New Delhi: In 2019, I travelled across Haryana to uncover the ugly truth behind the widely prevalent practice of ‘bride-buying’ in the state, and the scarred lives many of its victims live. These women are called ‘Paro’ and ‘mol ki bahuein’ by local residents.
I met several families with such wives. This report was an attempt to explain how the land of ‘Jat, josh and jameen’ resorted to buying brides to meet a shortage of women spawned by the state’s skewed sex ratio.
The existence of these women has been reduced to slogans such as ‘Bahu Dilao, Vote Pao (get us a bride, get votes)’ in election campaigns and cheap local songs. However, these women have their own stories to tell, which have been unheard for several years.
Listening to their stories proved as much a revelation about this ghastly trend, which often draws on trafficked women, as the intricate societal and familial relations in Haryana.
Mewat/Rohtak/Jind: Mehbooba, 70, who lives in the Gohana village of Haryana’s Nuh district, only has vague memories of her maternal home in Mumbai that she left 50 years ago to get married. She has never returned since then.
“To reach my village in Mumbai, you have to change many trains and buses and then travel a long distance on foot. Now, I do not remember the exact route,” she told ThePrint.
“My parents may have died by now, I don’t remember them that well either,” she added.
Mehbooba is one of many such ‘mail-in’ or ‘bought brides’ in Haryana, colloquially known as ‘Paro’ or ‘mol ki bahuein’. Thousands of girls, often underage, are brought to the state from across the country as brides for Haryana’s men.
“A truck driver from Mewat had come to my village. At the time, I was less than 20 years old. That driver selected me as a ‘suitable bride’ for my husband and after that I could never return to my maternal home,” recalled Mehbooba.
ThePrint’s travels to the districts of Mewat, Jind, Rohtak, Sonipat and Mahendragarh revealed that Haryana’s skewed sex ratio has led to the emergence of an elaborate, inter-state network that facilitates the purchase of women from across the country as brides for local men. These girls are primarily bought from states like Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Jharkhand. Some of them are also from Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
“Almost every village in Haryana has 10-12 such daughters-in-law. In the larger villages, this figure is over 200. Such marriages usually take place among Jats, Brahmins, Yadavs and the Rod castes,” said social activist Sunil Jaglan.
Most of the time, a human trafficking network is involved in this ‘transaction’ of brides. According to data released by the Haryana government, in 2016, 30 such cases of human trafficking were registered in the state with 48 others reported in 2017.
Activist Jagmati Sangwan, who has been working on issues related to women for several years, said, “This is not a new trend. It has been going on for the last five decades but the sex ratio in Haryana has worsened in the last 30 years and this has led to an increase in this practice. Even if we somehow manage to improve the ratio, its outcome will only be visible in the next 20 years. Till that time, this practice will continue.”
According to the 2011 Census, Haryana recorded the worst sex ratio in the country — for every 1,000 boys there were only 830 girls in the state.
“The Haryana government and women’s commission should spread greater awareness at the anganwadi level so that assistance can be provided to these daughters-in-law who are pushed into forced labour in fields and also face domestic violence in their homes,” added Sangwan.
Dependent on husbands, many suffer domestic abuse
Most of these marriages emerge out of mutual necessity. The men in Haryana need a wife to continue their lineage, look after household chores and act as a helping hand in the fields. The families of these brides, meanwhile, are impoverished and incapable of paying dowry to marry their daughters.
“There are at least 100-150 boys in every village who are not considered fit to suit the criteria set by the so-called ‘marriage market’. For example, someone who has no land, no government job, someone who is physically challenged or is not perceived as ‘fair’. These single boys travel to other parts of the country in order to find brides for themselves,” Sangwan told ThePrint.
Somi Das, an 18-year-old woman from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district, was married to 33-year-old Sandeep Singh, who is physically challenged, in 2018. Singh, who is a resident of Ahirka village in Jind, made all the arrangements for their wedding.
Das is completely dependent on her husband because she is yet to properly learn Haryanvi. She was barely able to answer questions posed to her and could do so only with help from Singh, who was all praise for his wife: “She is very clever. She learnt all the things soon after her arrival.”
However, not many of these women are properly accepted into the families they enter.
Sushila, a mother of four daughters from the Gohana village in Mewat, said she faces a constant volley of verbal abuse from her family for not delivering a son.
She was brought to Mewat from Jharkhand several years ago and the abuse she is subjected to is often heard by her neighbours. When she spoke to ThePrint, she was fearful of her father-in-law and narrated her story in hushed tones.
“I did not know that this is my husband’s second marriage. I was told that I won’t have to work anymore. But now I have to do all kinds of work, from ferrying bricks from kilns to raising the mules. On several occasions, I dozed off while working and the bricks fell on my feet. My hands were also wounded,” she said.
Unlike many others, Sushila is allowed to visit her maternal home in Jharkhand and has done so three times.
“These brides are sometimes referred to as ‘Paro’, sometimes they are called ‘Mol li gayi bahu‘ or sometimes as ‘Biharan’. In a way, all this colloquialism implies that they are ‘lesser brides’ for ‘lesser men’. When the children of such couples grow up and attend school, they too have to face discrimination there,” said Sangwan.
In their conversations with ThePrint, several women accepted that the native women of their village ridiculed their colour, figure and dialect.
“In cases of domestic violence these women find themselves completely alone. There is no way for them to go to police, nor can they return to their maternal homes,” said Paro Mishra, assistant professor of social sciences at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi.
