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India law used by women to snare NRIs in legal trap

Issue Date: December 16-31, 2006, Posted On: 12/18/2006

By Bal Ram Singh

Non Resident Indians, or NRIs, have become a dominating feature of Indian culture so much so that people are not only overcoming their fascination and resentfulness but the government has started making serious policies incorporating NRIs.

From NRI quotas in train reservations to overseas citizenship, India has traveled quite a distance within the past ten years. Bollywood movie plots have increasingly included not just foreign scenes, but stories of NRIs as they relate to India and their adopted lands.

With about 25 million persons of Indian origin, all commonly referred to as NRIs, and their combined income more that of the Gross Domestic Product of India, they could become a substantial force to reckon with. While NRIs  are, in general, considered a model ethnic group for their achievements in education, business and professional services, their social, cultural, and political brand is yet to be developed.

However, NRIs have already developed a reputation back in India. With several reports of NRI husbands marrying and abandoning their wives in India, many reported and highlighted cases of abuse of newly married Indian women by NRI husbands have elicited cognizance by the Overseas Indian Affairs ministry.

According to the OIA Ministry, “a national consultation on this issue was organized on Feb. 18, 2006 at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi by the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs. The purpose of the national consultation was to take into account the perspectives of various stakeholders and make use of their practical experience in finalizing a booklet for the guidance of women planning to get married to Indians overseas.

That may not be necessary, though, as a new twist has come to light recently to which NRIs may be very vulnerable given the perception of their power, position, and money. A new Domestic Violence Against Women Law 2005 (498a), a law enacted last year by the Indian Parliament and effected in November this year, has prompted a major debate not as much on the need to protect women against domestic violence, but how major loopholes in the law allow women to take revenge or extort favors including money from not only husbands but also ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, and in-laws, not only for violence but also for feeling slighted or insulted even for a comment on their foster siblings.

From my non-lawyerly reading of the Indian government gazette, the law can be used against fathers, brothers, and sons as well.

There is so much uproar that the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs has an ongoing debate on this issue, and an activist group made of Indians and NRIs has set up a website, 498a.org, to provide update and self-help for victims of this law.

Many western governments have already issued advisories to their male citizens against the marriage trap in India. The U.S. State Department has published an advisory to U.S. Citizens of Indian Origin warning as under: “A number of U.S. citizen men who have come to India to marry Indian nationals have been arrested and charged with crime related to dowry extraction. Many of the charges stem from the U.S. citizen’s inability to provide an immigrant visa for the prospective spouse to travel immediately to the United States. The courts sometimes order the U.S.citizen to pay large sums of money to his spouse in exchange for the dismissal of charges.”

Similarly, the Canadian government has also issued the following advisory: “Growing numbers of Canadian citizens have been caught up in marital fraud and dowry abuse in India. Most cases involve Indo-Canadian males who abandon their wives in India after cheating them out of large sums of money. Other cases involve misuse of India’s Dowry Prohibition Act. This law, which was enacted to protect women and makes demanding a dowry a crime, is sometimes used to blackmail men through false allegations of dowry extortion. To avoid such problems, you are advised to register your marriage in India along with a joint declaration of gifts exchanged, as well as consider a prenuptial agreement.”

Even the World Health Organization published a report titled “Abuse on Elders” and mentioned that daughter-in-laws in India were abusing dowry laws when they failed to separate their husbands from his parents and, as a result, old in-laws are being harassed and tortured by the police.

WHO, in its “Missing Voices” report, mentions: “In India, there is a law that is intended to protect the daughter-in-law from abusive in-laws. A daughter-in-law can go to the police station and lay a complaint that she is being abused by her in-laws, and the in-laws are arrested on her word alone. However, the focus group participants reported that some daughters-in-law are using this law as a form of elder abuse, by making false police reports. In general, participants stressed that the lack of caring attitude by daughters-in- law was a major problem.”

The Section 498a will only add to this widening gap, and it seems the Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children, Renuka Chaudhary, who has single-handedly pushed this law, may be motivated by more than the welfare of women in general. In 2002, as a Congress Member of Parliament, she filed a case against a British national and got him arrested.

In a combative interview with Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN TV, Chaudhary appear­ed to be set to teach lessons to men. Interestingly, several women have also started speaking against the potential misuse of this law.

On the positive side, this law now makes NRI girls more attractive to NRI boys, who otherwise used to look back to India to find homely girls for their brides. Also, it certainly provides some level of relief to those women who genuinely dream of their lives with NRI men, but end up in unscrupulous hands (and I have known at least a couple of such cases), and many times suffer, to no avail.

This sad saga, from the land where the value of relations and duties of family members were considered overriding anything and everything, perhaps needed to be played out to understand how low the society has reached.

Bal Ram Singh, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Indic Studies, may be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.

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