Wanted: A husband who’s an NRI and isn’t getting married to please his parents

Representational image of a wedding ceremony
Representational image of a wedding ceremony | Commons

Distress calls every 8 hours from NRI wives don’t just mean a few rotten apples. But we only want to hear feel-good stories of Sundar Pichais & Satya Nadellas.

It’s a statistic that should make us cringe. The Ministry of External Affairs received 3,328 distress calls from NRI women between 1 January 2015 and 30 November 2017, news reports say.

That’s about one call every eight hours.

Statistics are slippery things and it is not fair to use these bare numbers to build up some bogey of the abusive NRI man. Nor is it fair to assume that his domestic counterpart comes in a far more spouse-friendly package.

The cases come largely from West Asian countries, the USA and Canada. The highest number of such callers are women hailing from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Gujarat.

“The dowry system is still strong (in states like Andhra),” Aarthi Rao, who worked at the Indian embassy in Washington for 16 years and dealt with such cases, told Times of India. “The boys went to India to please their parents and married someone, but had no intention of living with them once they returned.”

The women faced abandonment, harassment, dowry demands, physical abuse and passport seizure.

Instead of looking to apportion more blame on one state versus the other, or indulge in gratuitous NRI-bashing, what’s worth unpacking is something else Rao mentions.

“The boys went to India to please their parents and married someone.”

And a little later in that same article, sociologist Samata Deshmane laments about Indian parents’ “obsession” with NRI grooms as status symbols.

Put those two together and we have a lock-and-key fit ripe for disaster. “Good” sons who cannot say no to their parents and come home to marriages they do not want. And a pool of eager parents wanting to marry their daughters off to an NRI son-in-law.

Even though a bunch of Indian-Americans marched in Washington D.C. to support Donald Trump’s immigration proposal hoping he would clear the green card backlog, it’s a fact that bigotry has become more mainstream in Trump’s America. Or, at least, it has found the strength and licence to flaunt itself more openly.

A report called Communities of Fire released by the non-profit organisation South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) says there is a direct correlation between hate crimes against South Asians and the rise of Trump. Between 8 November 2016 (the day of Trump’s election) to 7 November 2017, hate crimes rose 45 per cent from the previous year, and one in five attackers took the name of Trump or chanted his slogan “Make America Great Again”.

Of course, the most infamous case was the murder of Indian techie Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas. His friend Alok Madasani was wounded in the attack. Madasani’s father told the media: “I appeal to all parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.” Colleges in the US started calling students in India who had gained admission there, reassuring nervous parents that their campuses were safe and no-hate zones.

A few NRI weddings were even called off, but still, the NRI son-in-law remains a holy grail for too many of us. This report should dent that fantasy. This is not to say NRI husbands are simply bad and swadeshi is always good. It’s just that the razzle-dazzle of the NRI, the conversion rate from dollars to rupees, still blinds too many of us to the rest of the story, preventing us from doing due diligence. We trust the dollar instead of the person.

According to the legal portal Vakilno1.com, there are at least 20,000 “honeymoon brides” who have not seen their husbands after a splashy wedding, often with dowry, called “holiday marriages”. There are stories of women who land up at a foreign airport to find their husband has not come to receive them, or is already in a relationship with someone else. Then they are often stranded in a foreign country trying to figure out which court has jurisdiction over their plight.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development has proposed that women who marry NRIs be given a second passport, which will remain with their families in India in case the first passport is taken away by the husband. The Ministry of External Affairs even has a guide book called Marriage to Overseas Indians. The Punjab Police had to face so many such cases it opened an online portal to deal with it. In some cases, the same man made promises to several women, took dowry, and ran confident that the long arm of the law would not reach as far as Canada or UK.

In 2012, Public Radio International reported the story of passport officer Parneet Singh trying to make a difference by cancelling the passports of these runaway husbands, which basically made them illegal aliens abroad. If the errant husband is in India, he cannot leave and if he is abroad, Singh said “he will not be able to get it renewed. He has two choices: either to stay illegally in that country or to come back”. That’s an incentive to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

A 27 year-old woman, who claims to have been duped by an NRI in New Zealand recently, asked the proactive external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to have his passport cancelled.

But while the government figures out ways to help women stranded and abandoned in these marriages, it’s worth pondering something else. What about those men who come back to India and get married to someone to please their parents and then abandon them? When will they grow a spine? What independence did their lives abroad teach them?

These are the stories we hear too little of because we only want to hear the feel-good stories of the Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas, the ones that made it big. That’s perfectly understandable, but the volume of those desperate calls for help shows us again and again that the American dream is not all milk and honey. One call in every eight hours is not just a few rotten apples. These stories deserve naming and shaming, not just to punish the perpetrators, but as a warning to those who keep dreaming the NRI dream eyes wide shut.

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