Wider Image: The runaway husbands

Satwinder Kaur, who says her NRI (non-resident Indian) husband abandoned her, talks on the phone as she travels to a court hearing in Jagraon, Punjab, India.

CHANDIGARH, India, — In a pink-walled room of a government office at the foot of the Himalayas, Indian women spend their days canceling the passports of runaway husbands.

Midday on a Monday, the father of a woman who married a merchant marine is explaining how the husband lied about being single and failed to disclose the fact that he had a child and a warrant for his arrest. The case, says worker Amritpal Kaur, should qualify for immediate impoundment of the man’s passport.

Kaur isn’t your usual Indian bureaucrat. She isn’t a government employee at all. She and the other women who work in the passport office are abandoned wives, volunteering their hours at the office to help women like them.

Sibash Kabiraj, regional passport chief in the city of Chandigarh, says it all began when the wives started coming to him and pleading for help.

A lifelong civil servant with a taste for the fine print, Kabiraj realized Indian law would allow him to suspend — and even cancel — the passports of overseas Indian men who had misled their wives.

The Passport Authority requires approval from the central government to take away a passport but can do so if the holder lies or withholds information, or if there is a warrant or court summons, among other reasons.

But there was a problem in this country notorious for its bureaucracy. “One suspension of a passport, it requires a lot of paperwork,” he says.

Not one to be stopped, he explained passport law to the women, gave them a room with a computer, printer and fax machine, and told them if they would do the paperwork, he would sign it.

It’s the women’s best way of seeking justice from their far-away husbands, he says.

In the past year and a half, the women have managed to suspend more than 400 passports and revoke 67 others, Kabiraj says. In all, more than 5,000 women have filed abandonment complaints with India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

The women in his office, Kabiraj says, “have created terror” in several foreign countries.

Indians living abroad aren’t an easy group to take issue with.

They sent $79 billion in remittances to India in 2018, the most of any country in the world, according to World Bank data. They’re expected to send $82.2 billion in 2019.

They pay for new roads and the school fees of children whose families are too poor to pay themselves. They host community feasts. They send back pictures from Australia’s beaches, return for visits with twangy English and iPhones.

They’re known as non-resident Indians, or NRIs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called NRIs the “brand ambassadors of India.” But Indian government policy think tank Niti Aayog nicknamed them “non-reliable Indian grooms.”

The wives say many of the men demand – and often get — tens of thousands of dollars in dowry, despite the ancient practice being illegal. The husbands can use that money to establish themselves overseas and obtain permanent residency or a new passport, leaving their wives and children behind — and in limbo.

An abandoned woman has no status, says Shiwali Suman, who organizes abandoned wives in New Delhi. “Are we divorced, single, widowed?” she asks. “What are we actually? We are not able to be categorized.”

The men deny they have done anything wrong, saying they did their best but were taken advantage of by their wives. One says his life is “hell” now and he no longer trusts women.

The wives left behind don’t see it that way. In recent months, city and rural women alike have begun staging protests.

One woman at a recent protest in Jalandhar, in Punjab state, said time was up for the runaway men: “There’s a fire erupting in all of us.”

THE VOLUNTEERS

Reena Mehla was 24 when she got married. Five years later, she says, her husband told her he was going to work extra police duty shifts elsewhere in India, and instead hired human smugglers to take him to the United States.

Rahul Kumar now lives in the Bronx. Reena wrote to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, searched Facebook, and eventually found him.

She scrolls through dozens of emails she sent to foreign officials and the letter showing his passport was revoked; according to the U.S. Justice Department immigration court hotline, his status in that country is pending. Then she pulls up one of their wedding pictures and kisses it.

When asked if she still loves him, Reena stretches her arms and grins. “Too much!”

Even though she has a master’s degree in education, sometimes she seems more like a teenager than a 30-year-old. She keeps her smartphone in a Minnie Mouse case with floppy ears and giggles when anyone replies to her exaggerated hellos.

But she had the inner strength to leave her rural home and move on her own to Chandigarh, the regional capital, to volunteer in the passport office. She knows she’s defying traditions back home, where married women don’t leave the house without male relatives or have a separate identity.

“Even our soul is not allowed because a husband is everything. A husband is like God,” she says.

She shares her flat with several women, including Amritpal Kaur. The surname Kaur, a common one in India, means “woman.” Because most of the women in this story go by the name Kaur, Reuters is using their first names on second reference to ease confusion.

When Amritpal talks about her marriage, she keeps coming back to the money she spent on it: She says she forked over $28,000 on the dowry and wedding; three days after they were married, she says, her husband told her to get $14,000 more from her father. Her husband, Kulpreet Singh, said all the money she had earned working for two years in England also needed to come to him, she says.

