For years it has been one of the (many) dirty secrets of NRI communities around the world.
Successful NRI men – in an overwhelmingly majority of cases highly qualified professionals in IT, Banking and Engineering – taking their Indian wives back to India and abandoning them before returning to their lives back in the West.
The reasons are myriad but more often than not, it is to do with dowry or infidelity or men merely “tiring” of married life.
Too scared to go through any legal process of separation and divorce – in fear of the financial toll it often takes on them – these men treat India as a dumping ground for women who have their travel documents taken away and are left destitute and ostracized by their own families and patriarchal communities who will invariably blame the women for the breakdown in a marriage.
However, the net may be closing in.
On Wednesday the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that a new bill will be introduced in Parliament in December that aims to bring stronger sanctions on NRI men who desert their wives in India.
Mrs Swaraj said the central government had already put in place certain mechanisms that revoke the passports of men accused of spousal abandonment.
Under the scheme dozens of such individuals have had their travel documents revoked and in some cases “look out notices” placed on them in the event they travel to India where they would be arrested.
In other instances, courts have placed temporary injunctions on properties owned by these NRI’s and even their families.
These efforts however, have not provided a strong enough deterrence, primarily because the perpetrators often have residency in their countries of residence or merely sever all ties with India.
Mrs Swaraj’s statement comes weeks after the Supreme Court asked the Central government to respond to a petition – bought by a campaign group – to introduce legislation that will allow the mandatory arrest of NRI men accused of abandoning their wives and harassing them for dowry.
In February of this year, the Ministry of Women and Child Development had requested the central government to consider changes to Indian criminal law that will allow the confiscation of the government of properties owned by NRI men accused of abandoning their wives in India.
Mrs Swaraj made her statement at an event in Hyderabad, the capital that straddles two Indian states – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – that are home to a majority of victims of NRI spousal abandonment.
According to the London-based campaigner Poonam Joshi – founder of the NRI women’s group Indian Ladies in UK (ILUK) – a worrying majority of the cases she deals with involve women from Telangana and Andhra.
“It is a phenomenon that I can’t really explain”, says Ms Joshi.
“While I have dealt with victims who hail from the length and breadth of India, a depressingly large number come from these two states. More often than not these are highly educated young girls married to equally educated and successful NRI men.
“Irrespective of where they come from, it is harrowing and life-destroying. One minute they have begun a new life in the west with all the hopes and dreams and ambitions that that involves, the next minute they are abandoned in India, without the means to return to the UK to fight, marginalized by their own families and utterly destitute”, Ms Joshi says.
While Minister Swaraj did not specify the kind of measures the new bill will include, campaigners say that the law must be changed in order to better serve the victims – for example the creation of an online system that would better enable victims to report abandonment.
“I have dealt with hundreds of cases where women who have been abused for years and then abandoned, will go to their local police station in India only to be met with officers who make moral judgments on the women! They will give ‘marriage advice’ and tell these women to ‘sort things out’, instead of taking action against the perpetrators”, Ms Joshi says.
“The current system is designed to harass women who have already faced the most appalling circumstances.”
While campaigners have welcomed Mrs Swaraj’s proclamation, many legal experts say introducing new legislation will be a challenge given the influence wielded by NRI men and the NRI community as a whole.
When ILUK, inundated with requests for help from victims, began highlighting the issue on social media in the UK, the backlash from men was vicious.
Ms Joshi adds: “It is always the case that when you challenge any element of the patriarchy in our society – whether in India or the UK – the attacks can get pretty heavy-handed. I was even assaulted by the friend of a man who had abandoned his wife in Telangana and whom we had publicly named after repeated attempts to obtain justice. But these are challenges we will overcome”.