torture Zaidi, whose phone had already been seized, leaving her with no way to contact her family or the police.
"I soon realised that all they wanted was a homely Indian girl who can work as a ‘naukrani’ for my in-laws and cough up money as and when needed," Zaidi told News18.
After spending eight months in Abu Dhabi, confined, intimidated and mentally and physically abused, a non-complying Zaidi was finally made to believe that the perpetrators were sorry and that they wanted a second chance.
However, under the pretext of getting her a visa, they brought Zaidi back to India, only to quietly leave in the dead of the night after sending her a legal notice for divorce.
"They realised that keeping me in confinement in UAE was dangerous. When I stopped being compliant with their demands, they first turned violent and then tricked me back home," Zaidi recalled.
A lawyer by profession, Zaidi was not one to give up. She decided to pursue the people who tormented and cheated her and make them pay. Hence was born Still Alive Foundation (SAF), a platform for abandoned NRI wives to fight for justice, share their stories and feel comfort and confidence in the shared experience of thousands of victims who face a similar or worse fate than hers.
One of the issues raised by SAF president Amarjeet Singh was the seeming invisibility of the issue in the eyes of lawmakers and politicians.
"It is ironic that governments at both the state and Centre make such a hue and cry about women's issues but turn a blind eye to one of the most burning problems faced by women of all religions and backgrounds in India," Singh said.
His own sister had faced a similar form of desertion, which urged him to become an activist working for the rights of these women.
Zaidi’s is not a one-off case. Chennai’s Cynthia Raphael, 35, was abandoned by her NRI husband, who was a resident of Singapore in 2013, after just 40 days of marriage. The groom had demanded Rs 5 lakh in dowry, which was paid to him.
He was, however, refused when he demanded the same amount a second time after marriage. Cynthia, who has a child fathered by the absconding groom, is now fighting the case against him.
Then there is Geetanjali, a 32-year-old woman from Delhi who was married to a man working in the merchant navy. The man got married to another woman without divorcing her.
The Ministry of External Affairs regularly receives petitions from Indian women deserted or harassed by their NRI spouses. In fact, according to data provided by the ministry in February in response to a written question in the Lok Sabha, it had addressed 5,379 complaints of distressed Indian women who had been deserted by their NRI spouses.
Most complaints received from them pertain to harassment and ill-treatment, loss of communication with the spouse, assistance in serving judicial summons for court proceeding, child support, impounding the passport of overseas spouse, extraditing the spouse and child custody.
However, estimates by various NGOs put the number of such cases at a much higher percentile, especially in states such as Punjab and Haryana. As per estimates produced by SAF, as many as 50,000 such cases are pending in Punjab.
Another NGO called ‘Abandoned Brides by NRI Husbands Internationally’ in Punjab estimated the number to be 32,000.
In May 2019, The New Indian Express reported that the Regional Passport Officer (RPO) of Chandigarh had suspended 370 passports of accused NRIs and revoked 21 passports in the past year. It also got 52 people deported.
The problem is not just relegated to Punjab. Previously, a New Jersey-based NGO Manavi released a paper that states that about 12,000 abandoned women were living in Gujarat in 2004 while some 25,000 NRI brides were deserted in Punjab in 2007.
In the last three years, SAF has taken up about 44 cases of NRI bride abandonment, a maximum of which involve accused spouses with a US citizenship, followed by Australia and Canada.
The lack of consolidated and official data means that these cases, which are in thousands, rarely get the attention they deserve within the legal system as well as governance.
In 2018, the Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) said that it will undertake comprehensive research and collect country-wide data of such cases. But no such report has so far been released.
Lost in Transit
Experts claim that only a small percentage of distressed NRI brides’ cases reached the prosecution stage. And even when they do, they rarely fare well.
According to Delhi-based advocate Aman Usman, who has fought a number of such cases, the biggest problem in prosecuting cases of NRI bride abandonment is the fact that the perpetrators are not physically present in India.
"Because the accused are not local, it is difficult to acquire the necessary legal documents needed to send them the summons or warrant in case of non-compliance," Usman told News18.
