Sonu Kumar was in perfect bliss, enjoying a break from his job as a clerk with the Indian army, when things suddenly went horribly wrong.
On his way to the railway station in India's eastern Bihar state to buy his return ticket to work, he was abducted by four armed masked men and bundled into a waiting car that whisked him away.
He was shocked and shaken by the unexpected turn of events. But more unexpected surprises were in store for him. Unlike kidnappers who normally extract ransom, his tormentors made an unusual demand: marry a girl waiting patiently at a decorated venue in Saharsa village.
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Sonu had little choice. He married the girl, as was demanded of him. "Once the marriage ceremony was over, the girl’s family was assured that there was no escape route for me," he says. Whoever said marriages were made in heaven was wrong. For Sonu, it was a nightmare.
Hundreds of others like him are pushed into such nightmares annually in Bihar at gunpoint. Locally known as pakadwa shaadi (marriage by kidnap), the state recorded 2,529 of them in 2013, compared to 1,337 in 2009.
Anand Kumar Singh, the police chief of Madhepura district, admits that such kidnappings of potential grooms happen at regular intervals. "It is mainly prevalent among Bhumihars and Yadavas castes," he says.
Not long ago, Bihar with its back-breaking poverty, wretched infrastructure, poor literacy and endemic corruption, had acquired notoriety within the country as a basket case. Its records have improved somewhat in recent years, but the province still ranks as one of the poorest in the country.
It also remains a fertile ground for social evils like caste discrimination and dowry - where a bride's family has to pay a large amount of cash to the groom's family at the time of marriage. Not everyone in such a poor region can afford the exorbitant dowry, and with pressure mounting to arrange matches for their daughters, many opt for the pakadwa shaadi.
Skewed gender ratio
Bihar also has a skewed sex ratio. According to the 2011 census, there were just 751 girls for every 1000 boys in Bihar.
Yet, Pakadwa Shaadi remains an easy option for many and Randhir Kumar, 18, of Bakhtiyarpur district found himself ensnared by it one fateful evening of 2010. He was returning home from tuition when he was abducted and taken straight to a temple and married off to a girl he had never met before.
"After the ceremony, I was taken to the girl's village and told if I ever try to harm or abandon the girl, they will wipe off my whole family. I was shell-shocked and didn’t know how to react to the event that had changed my life forever," he says.
The newly married couple, however, did not live happily ever after.
Both Randhir and his parents were livid. Following police intervention, his abductors were arrested and finally, the marriage was annulled. Randhir says he has married a girl of his choice and has been leading a happy life since.
Sociologists say forced marriages are increasingly losing out on social acceptance.
Pradip Kumar Jha, a social scientist from Madhepura, says people are becoming aware of the consequences of groom kidnapping. A majority of such marriages during the past decade have collapsed with the brides being abandoned and the abductors arrested.
"Also, most of the gangs which accepted assignments from the girl’s family, have found dignified ways to earn a living - as contract-teachers or other state-sponsored contractual jobs. I think better policing and employment opportunities have helped many people come out of the quagmire of crime," says Jha.
Thousands of unemployed youngsters in Bihar have in recent years found jobs as teaching assistants under a government scheme.
Shaibal Gupta, a sociologist based in Bihar's provincial capital, Patna, agrees that groom kidnappings are declining, though the number of reported cases have gone up in the past five years, primarily because of increased awareness and greater reporting.
"Pakadwa shaadi was rampant in Bihar, particularly in the Bhumihar caste, a decade ago. With power changing hands, things have changed for the good. Since the state machinery has started functioning, more and more people are registering cases against the groom kidnappers," says Gupta.
But surprisingly, not everyone is complaining about the phenomenon largely viewed as a scourge.
Building a life
Brahmanand Jha, 47, of Srinagar in Purnia district, who was abducted and forced to marry under similar sinister circumstances, is one. He is still with Munni Devi, his wife for 25 years. The couple has five children.
"After initial hiccups and bitterness, my in-laws accepted me whole-heartedly. Since then we have managed to sail through all the hurdles of life together," Munni Devi says.
Until the society changes its mindset, malpractices like pakadwa shaadi will continue to recur and ruin lives of our boys and girls.
Manoj Shah is another man who overcame his initial disappointment and found bliss. He too was kidnapped and forced to marry Ganga Devi some 20 years ago. They are still together. "Once the marriage ceremony was over, I saw the face of my bride and fell in love with her at first glance. Today, I am a proud father of four children, have married off my eldest daughter and am managing to put others through school. She completes me and complements our union," he says.
But such happy endings remain more of an exception.
There have also been a few odd cases where armed gangs hired to kidnap a particular groom have abducted another by mistake. Everyone including the girl's family and the groom have ended up equally unhappy.
Dharmshila Prasad, the head of sociology department at Patna University, says pakadwa shaadis remain a blot on Bihar.
"Until the society changes its mindset, malpractices like pakadwa shaadi will continue to recur and ruin lives of our boys and girls."
Despite having found the perfect match for themselves, even Brahmanand Jha and his wife Munni Devi agree that pakadwa shaadis are evil. "The society should get rid of it as soon as possible," says Jha.
"It should never happen. Every person should be given the opportunity to select his or her partner, it should not be forced on them," his wife Munni Devi adds.