Ludhiana/Barnala/Patiala: At the break of dawn on a hot June morning in Barnala’s Gobindpura, a frail, lifeless body of a young man was discovered near the irrigation pump of a wheat farm.
The body was of 24-year-old Lovepreet Singh ‘Ladi’ who had consumed fertiliser to take his own life. Lovepreet’s wife Beant Kaur had not been answering his calls since she moved to Canada on a study visa in 2019, his family says. Abandoned and depressed, he took his life in June 2021.
In immigration-obsessed Punjab, Lovepreet is just one of the many emerging cases in which wives — often after getting funding for their immigration from their spouses — abandon them once they’re in a foreign country.
Indian men have been ghosting their wives once they cross international water for decades now. In an answer to a question in Lok Sabha, the Ministry of External Affairs noted in 2019 that 4,698 complaints of distressed wives were received just between January 2016 and May 2019. Now, cases of women doing the same have started surfacing. So much so that there’s a hit Punjabi song, ‘Tera door ni Canada‘, in which an abandoned man sings a ballad for his NRI wife.
‘Girls should learn a lesson’
Out of shame, men often don’t speak up about being abandoned. However, post-Lovepreet’s death, some of them have gotten together to demand justice. Currently, a WhatsApp group made by Lovepreet’s uncle has 78 abandoned Punjabi men fighting for their rights. And 35 such abandoned husbands contacted Ludhiana-based NGO ABBNHI (Abandoned Brides by NRI Husbands International) in 2020.
Legal redressal for abandoned husbands is also limited. According to experts, if any husband is indeed abandoned, one option for them is to file a case of cheating under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code.
Right to compensation against desertion is also reserved only for women. The Women and Child Development Ministry has a dedicated cell to help wives deserted by their NRI husbands. The Ministry of External Affairs on many occasions in the past has revoked the passports of NRI men who turned their backs on their wives. Male victims are demanding the same legal recourse be extended to them. Jaswinder Singh, one such victim from Barnala, said, “I want to request the government to deport the women who abandon their spouses. The girls should learn a lesson.”
One such abandoned wife has started a petition on Change.org, urging WCD Minister Smriti Irani to pass the marriage registration bill and fast-track pending cases of wife-abandoners. The bill will make it mandatory for NRIs to register their marriage within 30 days of getting married or get their passports impounded.
Pargat Singh, Punjab’s incumbent minister for NRI Affairs, said that he strongly feels for men who are abandoned and will work for their benefit if voted to power again.
“The dowry act, in my opinion, needs to be amended for modern times. Nowadays, men are also at the receiving end of deception and their interests need to be protected. I feel strongly for men who are abandoned and if I hold the portfolio, I will definitely do my best to work in their interest.”
There’s friction between men and women at times on who the real ‘victim’ of NRI weddings is. “When we started taking cases of men, women protested. Men and women would often fight on our WhatsApp group on who is the real victim of this fraud. We had to later make separate groups,” Satwinder Kaur Satti, founder of ABBNHI said.
However, she adds it’s easier for men to get on with their lives than women. “There’s initial embarrassment, but men spend the rest of their lives with their friends and get on with it. It’s easier for them to remarry, most of them are young and don’t have to take care of kids. Women are generally abandoned by their husbands along with a kid and spend a lonely, isolated life. They’re not widows, but their status in the society is not worse than them,” Satti added.
This has also resulted in the vilification of women. While they’ve been deserted by NRI men for decades, many in villages carry the sentiment that it’s only the munde who are the real victims.
“Munde IELTS nahi kar paate, dhokha kya karenge (men are unable to crack IELTS, they’re incapable of betrayal),” said a villager in Patiala’s Shankerpura jokingly. International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is a standardised test to check the proficiency of non-native English language speakers and is a must to shift abroad.
A lonely marriage for Lovepreet
Lovepreet Singh ‘Ladi’ and Beant Kaur married in August 2019 on the condition that Lovepreet’s family will fund Beant’s education in Canada, and, in return, she will help the young man immigrate to the country. The family claims it spent Rs 37 lakh for the same, along with allegedly taking care of all expenses of the ring ceremony and wedding.
When ThePrint met Lovepreet’s family on 19 January 2021, seven months after they lost their only boy to suicide, the parents couldn’t speak without tearing up. Lovepreet’s uncle, Parkar Singh, said: “Ladi never even told us his wife wasn’t talking to him. We thought everything was okay. He kept on torturing himself. On the day he died, we checked his phone records and found he had tried to get in touch with Beant eight times but failed. He then tried calling her fufa (aunt’s husband) but to no avail. At night, he drank fertiliser and we discovered his dead body on the morning of 24 June 2020.”
