Until recently, Hyderabad was hotspot for a disturbing form of sexual tourism, practiced mainly by visitors from Islamic countries, especially in the Arab world.
Seeking a short-term liaison, but wanting not to violate religious prohibitions against adultery, such visitors enter into brief, arranged marriages for a fee – often with girls young enough to be their granddaughters.
"In 90% of cases the women are as young as 15 and 80% of the time they are divorced within a week of the wedding ceremony," Bina Hassan, a women rights activist who has campaigned against this practice for years, told Khabar South Asia. "In rare cases the same girl is married numerous times, [though] usually the Arabs look for only virgins."
Many people have benefitted from such arrangements. The men can claim that they had not sinned according to Islam, which permits polygamy. Meanwhile, financial proceeds go to the girls' families, the agents who negotiate the deals, and the qazis (priests) who officiate.
For the brides, however, the results can be grim. After being deserted by their temporary husbands, they often find themselves without a home to return to. Their parents feel a sense of social stigma and want nothing to do with them. A real marriage is out of reach.
Community moves to end practice
Over the past two years, the Muslim community in Hyderabad has worked together with the government in order to halt such marriages and better protect local women. The results have been impressive. In 2012, only two such weddings were reported – compared to 58 during 2011.
Elders on the state Waqf Board played an instrumental role, government sources say.
"These weddings have been going on for decades, but no steps had been taken. The government decided to work through the Waqf Board because merely banning these weddings would not have produced any result. We needed the co-operation of the Muslim population," Andhra Pradesh Minister for Minorities Welfare Mohammed Ahmadullah told Khabar.
Waqf Board chairman Mohammad Saleem said one incident in particular galvanized opinion. "The straw that broke the camel's back was an incident in May 2012 in which a 73-year-old United Arab Emirates national became the centre of public ire when he tried to desert his bride of two days," he told Khabar.
According to journalist Omer Farooq, "the issue is quite dead now. The racket no longer flourishes."
Poverty cited as underlying cause
The grim economic picture for Muslims residing in Hyderabad's old-city quarter provides a context for the proliferation of dubious marriages. Packed into a medieval walled city, residents have the lowest literacy rate for women and a per capita income far lower than the Andhra Pradesh average of Rs. 71,540 ($1319).
The computer software industry – which gave the city its new nickname of "Cyberabad" – has had little impact on the urban Muslim community. "It's a ghetto, where people live in grimy conditions without access to even running water," Waqf Board general secretary Rumaan Idris Ali told Khabar.
For some families caught up in such dire conditions, black market weddings appeared to provide a way out.
In one case, according to assistant commissioner of police S.K. Rao, a 14-year-old girl (name withheld) was married in 2008 to three different men, all of them as old as her grandfather.
"The girl was pretty and looked older than her real age. Today she works as a construction labourer in some other city," Rao told Khabar. "We were helpless because her family was supporting these marriages."
Mussrath, 16, was married to a man in his 50s but dumped after three days in a local hotel. Her father then fixed her marriage to 70-year-old man, Rashid Ali, from Dubai. "She was taken to the same hotel, used and divorced," Rao said.
Mussrath's father found a third groom – 63-year-old Ahdul Rehman Abdullah from Oman – before her mother alerted the police.
Stories like this are becoming far less common, Waqf Board general secretary Ali said. Thanks to community vigilance, he said, young girls are no longer preyed on by racketeers.
But the discarded wives require rehabilitation. "They lack the means to put up legal fights. So the government must take up their cases," he said.
Racket moves to Mumbai
While sham marriages are becoming a thing of the past in Hyderabad, the problem is far from being resolved in India as a whole, authorities say. Rather, racketeers have simply moved their operations to other locations.
Mumbai, in particular, appears to be the new destination of choice for "grooms" seeking a no-strings-attached wedding.
The city's police on December 28th cracked an operation involving agents that brought young girls from Hyderabad to take advantage of the unreformed situation in Mumbai. In the suburb of Dongri, police rescued 12 girls – some as young as 13 – who were being paraded before Arabs by agents who had brought them in by overnight train.
"The girls were promised Rs. 200,000 ($3,700), out of which the agents would keep half," Assistant Police Commissioner (Women's Cell) Savithri Waslankar told Khabar. "Their aim was to have as many weddings as possible in the span of a few weeks so that they could make enough money to return home."