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
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
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
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 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
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
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."