Saturday, October 6, 2001

Forces unite to tackle ‘forced marriages’
Prabhjot Singh

A young Punjabi girl, born and brought up in England, was sent to India by her parents after she declared that she wanted to marry an English man, her colleague — a constable in county police. Her parents neither opposed the proposal nor gave their assent to it, but quietly persuaded her to visit India for some time. When the unsuspecting girl arrived at her ancestral home in Garhshankar, she was forcibly detained there and an attempt was made to marry her off to a Punjabi boy of her community.

Punjab DGP Sarabjit Singh with UK police officials, including Constables Harvinder Rai and Ramesh Chand.
Punjab DGP Sarabjit Singh with UK police officials, including Constables Harvinder Rai and Ramesh Chand.

"Her fiance got suspicious when he did not hear from her for a long time. Apprehending danger to her life, he approached the British High Commission in New Delhi, which in turn got in touch with the Senior Superintendent of Police at Hoshiarpur," says Gurpreet Deo, SSP, Kapurthala. Since Deo was working as ASPat Garhshankar at that time, the case was referred to her. "We managed to trace the girl and registered a case against her father for forcible detention. The girl was handed over to the British High Commission," adds Deo, who has received commendation both from the British authorities as well as her own bosses for handling the case well.

"There are countless cases of married women being left in the lurch by their husbands, who leave for foreign countries. The wife and the children are usually left behind with the husband’s parents. There have been instances when husbands not only remarry once they go abroad, but also deprive their legally-wedded wives of any share in their income or property. Registration of a case under Section 498-A of the IPC is of little help. The husband remains protected because of complicated extradition laws. The husband’s parents usually plead innocence, alleging that their son has gone out of their control," maintains Deo.


Operation Chamkaur, launched on January 1 this year by the West Midlands police in England, addresses the complex issue of "forced marriages" and stresses on the need for closer work ties with the corresponding forces across the Indian subcontinent.

The first ever Indo-British Police conference, held recently at the sprawling Maharaja Ranjit Singh Punjab Police Academy at Phillaur, focused on "Domestic violence and Crime against women, including "forced marriages." The issue was discussed threadbare by representatives of the London Metropolitan Police and the Punjab police.

The DGP with the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire
The DGP with the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire

Earlier this year, Chief Superintendent of the Willenhall police Mike Layton, who heads the team set up to investigate "forced marriages", visited Punjab. Among others, he was accompanied by Police Constable Harvinder Singh Rai, who also works with the Willenhall police.

The West Midlands police believes that there is a difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage, in which the consent of either of the two parties may be given under duress. "At the moment we don't know about the enormity of the problem. It is very much a hidden problem, although the official figure puts the number of such cases reported a year in the U.K. to 1000," remarks a police official.

Further, the problem is not restricted to any one religious group, community or country. There has been exchange of visits between police officials of the UK and South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Operation Chamkaur is being funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government.

Thirtyone-year-old Police Constable Harvinder Singh Rai, born in Narangwal, Punjab, is particularly interested in the issue of forced marriages because, he feels, it affects the community he has been closely associated with. Harvinder Rai is one of the few Police personnel of Punjab origin working in Great Britain.

Talking about the problem of forced marriages, Rai says, "Many British nationals of South Asian origin are being tricked into taking holidays in the subcontinent or visiting a sick relative or attending a marriage in the family. Upon reaching the country, they find that their passports are either forcibly taken away or stolen and then they are forced into marriages."

These marriages do not survive for long and lead to a plethora of problems, including increased domestic violence. British police officers maintain that the only way to handle the problems related to forced marriages is to understand South Asian culture, and ethos.

"England is an altogether different society where individual freedom is respected and adorned. Many South Asian families who have been holding on to their culture do manage to get their children married to spouses of their choice, but then they do it in an agreeable and acceptable manner. The problem arises when a girl or boy wants to marry someone of another community or caste," say police officers.

Some police officers of Punjab admit that a few cases of "supari killing" have come to their notice where parents of girls have got the boys their daughters were interested in marrying eliminated while they were visiting their parents in Punjab. The boys did not belong to their community. Such a problem can best be handled if the police organisations in Great Britain and those in other countries in the South Asian region interact and remain in close contact with each other. The problem of forced marriages has existed in the subcontinent for years but the only difference is that here it is "accepted" while the British society has taken cognisance of this social obliteration.

As part of Operation Chamkaur, Punjab Director-General of Police Sarabjit Singh visited England recently. Besides meeting the West Midlands police, he interacted with personnel of the South Yorkshire police, West Yorkshire police, London Metropolitan police and the Central Motorway Police Group.

This link between the police forces of the two countries will be strengthened further when Sir John Stevens, Commissioner, London Metropolitan police, a rank equivalent to the Chief of the Army Staff (General), will become the first British police officer to visit India later this year. Besides him, the Chief Constables of the South Yorkshire police, West Yorkshire police and the West Midlands police are expected to visit India before March next year.

Sarabjit Singh has been the most senior Indian police officer ever to visit West Midlands and other county police organisations. His visit was sponsored by the South Yorkshire police.

These visits have set in motion a dialogue on community policing even as the West Midlands police steals the thunder with Operation Chamkaur.