Thousands of Indian women have been abandoned by men working overseas, leaving them trapped in their in-laws’ homes and often defrauded of dowry money.
By Sameer Yasir
Reporting from Gurdaspur, Ludhiana and Mohali in the Indian state of Punjab
June 13, 2023
Like many other women in the state of Punjab, long a hub of emigration from India, Sharndeep Kaur aspired to marry an Indian working abroad and follow him to a more prosperous life overseas.
On Jan. 13, 2014, she thought her dream had come true. That day in a Sikh temple, she married Harjinder Singh, who had just returned from Italy, and moved in with his family.
After a few days, though, her in-laws began demanding about $10,000 so her husband could resettle in Canada. When she failed to secure the money, they starved and beat her, according to a police complaint that did not result in any charges.
Eight weeks after the wedding, her husband went back to his dairy job in Italy. Ms. Kaur never saw him again. “The days turned into weeks and then months,” she said recently at her home in the village of Fateh Nangal. “And my eyes kept searching for him.”
Ms. Kaur is far from alone in her misery. Tens of thousands of Indian women have been abandoned by husbands working abroad, according to government officials and activists, trapping many of them in their in-laws’ homes in accordance with local social customs, even for decades.
Some women who have been left behind by husbands are victims of the unfulfilled promises of changing circumstances. Others, however, have been subjected to outright deceit, their families defrauded of dowries, honeymoon expenses and visa payments.
There are few specific legal remedies available to women whose husbands flee, and pursuing the men under more general laws can be difficult if they are abroad. But eight women have filed a petition with India’s Supreme Court in an effort to press the government to enact policies to deal with what they called a widespread problem.
A former judge who headed a commission looking into the issue in Punjab said there were 30,000 such cases in that state alone.
While Punjab, India’s only Sikh-majority state, is home to some of the country’s richest agricultural land, it has long struggled with unemployment and drug abuse. Billboards promoting English-language training centers and visa consulting firms are evidence of an exodus abroad. Young men often force older relatives to sell land so they can emigrate.
One recent afternoon, at a roundabout in Kotli, a village surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, a dozen older men sat under a tree, discussing the problems of distressed farmers: low incomes, mountains of debt and, in some cases, suicide.
“That is why everyone wants to fly out of Punjab to realize their dollar dream,” said Satnam Singh, 65, a retired schoolteacher, “and these women are partly a result of those aspirations.”
He said that some husbands wanted to honor the promise of taking their wives abroad, but that either unforeseen events or strict visa rules prevented them from doing so.
Activists and experts described a more troubling pattern, one that was also seen in interviews with 12 women.
The situation, they said, often plays out like this: Parents arrange to marry their daughter off to a returning Indian. They pay a dowry, a practice long banned in India but still common. A lavish wedding follows, with days of food and alcohol and dancing to Punjabi music. Then comes a honeymoon, also paid for by the bride’s family.
The husband flies out, and the wife waits for a visa while living with her in-laws. The in-laws demand money to secure the visa, but it never arrives. The wife, who is often illiterate, is kept under constant surveillance to keep control over her, damaging her psychologically.
To Ms. Kaur, who fled her in-laws’ home after five months, it was “like living in a dark dungeon.”
Other dangers can also lurk. Some women complain “of being sexually exploited by other members of their husband’s family, because they have nowhere else to go,” said Rakesh Kumar Garg, the retired judge who until recently headed the state commission on the issue.
In a number of cases, men have used dowry money to pay immigration agents to land in wealthy countries like Canada, where Sikhs make up about 2 percent of the population.
“The boys come, they enjoy, and leave with the dowry money,” Mr. Garg said. “Then they get married again in foreign countries for citizenship. It is just treachery.”
Left-behind women can be found everywhere in Punjab — a sign that the desperation to leave outweighs the many cautionary tales.
“One lives here,” said Kulwinder Kaur, who said she was herself tricked into a marriage in 1999, pointing from her terrace toward a door to the right of her house. “Another lives there,” she continued, gesturing toward an entry gate made of bamboo, to the left of her house.
After her marriage, Ms. Kaur, who is not related to Sharndeep Kaur, lived with her husband for nine months in his parents’ home in Kotli. He worked as a carpenter before he left for Canada without telling her. She continues to live with her in-laws, who are both bedridden, 24 years after her marriage.
“I am just like a servant in his house,” she said.
On a recent bright morning, Satwinder Kaur Satti, who heads Abbnhi, a support group for left-behind women, was talking to visitors in her home in Ludhiana when her phone rang.
“Can you please help me?” a woman asked as she cried over the phone after saying she had been beaten by her mother-in-law for failing to arrange money for her overseas son.
At the woman’s home, Ms. Satti, who also said she was the victim of a fraudulent marriage, encouraged her to file a police complaint, but the woman wanted to wait a few months. “Your husband will never take you out, remember this,” Ms. Satti told her. “File a police case or die waiting.”
Some women are fighting to have their husbands’ passports impounded. Ravneet Khural, an English-language tutor, sends email reminders every week to the authorities asking them to cancel the passport of her husband, Harpreet Singh Dhiman.
That is possible under a federal law that can be used to revoke the passports of Indians who have gone overseas, leaving their wives behind, if the husbands repeatedly refuse to appear before judges.
Mr. Dhiman’s parents moved to Canada on a business visa after Ms. Khural’s marriage in 2015. After living in different countries and making occasional trips back home to see relatives and his wife, Mr. Dhiman joined his parents in Canada in 2021.
Ms. Khural said she paid around $8,000 to her in-laws for paperwork and a visa. Her father-in-law, Kesar Singh, denied the assertion.
“Let her prove it,” Mr. Singh said by phone, adding that his son had filed for divorce before leaving India because the couple could not get along. Ms. Khural said she had received notice from a lawyer about the divorce filing late last month. Women in such cases rarely file for divorce themselves, for cultural and financial reasons.
Ms. Khural filed a police complaint, accusing her husband of domestic violence — the police often open investigations under such charges because of the lack of specific laws addressing fleeing husbands — and of keeping her under surveillance with cameras. The case, like most in India, is proceeding slowly.
“I want to teach him a lesson,” she said, “so that he will remember forever what he did to me.”
Harjinder Singh, the dairy worker in Italy married to Ms. Kaur, said he, too, faced a domestic violence case after his wife had filed a complaint. In a phone interview, he declined to offer his side of the story or defend his abandonment of his wife. “I have nothing to add,” Mr. Singh said.
On a recent evening, Ms. Kaur was standing on her parents’ terrace when a man in a white shirt walked through a track in the middle of the wheat fields behind the house.
“I wish it was him,” she said, her voice dropping to a hush. “But I know he will never come back.”