Punjab is witnessing an increase in instances of “reverse dowry” and “contractual marriage”. The arrangement is quite simple – if the Punjabi youth cannot make it abroad, he would piggyback on the qualifications of the woman, by marrying her.
The groom will then sponsor her studies abroad. She will send for a spouse visa so that he can join her and the two can settle down in a foreign country. But the truth seems to be far from ‘happily ever after’ with cases of marital fraud on the rise in Punjab’s rural belt.
Behind the lush green fields of Dhanaula village in Punjab’s Barnala district, the lives of 43-year-old farmer Balwinder Singh and his wife Rupinder are shattered. The distraught family stares helplessly at the photograph of their only son, Lovepreet (23), who died by suicide in June of this year.
Barnala police had earlier registered a case of “cheating” (under Section 420 of IPC) against Lovepreet’s wife, Beant Kaur, alias Ladi. She was later charged under Section 306 (abetment to suicide) when the story of their marriage went viral, inviting intervention from the state commission for women.
What happened with Lovepreet can be termed a case of “reverse dowry” and “contractual marriage”. The case has, in fact, emerged as a talking point in homes across Punjab.
Bride ‘duped’ our son: Lovepreet’s kin
Like several youngsters, a dreamy-eyed Lovepreet (19) had set his eyes on life in Canada. His family decided to spend 25 lakh to support his dream. His qualifications included a high score in IELTS, an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English speakers which proves useful when applying for a student visa for Canada.
Lovepreet’s to-be wife Beant Kaur had left for Ontario in 2018 and returned to Barnala for the wedding. The boy’s parents say Beant Kaur returned to Canada alone days after the wedding.
She “duped our son” which resulted in him taking his own life, allege the parents.
Lovepreet’s family | India Today
Balwinder Singh, Lovepreet’s father, told India Today, “We spent each and every penny on her [Beant Kaur’s] studies and her flight tickets.”
“We want justice. We have lost our son. We want justice,” says the boy’s mother, Rupinder Kaur.
Lovepreet’s uncle, Hindi Singh, adds, “We only discovered that it was a suicide after we opened his mobile, we found she was cheating on him. He messaged her but she would not reply. He warned her he would end his life.”
Even as the boy’s family continues to demand action against Beant Kaur, the girl’s family has denied all allegations levelled against them.
Allegations are baseless: Beant Kaur’s parents
Beant Kaur’s father Jagdev Singh told India Today, “The marriage was done in a good way. We are saddened by the death of our son-in-law. It is not correct that she would not talk to him. She talked to him and even sent him money, but the allegations are baseless. They paid money to send her abroad.”
Coming out in defence of her daughter, Sukhwinder Kaur says, “Since the death of Lovepreet, my daughter has been getting threats in Canada. She is alone but is fighting these allegations which are baseless.”
What is a ‘contractual marriage’?
Just last month, over 100 youths staged protests in Punjab’s Barnala, demanding justice for Lovepreet.
In such cases of “contractual marriage”, either the bride and groom or their respective families enter into an informal contract.
The terms of the contract are such that the boy or his family agree to pay for the girl’s education and travel abroad on the condition that once she completes her education or gets a Permanent Residency (PR) in that foreign country, she would immediately apply for a spousal visa.
However, many young men have faced a situation where their “contractual” wives refuse to honour the said terms of the agreement.
“In Punjab, the boys don’t pay attention to studies and the girls clear IELTS, the boys then pay for further studies. And in most cases, she settles abroad with another boy and the boy who pays for her education is left hanging high and dry,” says Rakesh Sharma, chairman of the Abbnhi Welfare Society.
Sharma’s NGO helps young men who allege that they have been duped by their ‘contractual wives’.
Rakesh Sharma also told India Today, “There is no action against the girl [in most cases]. And there are not many legal proceedings.”
‘Cheated, have given up dream of settling abroad’
Jaswinder Dhaliwal (30), also from Barnala, has his own tale to narrate. Wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, Dhaliwal recalls his dreams.
I married a woman with suitable IELTS qualifications in 2019 and wanted to settle down in Canada, says Jaswinder.
Dhaliwal goes further to claim that he spent 25 lakh to pay for the girl’s travel to Montreal in Canada but a few months later, she started ignoring him and even stopped taking his calls.
“We tried to persuade the girl but she paid no heed. Then the girl’s family filed a false complaint of dowry against us and in return, we filed a case of fraud against them,” Jaswinder told India Today.
