Deceived Bride’s Struggle for Justice Resonates in India

By Rama Lakshmi
The Washington Post

NEW DELHI, India ~ Twenty-year-old Sabra Ahmadzai finished her final high school test in Afghanistan, took out a bank loan and then flew to India on the last day of November. She came to look for an Indian army doctor who she said had deceived, married and then abandoned her in Kabul, making her an object of shame and ridicule.

In India, Ahmadzai’s journey has become a rallying point for young women across college campuses who find in her a source of inspiration to question powerful hierarchies of traditional societies. The students in three universities in the capital are trying to set up a “Justice Committee for Sabra” by enlisting eminent lawyers, retired judges, professors and independent activists.

The first thing Ahmadzai did in India was confront her husband in front of his first wife and children. But Ahmadzai did not stop there. She also filed a police complaint and challenged the Indian army, meeting with government officials, women’s groups, human rights organizers and student activists. She says her mission is to see her husband, Maj. Chandrashekhar Pant, punished under Indian law prohibiting bigamy.

Pant was stationed at the Indian medical hospital in Kabul and married Ahmadzai two years ago. The ceremony was held 20 days before he returned to India, she said.

He later called Ahmadzai to inform her that he was already married and had two children.

“I had nothing else but anger when I left Kabul. I did not know a single person in India,” said Ahmadzai, her close-set eyes darkening as she recalled her troubles while sitting in the office of the students union of New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“But now so many Indians see my fight as theirs,” she added. “I want him behind the bars of a jail so that no man ever attempts this again with any other woman in the world. My family trusted him. He not only cheated me, but broke their heart, as well. My family has been ostracized in Kabul because of this shame.”

Pant did not respond to multiple text and telephone messages requesting comment and does not have a lawyer representing him publicly.

Ahmadzai carries her nikaah nama, or marriage certificate, and a compact disc of photographs and video clips of her elaborate Kabul wedding, attended by about 700 people. “She is battling the power structures in both Afghanistan and India. She is an inspiration for all of us here,” said Sucheta De, 25, a geography student who is a counselor at the student union. “What we women regard as our personal struggle is often a political struggle against dominant social structures.”

Ahmadzai worked at the Indian hospital in Kabul as a part-time interpreter for the equivalent of US$150 a month, while attending school in the afternoon. She said she had learned Hindi from the popular Bollywood movies in her middle-class home.

Pant, who was her boss, approached her family three times with his marriage proposal, Ahmadzai said. When her mother sent him away because he was not a Muslim, he returned with a priest pledging to convert from Hinduism to Islam, she added.

“I did not love him. He was my boss and twice my age. But the elders and the priest said, ‘We have given our word and cannot take it back,'” she recalled. “He had won their hearts by treating sick children of my relatives, too. They liked him. I followed their wishes obediently.”

Pant changed his name to Himmat Khan, and called her “Cat” in Hindi, she said. But after less than three weeks of married life, she said, Pant told her that the army was sending him back to India and that he would return for her. Ahmadzai said she received three calls in six months and the last one, in the middle of 2007, was an “unimaginable blow.” “He said: ‘Sabra, you are young, beautiful; you should remarry. I have a wife and two sons here in India,'” she recalled.

Then the taunts began. People in Kabul jeered at her. “If I spoke ill about him, it was like slapping my own face. So I kept quiet,” she said. “Women said that I was a stigma on earth and should take poison and die. The local boys harassed me and shouted that they are ready to marry me for 20 days, too. I decided to come to India to confront him.”

She pledged her uncle’s ancestral land for a bank loan, collected her savings and went to India with her mother. From New Delhi, she took a bus to meet Pant in the Himalayan town of Pithoragarh, where he is stationed.

“I told him to come to Kabul and divorce me in front of everybody,” Ahmadzai said. “It is better to be divorced than abandoned in my society.”

Pant refused to accept her or divorce her, offering her money instead, she said. Enraged, Ahmadzai filed a police complaint. Overnight, her cause was adopted by local activist groups. A signature campaign began. Women and students waved placards and protested in support of her, and blocked traffic for five hours demanding that Pant be punished. Ahmadzai addressed the crowds. The city’s newspapers splashed her story on their front pages. Ahmadzai’s mother fell sick and returned to Kabul, but Ahmadzai came to New Delhi and met the home affairs minister and the National Commission for Women.

Earlier this month, Gen. Deepak Kapoor, the Indian army’s chief of staff, told reporters that army officials are looking into Ahmadzai’s allegations.

Pant could face charges of bigamy and changing his religion without the army’s permission, transgressions that could result in expulsion from military service. Under Indian civil law, Pant could face seven to 10 years in prison for bigamy, if convicted, according to Ravinder Singh Garia, Ahmadzai’s attorney in New Delhi.

Ahmadzai’s appointments in New Delhi are now managed by the university students in the sprawling campus that is the font of India’s liberal politics. She communicates with her family daily on Google Talk, sits in on films and debates the Israeli war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Ahmadzai now says that if her case drags on, she may try to enroll in an undergraduate course. “I do not know how long my struggle will go on,” she said. “At least I will have a degree while I wait for justice.”

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