Lost Brides : When Arranged Marriages Go Quickly Awry

Lost brides: When arranged marriages go quickly awry
Thousands of women in India's Punjab say they've been left behind by overseas husbands

By Rick Westhead and Raveena Aulakh
The Toronto Star (Canada), November 15, 2009

Flipping through her wedding album, a 30-page collection of glossy photos with sugary captions such as 'Perfect Match,' Sandeep Kaur grimaces as she recalls her wedding last year to a young man from Brampton.

There was no problem with the celebration itself, mind you. There was more than enough mutton, fish and chicken for several hundred guests.

Kaur's father, a real estate contractor from the small city of Batala, India, had ensured her marriage to Canadian Sahil Luthra was held in an expensive, air-conditioned wedding hall.

He also provided gold rings for all of Luthra's relatives and gold bangles, rings, earrings and necklaces for him and his parents.

It was a blowout evening with a $90,000 price tag. A year on, Kaur, 24, weeps as she looks at photos of her husband holding her in his arms.

'This is a book of lies,' she says.

Two weeks after their April 30, 2008, wedding, Luthra returned to Brampton. Kaur says the only contact he has had with her since then has been phone calls demanding a sports car and cash from his new in-laws in exchange for bringing her to Canada.

But Luthra says he is the one who has been harassed and that Kaur's family only married him to obtain his ancestral home in Batala, a home now occupied by his 87-year-old grandfather.

'The only thing that family wanted is our house, money and Canadian immigration,' Luthra said from his home in Brampton.

Petite with long brown hair and a pleasant smile, Kaur is among the latest of India's women to be trapped in marital purgatory. In India's northern state of Punjab, local leaders say there are at least 15,000 abandoned brides like Kaur instances where families with Indian roots living overseas have arranged marriages for their sons to local Indian women.

Police in Ludhiana, the largest city in Punjab, registered 447 abandoned-bride complaints from January through October. Last year, there were 404 cases in the full calendar year. Out of the police force's 700 constables, 50 have been assigned to deal specifically with dowry and abandoned bride cases, says Harinder Singh Chahal, the senior superintendent of police.

'This has become a huge social problem,' he says, 'and people aren't dealing with it. We only see a fire if it's in our own home.'

Typically in these cases, after a dowry is paid and marriage consummated, the new husbands return to their homes abroad and in many cases, only bring their wives with them if their in-laws agree to cough up more money.

That leaves their wives hamstrung since Indian judges usually refuse to grant women a divorce without their husbands present for court hearings.

While Luthra says he was granted a divorce in a Canadian court in September, Kaur says an Indian court has refused to recognize the dissolution of the marriage.

'You can threaten your husband that you will file a case, but most laugh and say they will tie it up in the courts for years,' says Varinder Kaur (no relation), 28, whose Canadian husband left her to return to the Toronto region within days of their January 2006 marriage.

The surge in abandoned bride cases comes even as women have made remarkable strides in Indian politics and business.

The country's top politician is Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi. Several Indian states have female chief ministers while the CEO of ICICI Bank, one of India's largest financial institutions, is also a woman.

The dowry system was officially outlawed in 1961 and prenatal gender identification is illegal, an attempt to prevent female foeticide.

But the success of the country's female leaders seems far removed in the villages and cities of Punjab.

One morning this week, Sandeep Kaur and her father, Gurmeet Singh, travelled to Jalandhar to discuss her case with police and Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, a former Indian cabinet minister who has been advocating a reform of Indian laws to prevent abandoned bride cases.

In Jalandhar, a haze-enveloped city crowded with sputtering diesel rickshaws, 20 new cases of abandoned brides are registered every day, a police inspector said. While firm statistics aren't available, Canadian-based families are said to be among the worst offenders.

As Sandeep Kaur and 18 other Punjabi wives gathered in the police station's grassy courtyard all of them were abandoned brides it was difficult at first to follow their conversation. It became easier when the women began trading stories about the whereabouts of their Canadian husbands.

'Downsview,' says one woman, above the din of the chatter and a wheezing ceiling fan. 'Scarborough,' says another. More chime in with 'Etobicoke' and 'Toronto' and one embittered woman wearing a bright pink sweatshirt and tights even mentions 'Jane St. and Finch St.' A half dozen say 'Brampton.' Most of the women wipe their eyes with a tissue. A few older women, aunts and mothers, nod their heads and cluck their tongues as they listen to the stories of shattered lives.

As Ramoowalia's staff serves a lunch of lentils and chapati, Minakshi, a 26-year-old who uses just one name, discusses how her husband in Toronto, Sanjeev Chabrotra, has returned to the dating scene even though his wife says he's still legally married.

The two met in October 2007 and were married just days after Minakshi's father scrabbled together $11,000 for a cash dowry and another $2,200 to pay for gold rings and bracelets for Chabrotra's family. By February 2008, Chabrotra had returned to Canada and re-entered the dating scene.

Minakshi laid out printouts from online dating Internet sites such as plentyoffish.com. Chabrotra had posted a photo of himself online under the username 'DJSanj The Shark' and listed his status as single. 'Got the title of `most eligible bachelor' at my workplace,' he wrote. 'Rest I will tell u later on contact.'

'It's not that I want to go to Canada now, I just want him to come back and settle this with a divorce so I don't have this stigma,' Minakshi says.

Despite the wedding photos Minakshi provides they show Chabrotra in a white wedding kurta with red, orange and white garlands around his neck Chabrotra says the two never married because Minakshi's family asked his parents for '$100 million.'