Kaur has been booked under section 306 of the IPC (abetment to suicide). Kaur denied allegations of cheating in social media posts and said she couldn’t bring Ladi to Canada because of Covid-19 restrictions. ThePrint tried reaching Kaur’s family through a relative via calls and WhatsApp but there was no response.
Ladi’s death was sensational news in local media, and triggered a protest in his village Kothi Gobindpura near Dhanaula town in Barnala district. It triggered other men who have been duped by their wives in a similar fashion to come forward and unionise; dozens of them came to the village to show support and solidarity. According to a report in Hindustan Times, Punjabi media in Canada also brought up this case in front of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
How contract marriages work
The general consensus in Punjab is that more women crack the IELTS than men. Men see getting into contract marriages with women as an easier way of going abroad on a spouse visa.
When a woman scores qualifying marks in her IELTS exam but is unable to fund her education, she enters an understanding with a man who has the money but doesn’t have the aptitude to crack the test. Many families resort to selling a portion of their farm in order to get money and provide funds in the hope that once settled abroad, the women will call their spouse there, which, in a lot of cases, never happens.
Jaswinder Singh, an abandoned husband described his ordeal. “She lived with me for 45 days after marriage. At first, she would call me every day and things were fine. Then the calls became rarer and rarer. I tried reaching her through her family and relatives but she just wouldn’t respond. Then she blocked me. My in-laws stopped talking to me and slowly I realised that she was never going to call me to Canada,” says the 28-year-old.
Men have come out to speak about these incidents only in the past 2-3 years according to Satwinder Kaur Satti of NGO ABBNHI. An abandoned bride herself, Satti has been working to bring justice to abandoned brides through her NGO since January 2016. Currently, 800 women from all over India and 52 men from Punjab are associated with the NGO.
In 2020, she says, a group of 35 men approached her in Barnala to help abandoned husbands too, which is when she started fighting for men as well. The main objective of the NGO is to either get the spouses to reach a settlement or to get their passport impounded.
Rakesh Sharma, chairman of ABBNHI, says there’s added shame that prevents men from speaking up.
“Ladko ko bola jaata hai ‘tujhse apni biwi ko khush nahi rakha gaya toh wo bhaag gayi’, they feel ashamed.” Men are told they are unable to satisfy their wives, so they ran away).
In order to safeguard themselves from getting duped, grooms today are keeping one condition on the table: If they fund a woman’s education in lieu of contract marriage, they also sign a sale deed for the woman’s house and sign it for a later date.
“Men keep women’s parents’ houses in escrow, say with a sale deed dated for 2-3 years later signed with themselves while giving money as a sort of guarantee that the woman will not run out on them,” Sharma said.
Canada dreams cost money and marriage
Jaswinder Singh, a 28-year-old from Barnala’s Jagjitpura village, is unemployed. He sits on the roof of his house with his wedding album, and shows photographs from the gala day. His wife stayed with him for 45 days and left for Canada, never to be seen again.
“We had reached an understanding that she’ll call me once she reaches Canada, but the calls became infrequent as time passed, and one day, they completely stopped,” Singh says.
When asked why he was willing to bet so much money just to get out of the country, he said: “There are no employment opportunities here. I wanted to go out, see the lifestyle in the West and lead a more comfortable life. I couldn’t score too well on IELTS, so I thought I’ll go on a spouse visa.”
Singh met his wife through a broker, who had told him of a girl who scored well but didn’t have the money to go abroad, so Singh decided to marry her and fund her education.
Another man from Ludhiana, who didn’t wish to be named, got married to a Canadian citizen, who was visiting India. “I was told that she’ll take me with her if we get married, and that we’ll part ways once I am in Canada. She asked for Rs 30 lakh for the same. But she took my money and fled. I don’t know how many others have been scammed by her in a similar fashion,” he said.
Women, once they’re abroad, finally taste the freedom that they’re denied in their villages, a big reason why they never call back.
“Our society curtails women’s freedom. Once they finally get it, they don’t want to look back,” Satti said.
It’s about ‘freedom’
ThePrint tried contacting three women who have allegedly abandoned their husbands, but there was no response.
One woman, currently based in Canada said: “I am the one with aptitude, I am the one who is from a lower caste, treated poorly by upper caste men all my life. I’ve struggled all my life to be here. I cracked the IELTS, can’t I enjoy a little bit of freedom? If I bring him here he’ll start monitoring my movements,” she said. “I haven’t abandoned my husband. I’m busy, that’s why I can’t talk to him. I can’t handle bringing him here, and that’s all he talks about, so I pick his calls infrequently.”
Family of another woman whom ThePrint approached in Patiala refused to talk.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
(This story has been updated to remove a quote by Neerja V, ADGP NRI Affairs, government of Punjab.)