Print edition : December 21, 2007

The story of Smalin Jenita, a victim of alleged marital abuse, points to the perils of rushing into NRI marriages.

in Chennai

Smalin Jenita, after she returned to Chennai by an air ambulance on November 19.-PTI

Smalin Jenita, after

IT is a perfect image of a lived-happily-ever-after couple. In a photograph taken soon after their wedding, Smalin Jenita, draped in a red silk sari and adorned in gold jewellery, smiles beside her husband, Christy Danius, a non-resident Indian (NRI) software engineer. The winsome bride certainly did not expect that a year later she would be battling for life in a hospital in North Carolina, United States, allegedly abandoned by her husband and in-laws.

They tried to murder Smalin. She was being abused for dowry, fumes her father, Sebastian Antonysamy. He says Smalin told him that her mother-in-law, Chellam Xavier, had pushed her from a moving car on July 31, and that Danius, who was driving the car, lost control and the car met with an accident.

According to medical records, Jenita sustained 52 serious injuries on her body and lay for nearly two months in coma owing to brain injury. She was three months pregnant when the accident happened. The 23-year-old showed some signs of life only after her father came to visit her from her home town, Tiruchi, in Tamil Nadu in late September.

Sebastian said Jenita first told him about this attempt to murder in the presence of some doctors at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina a few days before they left for India. He said Jenita alone was injured critically in the accident. Mark Wright, a spokesperson for the medical centre, confirmed this to Frontline. He said that Jenitas in-laws were discharged from the hospital in a week or so.

Sebastian said his family learnt about the accident only from a friend of Danius. We desperately called up our friends living in the U.S. to get information on the hospital and Jenitas health, he said. He alleged that Danius instructed the hospital authorities not to inform Indians about Jenitas health condition. On September 18, Sardar Inamullah, a pathologist working in the hospital, contacted Sebastian, tracing his number from the list of Indian calls the hospital received. Sebastian said, It was Sardar who told me about Smalins critical condition. Thanks to him my child is alive and safe in my custody today.

Inamullah told Frontline over the telephone from the U.S. that he got suspicious about Danius as he was giving false information to the hospital such as wrong names and phone numbers of Jenitas family members in India. For a very long time he never visited her in the hospital and the hospital needed a guardian. Also Christy had kept Jenitas family in the dark about the seriousness of her condition for a very long time, he said.

After reaching the U.S. on September 27, Sebastians immediate concern was to bring Jenita back home, which is why, he says, he did not wait to file police complaints in the U.S. against Danius and his family members. On November 18, he flew her to Chennai in a special air ambulance arranged with the help of the hospital. When they landed in Chennai, Jenitas story drew considerable attention from the media.

Danius, for his part, has denied the allegations. He told Frontline over the phone and through e-mails that the accident happened when he swerved to avoid a car that had emerged in front of him while he was driving from Ohio towards Greenville on the highway Interstate-77. He maintained that Jenita was injured in that accident and that she was not pushed out. He suspected the intentions behind Inamullah making statements against him.

He also rejected the dowry harassment allegation as false and said, It is a 498(a) case that they want to file against me, which is a biased law and has trapped many innocent husbands, especially NRIs. To support his argument, he also sent this reporter a set of case studies conducted by Rakshak, a voluntary network of resident and non-resident Indian men claiming to fight against abuse of dowry laws.

Jenitas family said it relied on information provided by a local marriage bureau while fixing the marriage. It said Danius wooed Jenita over long phone conversations. The girl met him in person only a week before their wedding.

By then, the marriage preparations had been done and we had settled for a payment of Rs.2 lakh in cash and gold worth 62 sovereigns as dowry, said Justin Vasanthraj, Jenitas brother.

He said that even before the wedding Chellam demanded more dowry, saying, How can I settle for anything less for a son who works abroad?

Sebastian said that after the wedding Jenita lived with her in-laws for about six months in India. Separated from her husband who left for the U.S. with his sister within five days of exchanging the vows, the marriage was a bad experience right from the start, her parents said. Jenita was a bright student pursuing an MBA course at Shrimati Indira Gandhi College, Tiruchi, after she graduated in Mathematics with distinction. Her aunt, Sylvia, says that although her parents continued to fund her studies after marriage, Danius, acting upon his elder sisters advice, forced her to discontinue her studies before taking her to the U.S. Jenita moved to the U.S. with her husband in March on a dependant visa.

An Indian friend of Danius living in the U.S. told Frontline that Jenita used to be very quiet when invited to parties and he often wondered why a smart girl like her never mingled with anyone. He also said that Danius often avoided Jenitas calls, which indicated that something was wrong. But he doubted if Danius and his family could go to the extent of throwing her off a car.

Frontline got copies of e-mail correspondences between Jenita and her maternal cousin, Melvin Peter, in India in which she refers to several instances of marital abuse. The messages appear to have been written in a hurry after she shifted to the U.S. This, her parents alleged, was because her in-laws did not allow her to communicate with her family.