These marriages are facilitated by a number of middlemen, often married to such women themselves, who receive a considerable commission for their services.
Sushila revealed that a middleman, Zubair, earned a commission of Rs 10,000 from her husband when she got married.
Zubair’s wife, Rizwana, is also a ‘Paro’ from Jharkhand. While Rizwana denied receiving any commission for arranging the marriage, she said, “I have told her (Sushila) on many occasions to run away. But she refuses to go and keeps getting thrashed.”
According to Professor Mishra, “Usually, a Paro and her husband start acting as agents. Mostly these daughters find poor girls in their own areas and bring them here for weddings. They should be referred to as trans-regional marriages.”
A broker from Barsaula village, who wished to remain unnamed, said he sourced “marriageable girls” from his wife’s village.
“I was also married to a girl of Nepali origin. After that, I arranged the weddings of 4-5 boys from my village. My wife’s family has settled in a village in Himachal. I travel there with my wife regularly to look for girls from poor families. I tell the families of single boys about them and also manage to earn a little bit of commission,” he added.
The rise of social media and internet services in this region have made this network more efficient.
“Nowadays, most people arrange marriages through labourers coming from Bihar, UP and Himachal. The more migration for employment and the reach of the internet increases, the more things become easier,” said another middleman from the village Ahirka.
A large part of this practice is the need for an heir to continue the family’s lineage. And often, these women are second wives to much older men.
Khusboo, who was brought from Bihar’s Sasaram, said, “My husband had no son from his first marriage. So I was brought to Mewat. Now, I work in the fields.”
Khaps accept inter-caste marriages
An interesting aspect of such marriages is that most of them are inter-caste unions, many of them involving Dalit brides and upper-caste grooms.
Haryana’s infamous khap panchayats, which have often denounced inter-caste marriage, have also accepted this practice in a desperate bid to continue their family lines.
Sathbir Pahalwan, chief of Jind’s Barsaula khap, said, “Khap is not against girls being brought from other states. Those who are brought to our house become one of us. If someone comes to a Jat household, then she becomes a Jatni. Similarly, if someone is brought to the house of a Harijan, then she becomes one of the Harijans. We have an issue with weddings within the same gotra.”
The head of the Guhana village in Mewat, who wished to remain anonymous, also noted that the sex ratio has improved due to these ‘mail-in’ brides.
“The deteriorating sex ratio had further boosted this trend. The state government now claims that the sex ratio of Haryana has increased from 830 to 914 in 2018-19,” he said.
Several village panchayats believe that this practice made their children “true Indians” because their “Haryanvi genes” were being altered by daughters-in-law from other states. However, the children of these children are rarely allowed to visit their maternal grandparents’ homes in Assam, Tamil Nadu or Bihar, say activists.
There are also concerns about this change in the gene pool, but Sanjay, a villager from the Jind district, said “a human being is ultimately identified by his karma (deed)”.
‘Bahu dilao, vote pao’ — bride buying for election campaigns
This social issue has also become a pertinent political one in Haryana.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, unmarried boys from Jind district formed a ‘Randa’ Union or ‘Union of Bachelor Boys’, whose slogan was “Bahu dilao, vote pao (get us a bride, get votes)”.
Several local leaders, during election campaigns, promise to bring in more such brides.
In August 2019, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar stoked a controversy for a remark stating that people were saying they will bring girls from Kashmir as brides after Article 370 was revoked in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Our Minister O.P. Dhankar used to say that he will have to bring daughters-in-law from Bihar. People nowadays have started saying the route to Kashmir is cleared and now we will bring girls from Kashmir,” said Khattar during a programme for the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign.
According to Jaglan, who started the ‘Selfie with Daughter’ campaign, the government has to do a lot more to make life better for these women.
“The government should try to make marriage registration mandatory so that these women get a dignified life. We had even raised this issue during the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress had added it to its manifesto. The girls who are brought to Haryana are mostly illiterate or semi-literate girls of an early age. None of them has a marriage certificate, nor do they have any information about local police stations or their own rights,” he said.
In 2015, the Modi government launched the ‘Swadhar Greh’ scheme, which was aimed at rehabilitating poor and at-risk women.
However, according to Ashwin Shanvi, Superintendent of Police from the Hisar district, very few women avail the benefits of the scheme.
“The number of women seeking assistance under this scheme is very low. However, whenever such a case gets registered, we treat it with utmost sensitivity because they have to present their case on their own. There is no one in the family to support them,” Shanvi told ThePrint.
Brijendra Singh, BJP MP from Hisar, said, “You cannot link the skewed sex ratio of Haryana with marriages happening outside the region. The Khattar government has taken several steps to rectify the situation and its positive results are before all of us.”
In popular Haryanvi culture
References to ‘Paro’ wives have gradually made their way into songs, traditional ragnis — folk songs of Haryana — and jokes as well.
A prevalent joke in the region is that a murrah buffalo may cost anything between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh but a daughter-in-law can be bought for Rs 40,000.
A local song titled ‘Bahu Le Aao Mol Ki’, which first came out in 2015, highlights how these ‘mol ki bahuein’ are viewed in the region.
A loose translation of the song is as follows:
“Just arrange for Rs 30,000-35,000 grands and buy a bride. All you have to do is go for a Bihar, Assam train ride.
It’s just a one-time deal with no frequent visits. It’s inexpensive with no pressure to arrange a DJ or a music band.”
This report was originally published on 17 August 2019.