'There are millions of issues and I'm not ready to share my bedroom stories with you,' Chabrotra says. In a subsequent email to the Star, he wrote: 'There were issues of her infidelity before marriage and after engagement and hence the engagement was called off. I believe that is the way of life and there might be thousands of cases similar to that.'

Like Minakshi, Sandeep Kaur was married to her husband Sahil Luthra within days of their meeting.

Luthra's family, which arrived in Batala in early April, had lived there years ago before emigrating to Brampton.

One night, the Luthra family showed up unannounced for tea and suggested Kaur would be a good match for their son. They insisted on a fast wedding, Kaur's father Gurmeet Singh recalls.

'He was nice and he was attractive,' he says.

The next day, the families held a ceremony to exchange rings and within weeks, the couple was preparing for a wedding and a honeymoon in the mountainous Indian state Himachal Pradesh.

'That's when the abuse started, when he started demanding that my family give him even more money,' Kaur says, pausing as she looked at a page in her wedding album with the caption, 'I wait all day just hoping for one more minute with you.'

Within two weeks, Luthra had returned to Brampton. But he didn't stop demanding more money, Kaur says. In an interview, Luthra denies demanding a car but he later changes his story.

'It doesn't matter … I used to say so many things to her, she used to say so many things with me. You fight with your wife, right? … I was angry.'

It's not as if there isn't an awareness over the risk involved with an arranged marriage to a non-resident Indian. The problems of domestic abuse and abandoned brides the two often go hand-in-hand, authorities say have been well known here since the early 1990s. The troubles of abandoned brides have been recounted in live theatre, poetry and traditional music and local newspapers here provide extensive coverage of cases.

'Yes, there are problems and dangers,' says Sukhjeet Kaur Sandhu, 29, whose husband returned to Toronto shortly after their wedding in April 2008.

Sandhu's father, a retired army officer who worked on the India-Pakistan border, raised $58,000 for a dowry for his daughter's husband, Jatinder Paul Virk, a 39-year-old truck driver who lives in Toronto. Sandhu said Virk last phoned her last summer to say he was ready to bring her to Canada if her family paid $25,000 to cover the costs of her visa application (a visa and related fees actually cost about $800) and a further $58,000.

Virk insists he married Sandhu in good faith.

'She only married me to come to Canada,' he says. 'She was planning to leave me as soon as she landed here.'

While her wedding soured, Sandhu says marrying men from overseas is often worth the gamble for young women.

'We know in Canada there are great opportunities,' Sandhu says, wearing a pale yellow kurta and scarf. 'Here, our children go to school and get their degrees, their B.A. and M.A., and even then wind up protesting in the streets because there are no jobs. Canadians need to understand we do what we have to do for our kids.'

It's a compelling and passionate argument.

Still, some cases here underscore how complex the abandoned bride crisis has become. There can be greed on both sides of the ledger.

Gurmit Kaur Sanyha's 43-year-old father Chand Singh sold his tractor and his 2.4 hectare (six-acre) ancestral farm to help pay for his daughter's wedding in October 2006. When he struggled to come up with the money, his friends urged him to beg and borrow.

'They said, `You have worked so hard for so little and once she goes to Canada she will be able to repay you,'' Singh said, tears welling in his eyes.

Sanyha's fianc, introduced to the family through a priest near their home in Amritsar, stoked Singh's ambition. 'He told me I had to find the money to pay a $35,000 dowry. He said if I did that, my daughter would be able to bring her brother to Canada. Then we could turn around and get a dowry of $93,000 from someone else for their daughter.'

Another woman explains how her family worked out an intricate arrangement where she was scheduled to marry a Canadian citizen and in exchange, her uncle's niece in Canada would marry her fianc's cousin, an Indian.

Local Punjabi newspapers such as Ajit are full of ads advertising potential arranged marriages. 'One Canadian citizen, a Jatt Sikh boy, 22 years, needs a girl,' one such ad says. 'Only those should contact who can arrange a Canadian marital relations to his cousin, 23 years.'

Manish Tewari, an Indian member of parliament representing Ludhiana, Punjab, says the government is flummoxed over what to do about abandoned brides. The problem is akin to someone losing their money by betting on bad stocks.

'Our people need to be more vigilant and they need to check credentials extremely carefully before they enter into these alliances,' says Tewari, the ruling Congress Party's national spokesperson.

Some Indian politicians suggest India needs to push countries such as Canada to adopt a treaty where husbands who abandon their brides could be extradited to face family court hearings here. But Tewari says that's simply not practical.

'First you'd have to establish abandonment as a crime in Canada and how are you going to do that?' Tewari says. 'What has to be done is people have to get over the fascination of getting to Canada and other countries at any cost.'

Tewari says he plans to ask India's National Committee for Women to investigate the issue of abandoned brides and come up with some legal advice.

Whatever changes are made to Indian law are likely to come too late for Kaur. She concedes there's virtually no chance that Luthra will return to India to appear before a family court judge.

According to court documents, Luthra's father, Raj Kumar, was designated as a 'proclaimed offender' on July 17. Arrest warrants were pending for Sahil Luthra and his mother. (Luthra says the arrest warrants have been stayed pending a Nov. 27 court hearing and that his family has submitted $34,000 to an Indian court to settle the dowry issue.)

'Who will have us now?' Kaur asks, glancing at her companions. 'We now have a stigma and we are done for.'