Kamala Reddy*, 33, a software engineer from Andhra Pradesh, married Vijay Kumar* in a traditional Hindu wedding in 2012. Kumar, who was working in the UK, was chosen by Reddy’s family. “But he didn’t take me to the UK after our marriage. He made excuses such as problems with the visa and so on,” says Reddy.
In 2016, Reddy became pregnant. Under pressure from the family, Kumar brought her to England. On arrival, she was shocked to discover Kumar’s secret. He had a British partner, two children and a stepchild. Neither Kumar’s nor Reddy’s families knew about the other family. Kumar threatened to leave Reddy if she told anyone.
Reddy is one of thousands of women who have faced abandonment by their husbands overseas.
Each year, thousands of men leave India to work abroad. The country has one of the largest diasporas – nearly 32 million Indians or people of Indian origin.
Many return home to find a bride, as there is pressure to marry within the community. Some women and their families consider it prestigious to marry a nonresident Indian (NRI), believing they can provide opportunities for a better life overseas.
But for some, the dream of living happily ever after soon becomes a nightmare.
“In some cases, wives are abandoned in India: the man marries her, takes the dowry, and never returns. In others, the woman is taken overseas, abused and deserted,” says Mamatha Raghuveer Achanta, lawyer and founder of the Network of International Legal Activists (Nila). Based in Hyderabad, Nila has helped many Indian women deserted in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and across Europe and countries in the Middle East.
The scale of overseas abandonment is unclear. But between 2015 and 2019, the Indian government says it dealt with more than 6,000 cases. Such were its concerns that it published a guidance booklet in 2019 on marriages to overseas Indians, which has chapters on precautions for brides and legal rights. Last year, a bill was approved, which, if enacted, will make it compulsory to register marriages with NRIs. Currently, there is no central law requiring marriages outside India to be registered, making it difficult to prove their validity.
The National Commission for Women says it received 2,846 complaints from women who had been abandoned between 2017 and 2021.
“Wife abandonment often goes hand in hand with domestic violence and dowry harassment,” says Swati Lakra, additional director general of police for women’s safety in Telangana state. Telangana, which has high emigration rates, has a special NRI police unit dealing with 208 cases. Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Kerala also have police departments to address wife abandonment.
Rita Saini*, 33, was abandoned by her husband last year. Married in India, Rita had been living with her husband, Nilesh Saini*, in Ireland for a number of years and the couple had a son. Last year, Nilesh suggested a trip back to India to meet some of his relatives. Rita was not working, so was financially dependent on her husband. After they had been in India for a few weeks, her husband flew back to Ireland without her knowledge. She and her son were left with her in-laws with no money and no way home.
From Ireland, Nilesh emailed her asking for a divorce. Rita has spent the past year trying to get help from different government departments in India and Ireland, but the pandemic has not helped, and she is without the financial means or legal support to pursue her case.
“I had read about these NRI marriage cases. I never thought it would happen to me. Is it so easy to commit such a fraud?”
Tackling cases of abandonment is complex and time-consuming. Abandoned wives and their lawyers have to liaise with local police departments, India’s ministry of external affairs and embassies and consulates across the world.
Activists say men rarely appear for court hearings in India, and summons issued by Indian courts often don’t reach the recipient, held up in the Indian high commissions and embassies abroad.
“Without a proper divorce, women can’t remarry and live with stigma. But the man continues to live without any repercussions even though he has a criminal case against him in India,” says Geetha Morla, founder of UK Women Empowerment Network (UKWen), a charity helping abandoned wives.
“These men have no humanity. In many cases, they have left their wife and child without any alimony or maintenance. But no one can force them to go back. I don’t know how this will be solved, we have really struggled to address this.”
Activists say Indian high commissions and embassies need to do more. The Indian government provides financial assistance to women stranded overseas, but there is no help with litigation, getting the accused to India, extradition or impounding the passport of the accused.
When Reddy discovered Kumar’s secret family, he imprisoned her in the house and cut off access to finances. Unaware of her rights in the UK, she was scared of being deported without her child. She had no social network to turn to. Eventually, she was able to contact her family, who helped her leave the country with her child.
Reddy was forced to get a restraining order against Kumar, who made death threats. She is now back in the UK seeking a divorce and child contact arrangements, which are proceeding well. She is also suing Kumar in India for demanding money from her for her dowry. This case is stuck in judicial and bureaucratic limbo. Kumar has not appeared at court hearings in India.
“He lives freely and I live in fear. Will he ever be punished for what he did to me?”
* Names changed