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A messiah for wronged wives

In Punjab, a state notorious for marriage fraud by NRIs, a passport officer is making the law look good.

india Updated: Jun 03, 2012 20:29 IST
Jasdeep Singh Malhotra
Jasdeep Singh Malhotra
Hindustan Times

Sarabjit Kaur, a 28-year-old postgraduate government school teacher in Amritsar married Gurpreet, 30, a Jalandhar-based college lecturer in 2002. It was a late marriage by Punjabi standards. Kaur’s parents were worried, the groom’s parents were desperate, and hence the marriage happened in 15 days, without the due diligence.

Soon after, Sarabjit started facing harassment and demands for money from her in-laws. Since August 2003, when she gave birth to her daughter, she has been in and out of her marital home. (Gurpreet abandoned her and left for the UK). Her married life has been put on hold, or restored, depending on payment of cash. Like thousands of women deserted by their NRI husbands, Kaur found herself fighting alone for justice, until she found her messiah in 2010, in the most unlikely of places — a busy passport office at Jalandhar.

Parneet Singh, the 36-year-old passport officer, who had heard of the infamous ‘holiday’ marriages that plagued the region, saw it as a chance to put erring husbands in the dock. “Rather than blaming the system or delve into why earlier no action had been taken regarding complaints, I considered it my responsibility to make it all work,” he said. His 105-member team took a while to shake off their bureaucracy; Singh led by example by keeping longer hours, started a grievance cell that held hearings on Saturdays, even Sundays, if needed.

Before joining the new assignment, Singh had studied the Passport Act, especially the provision of impounding passports in case an FIR is registered. He turned the law into a credible weapon. In what was perhaps a first-of-its-kind initiative, he started impounding the passports of NRI husbands under Section 10 (3) of the Passport Act, after serving them a show-cause notice based on their wives’ complaints. So far, he has impounded 68 passports out of the over 400 cases of NRI marriages lodged since he assumed office (207 such complaints were lodged just last year).

Singh, however, is no softie to be swayed by sob stories. He does due diligence before impounding a passport. "I gauge the seriousness of a complaint by first checking whether a lady has lodged an FIR," he said. He then gives the husband 15 days before issuing a show-cause notice and also demands certain affidavits from the wife before impounding her husband’s passport.

As marriage frauds are common in the Doaba region of which Jalandhar is a part, the beneficiaries of Singh’s initiative feel his measures have given them a fair shot at justice. Sarabjit, for instance, approached Singh with a fresh complaint against Gurpreet when her earlier application was ignored.

“To my surprise, he informed me that Gurpreet’s passport had already been impounded on the basis of my three-year-old complaint”, she said. Unless he settles his divorce case, the passport will not be renewed, Singh said. Gurpreet or his family could not be reached for comments.

Singh considers his efforts as “simply being responsible to my seat. If I’ve been entrusted with something, I must do justice to it.” His interventions have been an important link in creating deterrents for errant husbands.

“Once a passport is impounded, the grooms are unable to leave the country since the document is seized at air or sea-ports,” he said, explaining the process. “We also write to Indian missions and embassies abroad, appending a copy of the victim’s complaint along with relevant documents, to initiate action against the violators of the Passport Act. Subsequently, they can be intercepted anywhere in the world and be extradited to India. If abroad, they face deportation when they apply for the renewal of passport at the Indian embassy. They are also liable to be arrested in India for travelling on an invalid passport.”

Another victim of marriage fraud, Nandini Sharma, who now stays in the US, says she got her husband, Vishal Sharma, a green-card holder, booked for demanding dowry and torture when they were married in India. “Vishal’s passport was impounded recently based on my complaint. Now, he cannot travel back to India on the Indian passport.” The passport officer impounded Sharma’s passport since a dowry case was pending before the court.

Parneet’s efforts, however, need state intervention and police support, especially in cases in which an NRI manages to acquire foreign citizenship, despite complaints for dowry harassment or other offences being lodged back home. Parneet has, in fact, followed up his initiative proactively.

“We are in touch with the foreign regional registration office at Amritsar International Airport to ensure all NRIs get their spouse’s name added before leaving the country,” he said, adding that this can check the practice of many NRIs disowning their marriage at a later stage. It’s all in a day’s work but Parneet Singh has clearly gone beyond his call of duty.

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First Published: Jan 29, 2012 22:31 IST