Gurmit got the shock of her life when she discovered that the so-called US-based NRI she had married was already married with a son and was working as an unskilled worker in Seoul. He took huge sums of dowry and left soon after the wedding, promising to send her immigration papers. The papers, however, never came. This is not a rare case. The practice of women marrying NRI's, glamorous though it sounds, has recently become a cause for serious concern. The reason for this is the alarmingly high rates of desertion. Between 2009 and 2011, the National Commission for Women (NCW) registered 796 such complaints--nearly one complaint each day.
One of the key obstacles faced in taking the errant spouses to task is serving court notices. This is primarily due to the absence of correct overseas addresses due to which notice does not get served, preventing courts from proceeding further. Many husbands often use lenient laws in foreign countries to obtain ex parte divorces from their courts. As a result, the unsuspecting women only come to know through foreign court notices about their divorce.
To address this issue, the NCW was nominated as the Coordinating Agency in 2008. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also introduced a scheme for providing legal/financial assistance to women deserted by their overseas spouses. In a circular, the MEA has stipulated that Indians married in India or abroad, who want to remove or change the name of the spouse after a foreign court has granted divorce, will now have to submit a declaratory order from an Indian court. This means that Indian court's order will be essential before applying for changes in the passport. The government, taking a cue from increasing complaints, at its end, has taken the initiative of setting up a committee to formulate a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for dealing with such issues.
This issue was also brought forth before the Rajya Sabha Committee of Petitions in 2016. The Committee was advised that Section 14 of the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969 can help women married to NRIs facing problems abroad by relying on their marriage certificate. However, on the face of it, a marriage certificate would only be a piece of paper unless further steps are taken to give it weight and make it recognised abroad.
Legislatively, the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has safeguards against cruelty under Section 498A and bigamy under Section 494. However, since this provision does not directly pertain to desertion, the relief available to affected women is not suitable. In 2012, the Passports Act was amended and a provision was added to confiscate passports of people having suspicious marital records.
In 2009, the Law Commission advocated the need for family law legislation for NRIs and recommended making marriage registration mandatory. It also suggested that personal laws should provide for maintenance, alimony to spouses, child custody, and support along with the settlement of matrimonial property in case of NRI marriages.
The Supreme Court has also issued several judgements declaring that divorce under a marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 cannot be granted by any foreign court and has emphasised the need for a legislation safeguarding the interests of women. It has recommended that in the case of a divorce, adequate alimony is paid to the wife out of the property of the husband both in India and abroad.
Nonetheless, the statistics as on date present a sorry state of affairs. In 2015, in an unstarred question, it was mentioned that the MEA had taken up 203 fraudulent cases in 12 Indian missions abroad, between 2012 to 2015. But the numbers may be far more. In 2009, the NCW Chief said that two out of 10 NRI marriages end in desertion in honeymoon alone.
Punjab tops the list of states facing the problem of NRI desertions followed by Andhra Pradesh. In 2008, the Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs said that at least 20,000 legal cases against NRI husbands, presumably for abandoning wives, were pending in Punjab alone. Recognising the enormity of the problem in Punjab, the state government has undertaken extensive measures. A special law was enacted in 2012 making it mandatory that all marriages between two Indians or an Indian and an NRI/foreign national need to be registered. The NRI/foreign national are also required to disclose in writing the passport number and other details including the permanent residential/official address overseas. The Punjab Government has also set up an NRI Affairs Department and a State Commission for NRIs. For greater awareness about the law on compulsory marriage registration, a website and video advertisements have been uploaded by the State. In fact, there are even some special law firms in Punjab dealing with issues related to NRI's.
This is not to say that other states are not undertaking efforts. Several states have introduced laws making it mandatory for all marriages to be registered. However, none of these laws make any particular reference to NRI/PIO marriage registration. At the Central level, following the Supreme Court orders, in 2012, a Bill to amend the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha to include the registration of marriages within its purview. The Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha but eventually lapsed.
Given the scale of the problem and its domino effect on deserted brides and their families, it is essential that holistic and planned efforts be undertaken. So the question is what next? One way, as suggested by the Telangana State Commission for Women, is for the Union Government to enter into pacts with other countries to ensure that foreign courts refrain from granting divorce to people married under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. There is also a need for state laws for compulsory registration of marriages especially those with NRIs following the Punjab model. Further, strict penal provisions are necessary to prosecute NRIs deserting their Indian brides. What is also needed is awareness which could be generated through videos like the one by Punjab. These are some starting points for resolving this burgeoning issue.
(The views expressed are personal)