In a mail dated May 22, she wrote: She also asked about the another 1 lakh money and shouted. Y r u keeping it in ur house put it in some mutual funds so it shall have its value more. By she Jenita presumably referred to her mother-in-law and the 1 lakh money was perhaps a reference to the dowry demand.

Curiously, Jenita gave instructions via e-mail to her mother on what questions she was supposed to ask while speaking to her over the phone and even listed these questions. She warned her family through the mail that the speaker phone was on and that she cant speak secretly because everyone could hear their conversation.

Also, she constantly reminded the family that my husband is always at their side. She says: They try to find fault in me each day before my hus [husband]. My hus scold me. She also referred in the mail to the domestic drudgery of her life with her in-laws.

Advocate U. Nirmala Rani, Tiruchi district secretary of the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), told Frontline that Jenita narrated to her several details of marital abuse, at the Tiruchi hospital where she was admitted. Jenita is paralysed on the left side of her body and her mouth is twisted out of shape. Nirmala said she spoke with some effort but spoke on her own, without any prompting.

Nirmala Rani said Jenita recalled the events of July 31. She told me that Christy and his mother had hit her hard that morning, unmindful of the fact that she was pregnant. She also said that Chellam fought with her in the car and as it was speeding away she unlocked the door and pushed her out, she said. Nirmala said Jenita explained to her how she tried to adjust and carry on with life as she did not want to bother her parents too much.

JENITA AND DANIUS Christy after their wedding.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

AIDWA has demanded a thorough investigation of the case to establish all the facts. Convinced that Jenita was a victim of marital abuse, Nirmala Rani said she would refer her case to the National Commission for Women (NCW). Sebastian has lodged formal complaints with the Director-General of Police, Chennai, and the Superintendent of Police, Tiruchi Rural, who have promised to take appropriate action.

Frontline was unable to verify information regarding the abandonment of Jenita in the Wake Forest hospital as the patient relations officer concerned declined to share information for concerns of privacy. However, Sebastian pointed to a U.S. court document concerning the appointment of a guardian for Jenita to prove his point. Since Jenita was incompetent as per medical records, the hospital had initiated a procedure to appoint a guardian. Why did Danius not come forward and take up her guardianship if he really cared for my child? The truth is he wanted to wash his hands of her, Sebastian said.

On October 4, Sebastian was appointed guardian for Jenita. Had I not been there, my child would have gone into the custody of the State of North Carolina, he said. Inamullah told Frontline that Danius had called up the hospital saying he did not want to appear in court to take up Jenitas custody.

Though the case awaits a thorough investigation by the appropriate authorities and all the charges levelled against Danius and his family need to be verified, Jenitas story has brought to the fore the need to address problems that arise out of the craze among Indian parents to marry their daughters to a foreign maapillai.

Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi was recently quoted in the media as advising parents not to rush with NRI marriages. The Ministry along with the NCW conducted a National Consultation on Marriages to Overseas Indians in February last year and finalised a guide booklet for women planning to marry overseas Indians in January 2007. This booklet is available at their website (<https://moia.gov.in/showinfo1.asp?linkid=399>).

The step was taken after the Ministry came across several cases of NRI marriages turning sour. Most of these cases pointed to the abandonment of spouses, domestic violence, extra-marital relationships, delays in the system for obtaining visa/immigration, and ex-parte divorces. The problem was found to be particularly high in Punjab and a few other States. The Ministry plans to set up a gender cell under its Social Services division to handle cases of women abused in NRI marriages.

Jenitas case also highlights the perils of suffering in silence. Jenita could have taken recourse to the law. In the U.S. it is as simple as dialling 911 to lodge a complaint. However, Chennai-based advocate Geeta Ramaseshan points out that a woman needs a support system before she decides to embark on a complaint process. The guidance booklet for women points out the risks women face in NRI marriages as they tend to depend on their husbands and live in a foreign land, handicapped by lack of community support systems and an ignorance of the rules regarding women-specific rights.

Geeta Ramaseshan also shared her knowledge gained through 25 years of experience in handling gender-based violence cases:

It is best for women to seek recourse from violence in the country where the harassment is perpetuated. But for some countries like Saudi Arabia with gender discriminatory laws, most countries have hot lines that the woman can dial from her house and the police would come. Accessing such support services is very essential.

If the marriage took place in India and the extended family of the violent spouse is in India, the girl could file a case of dowry harassment, especially since many cases involve economic abuse. However, if the acts of violence are committed elsewhere, the jurisdiction of such crimes become a matter of concern. Further, the husband may never come to India.

With India soon expected to become a member of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, there is some hope. The Conference is an intergovernmental organisation working for the progressive unification of the rules of private international law. Indias membership will ease the legal route to justice in NRI marriage disputes, for once the conventions ratified by the Conference come into effect, court judgments passed in one member-country will become enforceable in others. When someone is found guilty in a case involving marital dispute in one country, other member-countries will be obliged to take appropriate action.

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