To his relief, the complaint filed by the woman’s family did not stand.
Both families later reached a compromise under which the girl’s family promised to pay Jaswinder 9 lakhs. He, however, claims that he only received 6 lakhs and has now given up his plans to settle abroad.
“My parents said don’t bother with IELTS, we will take a girl who will get you abroad. Now after this episode, I don’t think of going abroad. We have arrived at a compromise. But we still didn’t get the full money. Now I have given up my dreams of going abroad,” says Jaswinder Dhaliwal.
Women also suffer in this arrangement: PSWC chief
Even Punjab’s State Commission for Women has termed this trend of ‘contractual marriages’ and ‘reverse dowry’ as worrying.
Manisha Gulati, chairperson of Punjab State Women’s Commission (PSWC) has demanded a law to deal with such cases.
“Cheating is cheating. A contractual marriage means that if the woman is taking the money, she should keep her promise. In Punjab, women are suffering because they have been duped by the boys. But now a reverse trend has started. We should stop and nip it in the bud. In this arrangement, the women also suffer. The innocent farmer invests money in a girl but she is doing fraud. We must stop this practice immediately,” Manisha Gulati told India Today.
Gulati has even written to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seeking a mechanism to deport those defrauding innocent Punjabis under the garb of marriage.
Satwinder Singh Satti, president of the NGO ‘Abhi Nahin Society’, was herself a victim of such circumstances. Singh says her husband disowned her after he moved abroad and she now helps men who are going through the same trauma.
“The girls were getting cheated on for a very long time. But in the meantime, for IELTS, the girl doesn’t call her husband. There is unemployment and drugs. That is why they don’t call their husbands,” Satti says.
‘We thought we’d have a good future. Now there is nothing left’
Tucked away in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, Ghandra village is located about 120 km from Barnala. Here, India Today meets Dr Manjit Singh (38), who spends all his time either at his medical store or at local courts.
Manjit Singh says his wife Sukhwinder Kaur was eight months pregnant when she left for the United Kingdom in 2012. The two had been married for two years at the time of her departure.
I readily paid 20-22 lakh for IELTS, visa and college fees and even her flight tickets, Manjit Singh recalls. But he soon realised that his wife had no plans to be with him or call him to the UK.
She remarried a Pakistani man, alleges Manjit Singh.
Dr Manjit Singh with his family | India Today
“We thought we would have a good future. Now there is nothing left. We keep going to women’s cells and the police. She kept making demands when our son got residency. We were abused. We compromised because she did not talk. At least twice, my visa was refused and she did not help,” he says.
Asked to comment, the woman’s brother distanced himself, saying that the case is sub-judice.
Amrik Singh, the woman’s brother, told India Today, “We don’t know what happened between the two. We were not abroad. We have given our statement to the SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police).”
Punjab Police, MEA struggle with how to address issue
According to official data, the Punjab Police’s NRI wing received 4,266 complaints in 2019. These complaints can be divided broadly into three categories – cheating, matrimonial dispute and property dispute. Such complaints were filed by both men and women.
In 2020, this number stood at 3,829, while in 2021, 2,358 complaints have been lodged so far.
Just recently, the NRI Affairs Department of Punjab Police and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) held a meeting in Delhi to discuss such cases and how to address them.
Additional Director General of Police (ADG), NRI Affairs (Punjab Police), AS Rai tells India Today, “In contractual marriages, parents of boys soon find out the girls are not inviting the husband abroad. Or playing wayward with them. One reason is that countries have restrictions because of Covid. Even for the girl to get permanent residency, she has to get benchmark marks.
“Some of them cannot call their husbands because they don’t get those marks, which are precipitating factors,” says ADG Rai from his office in Mohali.
He adds, “Within the Punjab government, we have looked into issues of foreign placement and education placement cell under the employment cell to ensure the youth who go abroad do so in a systematic manner, but unfortunately, even that got delayed because of Covid.
“Marriage contracts are often arranged via personal contacts or middlemen but the rush to go abroad means parents are openly announcing reverse dowry in matrimonial advertisements in Punjabi newspapers,” Rai says.
Matrimonials, marriage bureau and IELTS institutes
One such matrimonial advertisement in a Punjabi language newspaper reads: “A bride is needed with a 6 band IELTS score, father in a government job”.
“Needed a girl willing to settle abroad. The expenses will be borne by the boy’s family,” reads another advertisement.