Two weeks after the wedding, he left for Australia. For months afterward, he told her he had a surprise. She was so excited she ordered a $3,500 diamond ring for him.

His surprise, she says, was divorce papers.

Rahul and Kulpreet did not respond to requests for comment. Amritpal now shares a rented flat in Chandigarh with Reena and several other women. As a reminder of their mission, they’ve named the computer folder that holds their files “Mission Shakti,” after the divine feminine force in Hindu belief.

“Shakti is women’s spiritual power to fight against this,” Amritpal says. “We don’t want any other girls to be victims like us.”

THE ACTIVIST

Every day, women with husband problems pile into Satwinder Kaur’s family courtyard in a village surrounded by mustard fields that blaze like the sun.

Only a few thousand people live in Toosa, but her relationships span the globe. She’s helping nearly 400 women who’ve been abandoned by their men, she says, getting several of their runaway husbands deported from their adopted countries and jailed. Every few minutes her phone rings.

Satwinder’s own husband left her in 2015. He now lives in Poland. In Toosa, women don’t venture out at night and are rarely left home alone, even in walled family compounds.

Satwinder is slowly breaking through this – and in the process has become a symbol of a newfound willingness to fight back against a patriarchal system. She runs a WhatsApp group and Facebook page, and tells rural Punjabi women what paperwork they need to cancel their husbands’ passports. She also organizes protests.

In a fierce torrent of Punjabi punctuated with sharp hand movements, she holds up photographs of fantastically lavish weddings produced from plastic bags or passed around on mobile phones and shared on WhatsApp. From Facebook, there are other pictures: of the husbands’ foreign girlfriends and children and anniversary cakes.

Even for Satwinder, who has filed 11 court cases against her husband, it’s hard to be a middle-aged, childless woman whose husband has left her. Her ferocity is in constant battle with her fear.

She sends her husband WhatsApp messages every day. She can tell he’s read every one of them because of the little blue check marks, but he hasn’t replied since January.

Neighbors and even relatives call her banj, or “rotten womb,” she says. “In my own house, I was called that.”

When she talks about it, her voice gets loud, then so soft it can barely be heard, and then she starts to cry.

A lecturer and electrical engineer, her husband, Arvinder Pal Singh, sees it differently. He says he moved to Europe because of pressure to earn more. He says he tried and failed to bring Satwinder to Europe on a student visa and says he was blindsided by problems between his wife and his mother when he returned home for a visit.

He lost his job and moved twice. He told Satwinder he would send money again when he had it. Two months later she filed a case with the police and his father was arrested, he says. He later got a call from the Indian Embassy saying his passport had been canceled. He stopped sending money and filed for divorce, which didn’t go through.

Arvinder says he no longer trusts women and calls himself a refugee. “I don’t have family. At least she is with family. She is in her home country. I don’t have a country. I don’t have a place to stay, and where I’m standing it’s already raining outside,” he says. “This is hell.”

He says he would be arrested if he returned to India and doesn’t believe he would get a fair hearing in court. Now undocumented, he uses human smugglers to move.

THE POLICE OFFICER

Baljit Kaur lives two lives. In the first, she’s a policewoman, composed and authoritative in a pressed uniform and red lipstick. In the second, she’s an aging bride, abandoned by her husband and sleeping under sheets printed with red hearts.

“I never imagined a woman of my age would end up like this,” she says. “I thought my life would be different.”

Baljit, 42, was one of four siblings born to an army officer and his wife in Punjab state. She waited for her siblings to settle, so, at age 39, was late to marry. When pushed, she paid a large dowry, even though as a cop, she knew such payments were illegal.

Before the wedding, Baljit says, her fiance, Harmandeep Singh Sekhon, would call to ask how much cash she would give his family. After the wedding, she says, her in-laws complained she hadn’t brought as much as her sister-in-law.

Soon Baljit understood why she’d been chosen: “I understood he didn’t want me, he only wanted money.”

One month and two days after they married, her husband returned to the United States. He’d lived there before, and they’d talked about moving there together. A week after he arrived, she says, he called saying he had no job and needed her to send money. She refused.

She last spoke to her husband on Oct. 6, 2014. They have been locked in a legal battle ever since. She has been granted ownership of their house and has won maintenance costs, but those have yet to be paid, she says. She has spent more than $4,000 on lawyers’ fees.

“I have a job, I can manage. But what about the girls who can’t?” she says.

Harmandeep did not respond to requests for comment.

