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April - May 2007

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NRIs Abandoned Brides - A Challenge to Meet

by Anil Malhotra

On December 30, 2006, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs had announced a scheme to provide free legal and counseling services to NRI women as well as foreign citizens of Indian origin in distress as a welfare measure. To begin with this scheme will be applicable in US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Gulf. This was followed by the publication of a guidance booklet titled “ Marriage to overseas Indians” .Now, another proposal as reportedly discussed on January 31, 2007, between the Overseas Affairs Minister and the Minister for Women and Child Development has come. According to this proposal, the Indian Government may soon decide to stamp the marital status of Non Resident Indians on their passports. This is indeed a welcome development. But is it enough. Do we need to do more.

Of a population of over one billion Indians, twenty five million are NRIs living worldwide. Times have changed but family law legislations enacted by the Indian Parliament in 1955 and 1956 have left family laws for NRIs where they were. The result, an influx of family law problems arising out of NRI marriages with no practical solutions in the legislative enactments as they exist today. To compound the problem, registration of marriages, which is optional under Hindu Family laws, has not been made compulsory in India. The result: multiple marriages by the NRI often without a previous divorce, invariably by duping the previous spouse and providing no maintenance to the abandoned wife and the unfortunate child of such union if any. Foreign divorce decrees are not accepted by Indian Courts. Defending a matrimonial matter abroad sitting in India is an impossible task. Legal recourse in India is difficult, time consuming, expensive and complicated. Despite a Family Courts Act, 1984, most States have none despite 22 years having elapsed since this law was made. The end result : about twenty five thousand abandoned women in Punjab alone fending for themselves in an uphill legal system which provides no solutions or answers. Then, there are issues relating to Inter parental child abduction. Legal recourse is difficult, undefined and India not being a signatory to The Hague Convention on Child Abduction, there is practically no law on the subject. Still further, inter country adoptions are governed by a maze of laws and procedures. How are all these family law related issues to be resolved. Who will do it. How will it be done.

An eye opener to the gravity of one such dominant problem arising from NRI marriages is projected in a path breaking and authoritative pronouncement by a Bench of the Delhi High Court then headed by Mr. Justice Vijender Jain which can be best quoted in its original form as follows:

“This is one of those classic cases where Indian citizens who go abroad and marry Indian women and thereafter maltreat such women and inflict cruelty and dump them in alien and hostile environment without even bothering to give adequate maintenance. Such persons take advantage of the fact that they are outside the jurisdiction of the Courts of India and most of the time, battered married women do not have resources to fight back and bring the culprits to face the consequences of their wrong doings. To deal with such kind of cases and to counter the mischief of such people who exploit the women of this country, and who feel that the strong arms of law cannot reach them, stern action should be taken at every level against them and they should be made to pay such amount of maintenance as would be necessary to restore some dignity and comforts to such women to lead a normal life again. Therefore, in this regard, the duty is cast on the State that such persons who marry Indian women and then dump them in foreign countries by resorting to the laws of those countries for taking divorce, which may not be valid in India, and without giving any maintenance and without discharging their liabilities, to be served with the notices and the orders passed by the Court through the embassies and High Commissions of India in those countries so as to bring them under the jurisdiction of the Courts to enforce the liabilities fastened on them under India law and to make them comply with the orders passed by the Courts in India. Indian citizens residing outside as NRIs either on account of having a residency permit or on account of having work permit should not be allowed to violate the rule of law of this country. So long they are citizens of India, they are not immune from the laws of this country and must be made to comply with the orders passed by the Courts in India. “

In our country where we have a plural systems of family laws and no compulsory registration of marriages despite a Supreme Court Judgment in February 2006 giving Central and State Governments three months to enact legislation for compulsory registration of marriages, multiple bigamous unions by NRIs are abound. Defending summary divorce proceedings of foreign courts initiated by an erring NRI with no legal assistance or maintenance makes the hapless deserted Indian spouse suffer in agony thereby compounding the problem. Caught in this cross fire are innocent children of such unfortunate marriages often bundled of against their wishes. Indian legislation provides no answers. There being no bilateral agreements or treaties with foreign countries, parallel court proceedings initiated on both sides in different countries leads to a conflict of jurisdictions and flouted court orders. The result undoubtedly is a total mess. The sufferers are fellow citizens in India.

In this stage and time, the legislature seriously needs to enact a comprehensive legislation which is a composite and wholesome answer to these social issues. Patchwork with isolated eyewash will not help. The need of the hour is a new law.

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