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

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

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.

Lawsuit Alleges Bride Worked Dawn to Dusk for In-Laws

According to the lawsuit, Mistry was forced to rise at 5 a.m. to prepare tea and breakfast for her in-laws, then spent the day cleaning the pictures of the Hindi gods, picking flowers for prayer, doing laundry and feeding the dog, working until 11 p.m. every day, even when she was sick.

Mistry alleged both verbal and physical abuse by her father-in-law, claiming he told his son to throw a plate at her head and "let it bleed" if her "cooking was bad." Once, the lawsuit alleges, he threw a glass jar at her head.

Another time, he allegedly injured her hand by pushing Mistry against the dishwasher.

Mistry also said she believed the family had installed video surveillance in both her bedroom and bathroom. She was not allowed to drive, make friends or do anything on her own, she alleged.

She also claimed that her father-in-law refused her treatment for a painful toothache and an infected spider bite. He allegedly attempted to "heal" a rash by rubbing his hands on her stomach twice a day and inappropriately took photos of "private parts" of her body to make a medical diagnosis, according to court documents.

In one instance she alleges her father-in-law entered her bedroom and began touching her. When she screamed, Mistry alleges he told her to go outside where she stood in the cold for 15 to 20 minutes, and he threatened to send her back to India.

Her parents never knew the extent of the alleged abuse, according to Mistry.

"I was able to talk to my parents periodically, but I had to put them on the speaker phone while my in-laws listened," said Mistry. "They told me how I needed to respond to questions from my family."

After seven months, Mistry was sent to Georgia to join her husband, but the control continued, according to the complaint.

Mistry alleged she continued to be monitored at a distance by webcam, and that her husband reported back to his parents. She also alleged she was forced to work at Dairy Queen and had to turn over all her wages to the Udwadias.

In March 2008, she was sent back to India under the false pretense that she could return to school, according to the lawsuit. The divorce was published in Douglasville, Ga., on Aug. 1.

Mistry's parents were "supportive" of their daughter when they learned the truth, according to her lawyers, but she decided to return to the U.S. to confront her husband when he did not return her calls.

She had an uncle living in Clearwater, Fla., and there, Mistry sought help with her visa from Catholic Charities. Social workers there encouraged her to contact human trafficking advocates.

"It was really difficult for her," said Giselle Rodriguez of the Florida Coalition on Human Trafficking, whose group provided Mistry with a place to stay, food and clothing, counseling and schooling.

"When I first met her, she was very lost," said Rodriguez, who served as Mistry's case worker. "They had made her cut her hair off, and she was down to 90 pounds and looked extremely sad."

The Udwadias had filed for divorce from Mistry as a "missing person," according to Rodriguez. "They said they didn't know where she was, and it was hard convincing her the divorce was real."

The lawsuit alleges her father-in-law initiated the divorce.

Before Mistry went back to India, Chandrakant told his son to divorce her or he would sever his relationship with Himansu, alleges the lawsuit. "Himansu resisted his father repeatedly and stated he did not want to divorce his wife," according to court documents.

"She never really saw herself as a victim," said Rodriguez. "She was very confused and wondered what it was she did wrong."

Rodriguez said she contacted the FBI in Oklahoma and involved Det. James McBride of the Clearwater police, who also serves on the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Task Force for Human Trafficking.

"She did initially contact us in November 2008," said Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts. "I don't have any idea what happened with the investigation because it was out of our jurisdiction."

According to Rodriguez, the FBI attempted to file criminal charges, but the U.S. and state attorneys "passed up on the case" because "they didn't know if it would stand in court because of the Hindi customs [in marriage]."

But the FBI granted Mistry a "continued presence" as a refugee in the U.S., she said.

ABCNews.com called Oklahoma City FBI spokesman Clay Simmonds, who said he would try to find more detail in Mistry's case.

"It was disheartening to see," said Rodriguez. "She was feeling hurt and it was tough to work through. She had married a handsome man with an education and a career, but his parents treated her like a piece of crap. ... But she didn't want to give up on her marriage."

To this day, Mistry said she still finds it difficult to trust others. "I am now trying to rebuild my life, but I'm still very much upset by what happened to me," she wrote.

"I thought when I returned to the U.S. that I would be able to talk with Himansu," she wrote to ABCNews.com. "I hoped that he would be able to cut off ties with his parents. I hoped that we could start over and live a life separate from his parents."

Other family members assured her that would be possible, she said. "Ultimately, I now realize that Himansu was not willing to sever ties with his parents."

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