He also said that lax authorities at every level, including the police, judiciary and ministries such as the Ministry of External Affairs, were a big impediment.
The second problem was the inherent bias to protect NRIs that Usman insisted was reflective in Indian laws as well as their implementation at various levels.
If an offence is committed beyond the jurisdiction of India, Usman said, it cannot be tried here unless the Central government gives permission. Suppose an offence was committed in the US, the complainant files a complaint in India, investigation is conducted and a charge sheet filed. Yet many cases cannot proceed since the Centre ends up denying permission.
One of the only tools that prosecution has for freezing the movement of the accused is to revoke their passport, which can be done in cases where a criminal charge has been filed. "But here," Usman interjected, "courts often use their discretionary powers to stay the revocation." The resulting delay was often too long for complainants to bear.
"The problem exists at every level, including judiciary, legislative, executive, police and bureaucracy," the lawyer asserted. "Reforming just one of the aspects would not work in the long run."
No Specific Law
Zaidi, who is now 32 and lives with her parents in Lucknow, felt that while it was great that the government was focusing on the issue of women's abandonment in the Triple Talaq Bill, the basic tenets of the Bill should be extended to women of all religion.
"Not just Muslims but women of all religions are just as easily abandoned by their husbands," Zaidi said. "Why is there no specific law for the case of fraud marriages and abandonment?"
Zaidi's question is pertinent: Why are there no specific law or procedures for prosecuting culprits of fraud marriages?
Currently, a combination of sections under the IPC is used to prosecute cases of NRI bride abandonment, Advocate Mahmoud Pracha informed News18. "The most used law by abandoned victims is Section 498 that deals with cruelty to women," he said.
However, victims were often unaware that other sections such as Section 420 and others which deal with cheating and dishonesty and even rape laws can be invoked.
While it was urgent to sensitize victims of their rights and expose them to all the courses of action available to her, Pracha said that it may also be time to perhaps develop a new law that deals specifically with the issue.
In 2018, then EAM Sushma Swaraj had proposed a Bill for prosecuting absconding or accused NRI husbands. In November, she told the media that 25 passports of such husbands had been evoked after complaints from victims. However, “The Registration of Marriage of Non-Resident Indian Bill, 2019” failed to see the light of day.
Rigorous Reforms Needed
Advocate Pracha, who is also the chairman of Legal Axis, a law firm that has provided legal counsel to the National Commission for Women (NCW) among others, said that the only way to shake the authorities out of their slumber was with multi-level changes that deal with the issue at a priority basis.
He suggested that the Supreme Court should be made to take cognizance of the fact that such cases exist and carry out sensitization of all judges and associated authorities.
Sensitisation of bureaucracy and strict action against non-complying government officials was also important as many cases of prosecution are often bungled up by these "middlemen" in return for bribes or due to their connections with the accused.
An interesting point that Pracha emphasised was how authorities could use existing beneficiary provisions of other laws such as the use of nodal officers to regulate offences as in the case of the SC/ST Act.
This network already exists across India. Using them as nodal officers, the government can keep a tally of all NRI weddings that have taken place in an area, as well as their dependencies and financial condition.
He also stated that matrimonial service providers such as Shaadi.com should also be held accountable for such cases and suggested setting up fast-track courts specific to the cases of NRI marriages for speedy hearings and the delivery of justice.
From the accounts of victims, it is evident that the biggest problem with prosecuting cases of NRI wife abandonment is the stigma attached to the "left women". Victims often face ridicule from police officers, courts and authorities and are even blamed for their plight, despite having lost money, respect and social security.
Changing laws may give a superficial relief to suffering married women. To that effect, the Triple Talaq Bill could be the first step. But sectional, politically charged reforms may not help improve the autonomy of women at large.
To bring real change, Zuby Zaidi of SAF concluded, the first step could be toward empowering "toothless" bodies like NCW that have been set up to look after the needs of women so that they become more representative of all women and also more able at instituting action.