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Love in a time of TV hysteria -
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Indian soldier Arif Mohammed spent five years in a Pakistani prison, during which time his wife remarried, believing he was dead. But then he returned. Strict sharia law was to decide whose wife she was until a TV channel - and the whole nation - got involved.

Randeep Ramesh, Tuesday October 19, 2004, The Guardian

Far from the sickly-sweet smell of his home in India's northern sugar belt, sapper Arif Mohammed trudged through the snow of the Siachen Glacier, just a few months after the world had come close to a nuclear exchange on the world's highest battlefield.

It was September 1999 and Arif, a soldier in the Indian army's 108 Engineering Regiment, had not seen much action when Indian and Pakistani troops had fought over the ice-tipped peaks and frozen wastes of the Himalayas that summer. Just married to his teenage bride, Gudiya, Arif's thoughts were of love, not war. But for the next five years, Arif would not see his wife or his village, or even the craggy ranges of Kashmir that he once patrolled.

Inadvertently straying over the border into Pakistan, Arif was captured and held in prison for half a decade. What happened when he returned last month, to find his wife not only eight months' pregnant but married to another man, has gripped India and cast a harsh light on hitherto private affairs.

Filling television screens and newspaper columns, the travails of the Mohammed family have been picked over and consumed by an Indian public rarely exposed to the intimacies of married life, let alone those of a poor, conservative Muslim couple.

After Arif was detained that September, and while he stared at the bare brick walls of his small, windowless cell in Pakistan, his 16-year-old bride was pining for her missing husband. But as days became weeks and weeks became months, the thought of becoming a "half-widow" gnawed away at Gudiya. She began to spend more time with her mother and father.

"There was a decision in my family that Arif was gone," she says. "I could not go on alone, so it was decided that I should remarry. I still loved Arif and remembered him and thought about him. I waited for four years."

Soon Gudiya met a another man, Taufiq. "Taufiq cared for me and I began to be slowly involved with him. I had to go on with my life and that meant slowly trying to forget Arif. You cannot have two husbands. Life is not a game."

Gudiya decided to annul the marriage. This should have been a mere formality since sharia law, which has governed the life of Muslims in India since the days of the British Raj, allows for the dissolution of a union after four years. But rather than taking the case to the sharia courts, Gudiya and Arif's marriage was declared over by a village priest. This was her first mistake. While the local imam has authority over many areas, his writ does not run to dissolving the union between man and wife.

Unbeknown to Arif, his difficulties were multiplying. Not only had his family given up on him and his wife left him for another man, but his country had abandoned him; the Indian army formally declared him a "deserter".

"I spent my days and nights thinking of going home to see my family and my wife, that is what kept me alive," says Arif, sitting in the courtyard of his home in the village of Mundali, 120km from Delhi.

Arif says that he only found out about his wife's new life from his sister-in-law when he first returned across the border last month, the event captured on camera, just as the past month of his life has been. Dressed in a light blue sherwani, the traditional dress of Pakistan's Punjab province, and surrounded by the khaki uniforms of Indian officers, Arif waved, smiled and then broke down sobbing in the arms of his brother, Abdul Hamid, and sister-in-law, Sanjida. "I was happy to be back in my country. I was alive again," says Arif. Soon, however, the mood changed. Gudiya was not there. Hope became dread in Arif's mind.

"I was worried then because I had not been able to see or speak to Gudiya. I then found out she was with a child. It was hard, yes."

Arif could not come home immediately. He had to be debriefed by the Indian army, which makes the 29-year-old very cautious when talking about his "stay" in Pakistan. In the celebration and confusion of his eventual homecoming, the question over what to do about his marriage lay unanswered.

There were lengthy discussions between the three families involved. Religious leaders were called in and a village council hastily convened.

A two-hour meeting between Arif and Gudiya - the first time that they had been alone together since his return home - convinced Arif they could be happy together. "I asked her if she loved me still. She said she could and I knew then that we could make this marriage again," he says. "Gudiya had waited for four years but there was pressure from family and village to remarry."

The problem was that while Arif wanted his wife back, he did not want to raise the child she is expecting. "Gudiya told me that if I did not accept the child, she would not come back to me."

To make matters worse, Taufiq, the second husband, also said that he did not want to give up his new family.

Caught between two lifes and two loves, a heavily pregnant Gudiya at first said that she wanted to be with her second husband, then said she would go back to her first spouse, only to recant both statements.

Because the first marriage had not been annulled, the issue still had to be decided under sharia law by Islamic judges, or ulema . Usually, this would be considered an intensely private affair, but instead it became public property, thanks to the country's burgeoning rolling news networks.

One in particular, Zee News, took great interest in the story and created a show the like of which had never been seen on Indian television before. Gudiya, her two husbands and the village elders were persuaded to appear in a studio in the presence of Islamic scholars, to make a decision on which husband to stay with and what to do with the child.

The programme was an immediate sensation. With questions flashing up on the screen, such as "Whose Gudiya?" and "What kind of relationship?", viewers were encouraged to ring in with questions for the guests. While this treatment may be a mainstay of British day-time television, India's billion plus population has rarely been exposed to the kind of voyeuristic thrills that shows such as Jerry Springer or Oprah have brought to the west.

The programme lasted seven hours and moved from drama to farce. Burning with fever, Gudiya spoke from beneath the folds of an orange duppatta to say that she was not "above the sharia" and that she would abide by whatever decision was arrived at.

The mock village council, or panchayat , decided that Gudiya would return to Arif and that the child would be raised in his house for a few years. The decision, which was attributed to Gudiya but was heavily influenced by the priesthood, was unsurprisingly popular with community leaders.

A bearded Islamic scholar, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, broke down in tears at the end of the programme saying that he, "had not thought how important a role television can play for society".

Taufiq, having lost both a wife and his child, looked dumbstruck and since the programme has disappeared from public view. His father rushed out of the studio and demanded half a million rupees (£6,000) in compensation.

Arif and Gudiya, meanwhile, have gone back to his home in Mundali. While they appear reconciled, there are still issues over what will happen to the new addition to their family. Although he beams for photographs, Arif still says that the child his wife is expecting is his erstwhile rival's. He looks blank when questioned about what happens after the child is born, saying that, "If Gudiya wants to keep the kid herself then I have no problem. The ulema said it is Taufiq's child. So it is right for it to go back to him."

Sitting in a cool, dark room, Gudiya shifts uncomfortably under the weight of her belly. The 21-year-old speaks slowly and without much feeling. "I do not know what the fate of the baby will be. Please do not ask me about its future. Who knows if it will live?" It is hardly a vote of confidence in the new baby's future.

When asked about such dire musings, Arif says that his wife is ill and that he will look after her. After all, he points out, he has five years' pay to collect. He has plans to build a "double-storey home" in the village. "There is a lot I want to do. I want to go back to my unit and serve my country. But I will be taking my wife with me this time."

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