Baljit became a cop in 1995. She worked her way up through training courses and exams and is an assistant sub-inspector at the Fatehgarh Sahib District headquarters in Punjab. She has a sunny government flat with a plant-filled terrace and drives both a scooter and a car.

Her hard-won career makes it even more humiliating that she was abandoned so publicly – and yet so intimately. As a police officer, shouldn’t she have seen it coming?

“Sometimes she was brave,” said Harpreet Kaur, a fellow officer who would pace the police station corridors with Baljit as she confided her troubles. “Sometimes she would say…that people would laugh at her because she was a police officer and this thing happened.”

Baljit is spare with the details but admits she contemplated suicide: once before marriage when her husband was demanding money, other times after he left her.

Baljit still says she doesn’t feel like living. Her mother, whose imagined grief stopped her from committing suicide before, died in May. “What else remains?” she asks. “I am alone.”

Of abandoned brides like herself, Baljit says: “We are like dead bodies walking. We have no place in society. We can’t live and we can’t even die.”

Baljit’s fellow officers have rallied around her. At lunchtime, half a dozen officers lay out newspapers on a desk and unpack their tiffins for a shared meal. “We are her family,” Inspector Kuldeepak Sharma says. “She is not alone here.”

THE MOTHER

Sarbjeet Kaur’s husband stopped sending money for his daughter’s school fees in 2016, with three months left in the term. Sarbjeet sold her sofa and two cupboards so she could finish.

Last year, she sold the gold earrings her parents had given to her daughter – again, for school fees, this time at her new, cheaper school.

“I’m living a double life,” Sarbjeet says, crying as she explains that she couldn’t tell her parents she had sold the earrings, so she said she had lost them.

Sarbjeet married Daler Singh in 2008. It wasn’t until she was pregnant that he talked of going abroad, she says. Her brother had gone to Italy, and it was eight years before he came back for a visit. She said no.

He told her: “‘There is nothing here. There are no jobs, no money. Whatever job you do, you don’t make money.’” She eventually agreed. When her family got angry, she replied that Singh would never lie to her or leave her.

Singh went to South America first, then Mexico, Sarbjeet says. She sold her jewelry for almost $5,000 to help him cross into the United States in late 2010, she says, and borrowed $3,600 from her parents to help him enter Canada four years later. She wanted her daughter, Ekampreet, to study in Canada, so she pawned her cousins’, aunts’ and friends’ jewelry for $700, too.

He did send money back, but only for his family, she says. “’Don’t worry,’ she says he told her, ‘my one-month salary will buy your jewelry back and I’ll pay back your parents, too.’”

She shows pictures of him posing beside fancy cars on Facebook; she knows he was actually working as a gas station attendant.

In 2015, he asked for a divorce, saying he needed a paper marriage to a Canadian woman so he could stay while the government processed his refugee application.

When Sarbjeet confronted the new woman in a series of audio messages on Facebook Messenger, the other woman said she would also fight.

“’You have a daughter,’ she said. ‘I have a son.’”

Sarbjeet’s husband, Daler Singh, called her description of events “fake.” He says he was 17 – a minor – when he married her, and that they have now been separated for a decade. He says he has given her money and property but didn’t give any further details or respond to specific questions.

Sarbjeet lives in sugar cane country where the chimneys of brick factories occasionally pierce the fields to puff gray smoke. Her parents keep cows. She wants better for her daughter, so offered the new woman a compromise: If Singh would call his daughter regularly and send $142 a month for her expenses, she would drop her case and stop trying to cancel his passport.

He did for a while, then he stopped, she says. Now Sarbjeet worries constantly about money.

Sarbjeet was a beautician before she got married. These days she stitches salwar kameez and simple dresses on a pedal-operated machine beside her bed to earn money.

She charges $2 for a dress, which takes her two days to finish. If there’s a rush, she can do it overnight.

The stress has sometimes overwhelmed Sarbjeet.

When Ekampreet was 3, Sarbjeet tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison. Five years later, she tried again by slitting her wrists. She went twice to a hospital in Amritsar for depression.

Now, she says, she is stronger. In March, Sarbjeet, applied to have Singh’s passport impounded. Satwinder, whom she met late last year, helped. Eventually, the passport office called to say it was done.

When asked about her father, Ekampreet says only that she wants to ask him what she did wrong and why he left her. Shuffling through a stack of pictures, she comes across a wedding photo of her parents, her mother in a bright red and gold sari. She quickly buries it in the looked-at pile.

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Anushree Fadnavis; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Blassy Boben and Byron Kaye.)

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