Located in northwestern India region of Punjab, where a vibrant Sikh majority thrives, a troubling practice known as “reverse dowry” casts a shadow on the sanctity of marriage.
Despite Sikhism’s denouncement of dowry, the tradition of demanding monetary or material gifts from the spouse’s family persists. As more individuals from Punjab pursue opportunities abroad, the practice has left families shattered, marriages in ruins and spouses abandoned.
This alarming trend transcends religious boundaries, impacting various communities across the country.
Devinder Singh and his wife, Jaspal Kaur, find themselves entangled in a relentless pursuit of justice for their son, Ravinder (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy). The once-promising union between Ravinder and Simran (whose name has also been changed) took an unexpected turn, leaving the family no choice but to seek answers and closure.
In 2017, the couple embarked on a journey of love, uniting their lives with dreams of a blissful future. But destiny had other plans as Simran’s aspiration to study abroad changed the course of their lives.
Devinder, as a doting father-in-law, sold his cherished land for $68,000, determined to sponsor his daughter-in-law’s pursuit of higher education in Canada.
With each installment of financial support sent to Simran while she was abroad, the family eagerly awaited her return. However, to their dismay, Simran’s attitude underwent an inexplicable transformation. She cut off all communication with her husband and in-laws — leaving them distressed and desperate for answers.
“We narrated our situation to the family of our daughter-in-law in the hope for a reunion, but they didn’t help and sided with their daughter,” Singh said.
In a move to salvage their son’s marriage, the family sent Ravinder to Canada to meet Simran and understand the sudden change in her demeanor. The confrontation revealed a harsh reality: Simran’s desire to sever all ties and demand for a divorce.
Seeking closure, the family requested the return of the substantial financial aid they had provided for Simran’s education. She vehemently refused to reimburse the money.
Undeterred by the adversities, Devinder Singh and his family now seek a settlement that could provide their son with a chance at a fresh start in Canada. They propose that Simran supports Ravinder’s application for permanent residency in exchange for the financial assistance previously provided.
“We told her family that we will be forced to take legal action in view of her decision for divorce if she does not help our son get a permanent residence of Canada in exchange of money we have paid to her,” Kaur said.
The implications of dowry are far-reaching, encompassing issues of gender inequality and the objectification of women. In this alarming trend, the bride expects financial support from the groom’s family as a prerequisite for marriage — primarily to pursue studies abroad initially — but with the ultimate goal of gaining citizenship and paving the way for the husband to join later.
This practice places significant financial burdens on the groom’s family and raises ethical questions about commodifying the sacred institution of marriage. The demand for dowry or gifts, regardless of the direction, also perpetuates unequal power dynamics, undermining the principles of gender equity that Sikhism staunchly advocates.
Satwinder Kaur: A warrior for abandoned spouses
Devinder Singh and his wife’s quest for a settlement took them to Satwinder Kaur in the bustling city of Ludhiana, Punjab. The 41-year-old Satwinder has dedicated her life to assisting those who find themselves abandoned by their spouses after they migrate abroad.
Satwinder’s own harrowing journey has inspired her unwavering commitment to helping others in similar circumstances. Married in 2009, she endured months of longing and uncertainty as her husband left for Ukraine in pursuit of work, only to settle there permanently and sever all ties with India.
As time passed, Satwinder’s husband began fabricating excuses to distance himself from her and divest her of properties. However, driven by an indomitable spirit, she refused to succumb to despair. Tenaciously fighting for her rights, Satwinder filed a case against her husband, exposing his actions. The legal battle stretched over several years, testing her resilience and fortitude.
“I was emotionally blackmailed by my husband after he returned from Ukraine with the aim of evicting me from his house,” Satwinder said. “On his insistence, we moved to a rented house with all my belongings. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see through his tactics and blindly accepted his decisions.”
After evicting her from his house by deceit, he went back to Ukraine never to return. But in a remarkable turn of events last year, after enduring a long and arduous journey, Satwinder and her husband reached a mutual understanding, leading to their divorce. This resolution marked a significant milestone in her pursuit of justice and closure.
“I am divorcee; my life has been spoiled,” Satwinder said. “Of the 41 years since my birth, 14 were lost in pursuit of justice.”
Satwinder’s personal triumph has ignited a fire within her to extend a hand to others like Devinder Singh and Jaspal Kaur. Satwinder runs a nongovernmental organization known as Abh Nahi (or “Not Anymore”) dedicated to counsel those whose spouses abandoned them after settling abroad. So far, it has received a staggering 900 complaints, including those from 800 women.
Embarking on the journey of a lifetime, thousands from Punjab venture abroad each year, driven by aspirations of a better life and brighter prospects. A significant number make foreign lands their new home, scripting success stories that warm the heart.