Yet another matrimonial advertisement read, “IELTS girl is needed, the boy is Jatt, we will spend the money.”
Even the marriage bureau has been receiving requests from families seeking a matrimonial alliance with IELTS-qualified women.
Deepika Jain of the marriage bureau in Barnala tells India Today, “We do get matrimonial requests where the girls do IELTS, which the girl’s family cannot afford. So the girls also look forward to boys who will provide them with the money. The families decide. We don’t take responsibility in such cases. We don’t know what these children do when they are abroad. But they are going outside India.”
Some desperate parents even knock at the doors of institutes that prepare students for IELTS.
Vaishali, an IELTS teacher based in Patiala, says, “The girls’ performance is the best. If the boys don’t do it, they rely on girls. The support comes from both sides. Some people want to go together.
“They look for a boy who supports the girl. Family members of such boys even approach IELTS institutes looking for a girl from a particular caste. If the girl doesn’t call her husband, then they are blamed for trust issues. So, they should get married only after they have full trust,” Vaishali says.
‘IELTS institutes, overseas consultants need to be regulated’
With more and more such cases coming to light, the IELTS preparation and visa consultancy businesses are booming in Punjab. It is hard for one to miss advertisements and hoardings announcing these facilities in parts of the state, especially in Patiala.
However, many consultants feel it is time to regulate institutes that aim for a quick buck and end up pushing their students into a trap.
Owner of Patiala-based Victoria Consultancy, Ravinder Singh Inder, tells India Today, “Those who are capable make it on their own and some of the others resort to contractual marriages. This is against ethics and society. There are no license fees and hence, these institutes are mushrooming. Lucrative offers are given. People also don’t go for real consultancy but for a lucrative offer. In Punjab, more people come for visa counselling than for career counselling.”
An IELTS student in Patiala | India Today
An immigration consultant, Gurjit Sandhu, says, “Contractual marriages are not part of Indian culture, it is totally unethical and should be stopped.”
“Compare a Canadian dollar with Indian rupees. Sixty times it is more. The 18-year-old is lured. There was a craze right from the beginning. But the craze has increased,” Sandhu adds.
He goes on to say that for those who make it, a future abroad seems larger than life.
YouTube is filled with aspirants gushing about their life abroad. So much so that there are also spoofs on the internet viewed by millions of people. The Punjabi film industry has churned up movies like Jatt vs IELTS in keeping with the theme.
According to data, only one-two lakh people from Punjab settle down abroad each year. Several of them are married but officials say most never get their ‘happily ever after’.
‘Happily ever after’
Mahinder Pal is an assistant sub-inspector (ASI) in the Punjab Police. He is proud of taking out a loan of Rs 20 lakh to finance his daughter-in-law’s MBA abroad in 2019.
Pal’s son did not study after Class 12th. Six months after she completed her studies, Mahinder Pal’s daughter-in-law called his son to join her abroad.
“I wanted a bride for my son, who could take my son abroad. So we arranged a match. Now both my son and daughter-in-law are in Surrey in Canada. They were blessed with a child,” he says.
Speaking from Canada, Pal’s daughter-in-law Anju Devi says, “I did an MBA and my father-in-law sponsored my further studies in Canada. My husband came after six months. Now, my husband and I work here and we are living happily.”
I now plan to fly down to Surrey in Canada to meet my grandchild, Mahinder Pal tells India Today.
In the case of Amandeep Garg, two of his relatives went abroad after entering into such an agreement and are now happy.
“Not every case is the same. My sister-in-law is happy. She did IELTS and went abroad and got her husband in Australia. Now they both live happily there. There is no problem at all. It is a totally arranged marriage… This has worked really well. If the girl is educated, they will spend it on the girl. But they are settled well,” Amandeep Garg says.
An IELTS student, Manpreet Kaur, says, “I got married three years ago. My family supports me. My husband is not doing the IELTS course. He is not interested. My husband and I planned to settle abroad after the wedding. I will work there and ensure a future for my child. I will take my husband abroad. My husband is a farmer but he will do business abroad since he is educated.”
It is also important to note that this unusual trend has brought about other changes in Punjab. The state’s sex ratio has improved considerably from 888 in 2016-17 to 919 in 2020-21.
While women in Punjab, who were seen as a liability at one point in time, are now challenging patriarchy, several achieve their dreams all on their own even as others resort to short-cuts which can end up destroying families and lives.