NEW DELHI - For years, Haji Khan - a lanky man in his thirties - moved inconspicuously in the bylanes of Hyderabad’s Old City, scouring the streets for child brides for older men visiting from Gulf states, pocketing about 10,000 rupees ($150) for each girl.
Khan struck two kinds of deals: ‘Pucca’ meant long-term marriages where the girl would fly back with her husband to his home country, and ‘time pass’ marriages that lasted for the duration of the man’s stay in India .
“We lined up 20 to 30 girls for each Arab in a hotel and he would select one. They (the men) gave the rejected girls 200 rupees ($3) to go back home,” said Khan, now a police informer.
“The men came with old, used bridal clothes, soaps and nightgowns for the girl they would marry. Most marriages were ‘time pass’,” Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Police in the southern Indian city, a hub for tech companies, last month busted a racket involving wealthy men from Gulf states such as Oman and Dubai “marrying” teenage Muslim girls in Hyderabad for the duration of their stay in India .
At the time of the marriage, the men signed post-dated divorce documents, to be delivered to the brides after their new husbands had left the country.
The marriages were performed by a Muslim officiant, or qazi, who forged the bride’s age to show her as an adult. The main qazi who performed these marriages in Hyderabad was arrested last month.
“Most of the girls do not know that they will be abandoned within 15 or 20 days of the marriage. The men would come on tourist visas, perform a contract marriage and leave after a month,” said V. Satyanarayana, a deputy commissioner of police in Hyderabad who is investigating the issue.
In the few cases when the young brides did accompany their husbands back to their home country, they were forced into domestic servitude or sexual slavery, police said.
About 30 people including brokers, qazis, prospective bridegrooms from Oman and Qatar and hotel owners were arrested last month and charged with human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, said police officials.
In the crackdown, 14 girls, all under 18, were rescued before they had been married off. Nearly half the brokers arrested were women who had been victims of the crime themselves, police said.
“Contract marriages in this part of Hyderabad have been going on for many years, but it has now become an organized, international trade (of girls), involving agents and qazis from different Indian cities and also the Gulf,” Satyanarayana said.
Girls are easy to source and most marriages are performed after the festival of Eid which agents said is “season time” when tourists from the Gulf visit Hyderabad - which has links to Gulf Arab states dating back centuries.
In the 19th century men from what is now Saudi Arabia and Oman were recruited as soldiers by the Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad - then a princely state in southern India .
Their descendents continue to live in the city and older generations recall “good marriages” of Hyderabadi girls to young Arab men visiting relatives in the city in the 1970s and 80s.
The trend turned into a business in recent years after a qazi was sanctioned by the government to perform “Arab marriages”.
“They think they will see the Burj Khalifa (Dubai’s landmark skyscraper) and live in palatial homes like Atlantis (hotel) if they marry an Arab. They are ignorant of the consequences,” Satyanarayana said.
Growing up in a one-room tenement that she shared with her five siblings and parents, an offer to marry a rich man seemed like the perfect escape for one seventh grader who did not want to reveal her identity.
“I was 14 and our neighbor told us that a rich Arab boy was looking for a bride. We went to meet him. He was not a boy. He was 62,” the girl told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The broker convinced me that my life would change if I married him. I was promised gold, money and a house for my parents. I believed him.”
She was married in a no-frills ceremony to the man who paid her mother 30,000 rupees ($460). He paid another 50,000 rupees to the brokers and the qazi who performed the wedding - his second such “marriage” in five days.
“The girl and the man had already spent a day at a hotel when we rescued her after his first wife, also a teenager, alerted the police,” said Rafia Bano, legal officer with Hyderabad District Child Protection Unit.
Following the marriage, the family moved house - unable to cope with the volley of uncomfortable questions that their neighbors and friends asked them. The girl resumed her studies, is now in the 11th grade and divorced.
In the narrow streets that snake through the bustling Old City of Hyderabad - where the majority of residents are Muslim - there are countless stories of girls married as children, only to be sexually abused and divorced a few days later.
But government data underestimates the problem - Rafia Bano’s office has recorded only seven cases in the last three years - as campaigners and police say a sex tourism industry under the garb of marriage is flourishing.
In interviews with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, agents, qazis and police said brides were offered in “package deals” of 30,000 rupees or more, depending on the marriage duration.
The packages included paperwork for the marriage, such as visa formalities if the bride was flying with her husband, or a hotel booking if it was a short-term stay.
The police have seized blank nikahnamas (marriage certificates) and divorce papers from the offices of qazis who were arrested in Hyderabad and Mumbai.
“They are rich men from the Gulf and they know people are poor in Hyderabad, and girls available. Since they cannot touch a woman outside of marriage, they marry the girl and sign a blank paper for divorce at the time of marriage,” said Qadir Ali, a fourth generation qazi in Hyderabad.
“They are spoiling the name of Islam for their desire.”
Hyderabad - once known for its polished pearls and the famous 16th century monument of Charminar - emerged as a major tech hub in the early 2000s, with Indian firms and global giants including Facebook and Google setting up offices in the city.
But barely 12 miles (20 km) from the city’s shiny IT district are the narrow lanes of the Old City where girls often drop out of school when they reach puberty.
Tabassum, 15, left school to help her mother stick glittering beads on bangles that tourists buy in the bazaar near Charminar, becoming easy prey for marriage agents.
Her mother, Zareena, didn’t think she was harming her daughter when she showed her to an old Omani man for marriage. “We are poor people and I had heard of girls getting married and getting a good life,” she said.
But in a rare act of defiance, Tabassum ran away and the marriage was called off.
“This is a business,” said Jameela Nishat, founder of charity Shaheen that works with victims of contract marriages. “The sale of one girl feeds many families.”
Former agent Haji Khan is familiar with both sides of the business.
“I made 50,000 rupees in one month last year. The money is good. But it is very sad for the girls,” he said.
He knows. His own wife was forced into a contract marriage, and was rescued three years ago by Khan who paid 100,000 rupees for her release. But he continued to source child brides for other Arab men until recently turning police informer.
“It’s the games we play for money,” he said.