Wife Sues In-Laws, Says Arranged Marriage Turned to Slavery

Human trafficking suit claims new bride was denied food and medical care.

ByABC News
January 11, 2012, 4:41 PM

Jan. 24, 2012— -- Diptiben Mistry was a 20-year-old college student in India when she married Himansu Udwadia, then 24, who was working as an accountant in the United States.

Mistry says it was an arranged marriage, common even in Indian-American families, and that she was promised a good life and the opportunity to finish her education in hotel management in India.

But after a brief honeymoon, all those dreams vanished, according to a lawsuit Mistry filed on Jan. 10 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma against her in-laws, Chandrakant and Nilam Udwadia.

Mistry's father-in-law allegedly told her she needed to return immediately to the United States with the family, and the couple eventually settled in the same house as her husband's parents in Elk City, Okla., in 2007.

There, she alleged that the Udwadias controlled her life -- rationing food, depriving her of medical care and forcing her into unpaid labor as a household servant.

In the federal lawsuit Mistry claimed that her in-laws kept her a "virtual prisoner" in their home and that the Udwadias took away all her personal belongings, including her passport, so that she could not leave.

Mistry, now 24, told ABCNews.com in an email that she knew "early on" that her treatment by the Udwadias was "not right."

She alleged that her in-laws took away her cell phone and monitored all calls to her family back home in India.

"They also took all of my personal belongings once we got to the U.S., and kept them from me," she wrote. "But for a long time, I told myself that I had to accept the harsh treatment because I was scared. ..."

Mistry said she became malnourished, losing 26 pounds during the alleged ordeal. The Udwadias even dictated how often she could use the toilet, monitored her every move with a webcam and on several occasions abused her physically, according to the complaint.

"By engaging in modern-day slavery, the defendants committed abhorrent acts condemned in all civilized countries," reads the lawsuit.

Mistry has asked the court for more than $75,000 to compensate her for "forced labor" and for "intense physical and psychological pain and suffering," and most of all, depriving her of her "basic human dignity" during the year she lived in Oklahoma and later in Georgia.

U.S. Justice Department statistics reveal human trafficking is growing nearly as fast as drug trafficking, with 2,525 cases under investigation, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press. More than half the victims are women and children.

"This case is significant because it raises serious allegations of forced labor and human trafficking in a context, within a family, where those claims are rarely brought forward," said Allison Lefrak, litigation director for Human Rights USA, which advocates for women who have been victims of violence or gender-based persecution. The group is handling Mistry's legal case.

Mistry first sought help from Catholic Charities and local human trafficking groups in 2008, and they contacted the Oklahoma City FBI, which investigated her criminal claims, but did not prosecute.

Today Mistry resides in another part of the United States and said she still struggles with depression and anxiety, and at times feels suicidal.

Chandrakant and Nilam Udwadia were served legal papers Jan. 17. They have 30 days to retain a lawyer and answer the complaint.

ABCNews.com repeatedly called the Udwadia family, who now live in Suanee, Ga., to ask about the allegations.

On the first try, Chandrakant Udwadia said, after some hesitation, "You'd be better off calling my lawyer," and hung up the telephone. He did provide the name of a lawyer and did not respond to four more calls. Only an answering machine picked up.

Himansu Udwadia appears to live with his parents, according to public records.

The family still owns the house in Elk City, which is currently up for sale, according to neighbors.

"There's still a sign in the yard," said Jo Grubitz, 87, who still lives on Sunset Circle, and had frequent conversations with the Udwadias. "They told me they were from Canada and had moved here because of their son."

Grubitz said she often saw the younger son, who was in high school at the time, but had never met Himansu Udwadia because "he was in college studying to be an accountant."

As for his wife, Mistry, she said, "I never saw a younger woman."

Mistry told ABCNews.com that a middleman who knew both families had arranged the marriage in India after a 30-minute meeting. Mistry's father runs a photocopy business and her mother does not work. Both parents are college educated.

"My father met Himansu once before the meeting where I met him," Mistry wrote in her email. "He thought that we would make a good match. ... "

The lawsuit alleges that barely a month into the marriage Mistry's husband left the family's Oklahoma home and moved to Georgia to work, leaving her alone with her in-laws.

"I thought my marriage would be like other Indian marriages," she wrote. "I had never heard of a husband and wife living apart. This was definitely not what I expected out of my marriage."

"I knew that we would live in our in-laws' house for some time period," she said. "But I assumed that Himansu would also be living there as well, because he was my husband."

According to the lawsuit, her father-in-law's "control" extended to Mistry and her husband's family plans. "Himansu told Mistry that they would have a baby when Chandrakant told them to," it alleges.

She would not tell ABCNews.com why she had not named him in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Udwadias were able to control Mistry by threatening her with divorce, which in her culture would carry "deep shame" and rejection.

"They hung the shame of divorce over her head and she was afraid she wouldn't be able to show her face in the community," said Lynsay Gott, acting executive director of Human Rights USA.

Mistry's lawyers have alleged violations of a federal human trafficking law that was enacted in 2000 and has a victim's remedy provision, as well as an Oklahoma law that passed in 2005.

They say the lawsuit meets many of the legal criteria of human trafficking: involuntary servitude, misleading statements to induce a victim to enter a situation, threats of deportation, long work hours and restricted access to food and medical care.

"She willingly entered the marriage, but she was under the impression it was going to be a normal marriage," said Gott. "But those promises were reneged quickly."

Mistry alleged that she realized during her visa interview in Mumbai that her in-laws had begun the immigration paperwork long before their son had even met her, evidence that the Udwadias "were looking for any 'bride' that could fulfill a domestic servant role in their household," according to court documents.