Yet, amid this tale of dreams fulfilled lies a heartrending reality that casts a shadow over the euphoria. A poignant trend emerges, where some men, having utilized dowry money for their foreign ventures, choose not to return to their homeland, leaving behind devastated wives and families.
The anguish of abandonment weighs heavy, shattering dreams of togetherness and leaving families grappling with emotional and financial upheaval.
There are an alarming 30,000 cases of abandoned families in Punjab that reveal the gravity of the issue. The nonresident Indian wing of the Punjab police handles an array of cases — ranging from fraud and property disputes to matrimonial conflicts. Distressingly, the numbers surged to 4,266 cases in 2019 and 3,829 cases in 2020, laying bare the magnitude of the crisis.
Love, deceit and the battle for a daughter’s identity: Sarabjeet’s 13-year struggle
From the quaint district of Mukeria in Punjab, Sarabjeet Kaur’s life took a fateful turn when she married Deler Singh in 2007. A tale of promises and dreams, their union seemed blissful, but fate had something far more intricate in store.
Sarabjeet, an ambitious young woman who had passed her exams, wed Deler Singh, a younger man. Their love blossomed, and they were blessed with a beautiful daughter two years into their marriage. However, in 2010, Deler Singh, an electrician, was driven by the allure of opportunities abroad. He decided to set foot on foreign soil, hoping to carve a prosperous future for his family.
In a bid to support her husband’s dreams, Sarabjeet sold her jewelry and borrowed money from her family to fund Deler Singh’s journey overseas. Despite the distance, they remained in touch until 2015, speaking often over the phone. However, cracks started appearing when Deler Singh fabricated a deceitful story to escape his marriage with Sarabjeet. He sought a divorce, claiming a contract marriage in Canada to secure permanent residency and promising to reunite once his status was settled. Sensing the plot, Sarabjeet refused to be swayed, triggering a rupture in their communication.
“In 2018, I complained to the police against my husband and in-laws. But my in-laws hit back a counter case blaming me of (poor) character,” Sarabjeet said. “My husband filed a case against me charging me of burglary and claiming that I was not his wife.”
As the years passed, Sarabjeet discovered the painful truth: Deler Singh had married a Pakistani woman in Canada. To attain permanent residency, he allegedly forged documents and faked divorce papers, leaving Sarabjeet shattered and their daughter’s identity stolen.
“I called his second wife after finding her details on social media and told her that he was already married with a daughter, but she did not listen.” Sarabjeet said. “She told me that he had told her that I was their domestic help and not so beautiful and he was forcibly married to me by his family.”
For 13 years, Sarabjeet has fought an arduous battle — not just for herself, but for her 12-year-old daughter, who yearns for a father she has never seen and who has never acknowledged her existence.
Sikh teachings emphasize simplicity, humility and egalitarian values. The faith encourages followers to approach life with a sense of oneness with all of humanity.
Scholars and religious experts emphasize that Sikhism unequivocally rejects all forms of dowry, viewing it as a manifestation of materialism and greed. Sikh teachings uphold equality, compassion and respect for all individuals, regardless of gender.
Awareness of this disconcerting practice has spurred various initiatives within Sikh communities and broader society to address and eradicate the trends of dowry and reverse dowry. Community-driven campaigns, backed by religious leaders, have sought to raise awareness about Sikh teachings, highlighting the sanctity of marriage based on love, trust and mutual respect.
Manjit Singh, a Sikh priest, is shedding light on a disquieting reality of dowry that raises alarms about the erosion of faith and values.
Speaking with conviction, Manjit Singh shared his concern about the unsettling trend where financial gains abroad come at the expense of losing faith in one’s religion.
“The temptation of acquiring wealth in foreign lands should not eclipse the essence of Sikhism, which emphasizes integrity, compassion, and humility,” Singh said.
Drawing attention to the gravity of the issue, Singh highlighted that the practices of dowry and reverse dowry transcend religious barriers. Irrespective of religious teachings, the allurement of tradition and societal norms has shamelessly perpetuated the practice of dowry across various faiths, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam and others, he said. The consequences of such actions can lead to profound difficulties and hardships for those involved.
Singh emphasized the need for collective efforts and awareness campaigns. He has advocated for the establishment of a committee or organization that encompasses the religious diversity.
“Such a forum can serve as a platform to foster collaboration and coordinate efforts in raising awareness against the perils of dowry,” he said.
Zaffar Iqbal is a journalist based in Kashmir, India. He has reported for 18 years on armed encounters, environmental issues, crime, politics, culture and human rights. He’s formerly the bureau chief of Jammu-Kashmir for NDTV.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged