KOLKATA // When Sabra Ahmedzai, a young Afghan woman, married an Indian army doctor in Kabul two years ago, the last thing she expected was to discover her new husband not only had a wife and children but would later deny he and Ms Ahmedzai had ever got married. Only two weeks after their wedding, Ms Ahmedzai's husband, Dr Chadrasekhar Pant, abruptly left Afghanistan for India on what he said was an "official order", only to phone her six months later saying he had a wife and two children and the two could never see each other again.
In November, 18 months later, the 21-year-old Afghan arrived in India and has vowed to remain until she gets justice, garnering significant publicity in the process, galvanising the support of women's rights activists and the public and embarrassing the army. "The man has cheated two women - his Indian wife and then his Afghan wife. It is shocking to find an army officer caught in this irresponsible behaviour and act of deceit," said Shabnam Hashmi, a human rights activist.
"But, we, as responsible Indians, must join [Ms Ahmedzai] in her fight and see that she is not denied justice." Indian television last week broadcast clips from the video of the couple's traditional Afghan wedding, showing them signing marriage documents, holding hands, embracing and posing for cameras. The footage has added weight to the complaint Ms Ahmedzai has filed with police in northern Uttarakhand state's Pithoragarh town, who have charged Dr Pant with "bigamy, hiding crucial facts before marrying the complainant and misleading her".
Dr Pant is working at an army hospital in the area. Ms Ahmedzai said she was overwhelmed with the support she has received in India. New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union has taken the lead role in offering support to Ms Ahmedzai, including providing her with accommodation. Mohammad Mobeen Alam, the joint secretary of JNUSU, said the incident raised questions about the conduct of the Indian army.
"It surprises us that an Indian army official on a sensitive assignment in Kabul married a foreign girl and Indian military intelligence did not know about it. [Dr Pant] has dented the image of the armed forces and our nation. We shall not rest until we see [him] punished." The story began in 2006 when Ms Ahmedzai, who had just finished high school and spoke fluent Hindi, became Dr Pant's translator at the Indian Medical Mission in Kabul. The 38-year-old Hindu doctor fell in love with Ms Ahmedzai, a Muslim, then 19, and proposed to her.
Dr Pant approached the girl's family three times asking for her hand in marriage but was refused because he was not Muslim, before offering to convert to Islam, which they eventually accepted. At the wedding, however, no one from Dr Pant's family was present because, according to him, his parents could not accept their son changing religion. "Now I know that simply because he had a wife and children in India, he was keeping [his family] in the dark from our marriage," Ms Ahmedzai said.
She said after getting married the couple lived together in Kabul for two weeks before Dr Pant suddenly returned to India. He "said he would be back on assignment in Kabul again after one year. I loved him and I eagerly waited to be with him. "But six months after he had left Afghanistan, he shocked us with a phone call saying that he had a wife and two children from before he met me and could no longer accept me as his wife."
Since arriving in India in November with her mother, who has in the meantime returned to Afghanistan because of an illness, Ms Ahmedzai has worked tirelessly for a settlement with her husband. The situation, she said, was causing her and her family problems back in Kabul, where conservative social customs can lead to the ostracisation or worse of women who are deemed to conduct shameful relationships.
Ms Ahmedzai shocked her husband last month when she tracked him down in Pithoragarh. There she offered him several proposals to resolve the situation, including the possibility of her moving in with his family as his second wife, or his bringing the family back to Kabul where they could all live together. Otherwise, she asked that he come to Kabul to divorce her in front of the marriage register, "to save the face of our family in Afghanistan".
"But he just offered me money and asked me to go back to Afghanistan," she said. "I told him that neither my love nor my forgiveness could be bought with money. He is a cheat. I want to see him punished." Legal experts said Dr Pant was not willing to sign divorce documents because it would prove that he entered bigamy and changed his religion without informing the Indian army authority, both of which were illegal in the army.
The Indian army's director general of medical services, Lt Gen N K Parmar, said if the allegations against Dr Pant were found to be true, the army will take action against the doctor in addition to whatever the police do. But Ms Ahmedzai said no punishment could compensate for her heartache. "I hate him now because he has told his office and the media that he never married me. I don't want him as my husband any more - I just want a divorce."