In a shocking turn of events, the Indian Embassy in Muscat has said that they could not bring back the minor girl from Hyderabad, who was sold to a 77-year-old Omani national last year, under the guise of 'marriage'.
The marriage was performed in May last year at a guest house in Jalpally, where the Omani national was staying. He returned home after the marriage and sent a visa for the girl, who later joined him in Muscat.
"The Embassy had requested concerned Omani authorities for repatriation of (the minor). They have informed that she has indicated to them in a written statement that she is happy with her husband and does not want to return to India and wishes to continue staying with her husband in Oman," the Embassy said.
This did not go down too well with many on Twitter, who questioned the Embassy's statement.
"Now how is a mere written statement on a piece of paper taken for granted as an evidence for the child being happy with a man who is almost five times her age?" one user asked, requesting the authorities to speak to her in person.
"Husband is elder than her father and a minor who is married to him is staying happy? How is this considered as a marriage in the Indian constitution?" another user asked.
Emb had requested concerned Omani authorities for repatriation of Ms. Ruksarunnisa. They have informed that she has indicated to them in a written statement that she is happy wid her husband n does not want to return to India n wishes to continue staying with her husband in Omanâ€” India in Oman (Embassy of India, Muscat) (@Indemb_Muscat) June 4, 2018
After facing flak, the Embassyâ€™s Twitter handle said, "The Embassy will try and ascertain if (the minor) is willing speak."
Emb will try and ascertain if Ms Ruksarunnisa is willing speak.â€” India in Oman (Embassy of India, Muscat) (@Indemb_Muscat) June 7, 2018
The case came to light in August last year, when the minor's mother lodged a complaint at the Falaknuma police station alleging that her husband, his sister, Ghousia Begum, and brother-in-law, Sikander, "sold" the girl to the Omani man for Rs 5 lakh.
Ghousia and Sikander have since been arrested by the Hyderabad police.
The mother also claimed that the girl informed her parents over the phone, that her husband was mentally and physically torturing her.
An investigation into the case had uncovered a massive nexus, with the Hyderabad police rescuing 12 underaged girls and busting a major racket with the arrest of 20 accused, including eight Arabsâ€”five Omanis and three Qataris.
The well-organised racket involved middlemen in Hyderabad and those based in Gulf countries, who lured poor families with the promise to pull them out of poverty.
The racket continued to thrive with the connivance of the â€˜qazisâ€™ who performed such marriages in violation of all rules and 'agents' who ensured that the minor was trafficked to the needed country with forged documents.
In a major twist, in September last year, a few photos from the 'nikah' surfaced, which showed the parents of the girl at the location, posing for a photograph with the Omani national.
This contradicted the mother's claims that the 'nikah' was done without their knowledge, when they were not present.
Around the same time, the girl alleged to authorities that her parents were greedy for their share of the money from her marriage and filed the complaint due to that.
When contacted, Inspector P Yadagiri from the Falaknuma Police Station said, "We haven't received any such communication from the Embassy in Muscat regarding the girl's statement. The investigation is still underway and is being overseen by the ACP,"
Speaking to TNM, Falaknuma ACP Syed Fiyaz said that the case had become really complicated due to the recent developments.
"We wrote many letters and made several representations. Since the girl is reluctant to return home, we are facing legal hurdles on one hand in the process of repatriation," he said.
"Meanwhile, back home, her parents are also not showing much interest to take the girl back. They want her to stay in Oman. Tradition is taking precedence over law. However, we are still following due procedure," he added.
What does the law say?
The Embassy of India in Muscat has already established that the girl is a minor, as a letter sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sultanate of Oman, cited the girl's primary school records to show that she was born on August 18, 2002.
Child-rights activist and former member of the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), Achyuta Rao, argues that the minor's statement does not come under consideration legally, as she is still below the age of legal consent.
"The 'marriage' in question itself is void and illegal and will be automatically dissolved according to Indian law, as the girl was 16 years old when it took place," he says.
Achyuta says that the Omani national could be tried under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) related to kidnapping, abduction, illegal confinement and even trafficking, which would ensure that he spends the rest of his life in prison.
"In case the relationship was consummated, which I suspect it has been, then Section 376 (Rape) of the IPC and sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) Act would also be applicable," Achyuta says.
The activist also says that the reason that the minor may not want to return, is due to the social stigma that could be associated with the whole issue.
"Even though she is kept there as either a sex slave or to do domestic work, returning back home would be very difficult for her, as she might be ostracized by her locality. She will also have great trouble rebuilding her life," Achyuta added.
The activist demanded the arrest of the Omani national and all others who were involved in trafficking the girl to Muscat along the way.
Amjedullah Khan from the Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT), who was one of the first to highlight the case, says that there was laxity on part of the officials from the beginning.
"It took over one month for the police to even establish that she was a minor. The two accused (brokers) who were arrested have since been released on bail," he says.
Additionally, Amjed also says that by detaining the parents of the girl, the police have done more harm than good.
"While there is mistake on the parent's part, the police booking them resulted in a lot of backlash for them in the community, with their tenants even asking them to vacate. This has also created a sense of fear as parents of other such girls fear coming forward and filing a police complaint," he adds.
The MBT leader also points out that despite the intervention of two Central Ministers, Maneka Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj and the case gathering national attention, there has been no headway.
"Due to the local laws in Oman, the embassy there is very weak and officials can only represent the issue. There is still no clarity on what the girl really wants, as Indian officials have not met her. The Omani national on the other hand is adamant on keeping her in Muscat," Amjed said.
"Despite all this, Indian officials should know the law and work on bringing the minor back. Instead of arresting culprits, they are scaring off those who may have come forward with complaints," he added.