Widows of Banaras and Vrindavan
HER bangles have been smashed, the bindi on the forehead smeared, perhaps the head is tonsured, and her garments are white. She is often ostracized, shattered, abandoned!
She is a widow.
Fortune frowned upon her even as she was a young bride or turned its back on her in the middle age and often enough during the dusk of her life. Surrounded by a social stigma her family may consider her an ill omen and a burden. She is forbidden participation in any auspicious events. Her life is colorless, her food spices less and the emotional and psychological scars run deep.
Economically dependent – she succumbs to the injustice of society without a word but her grief stricken eyes seem to question, “why am I being shunned, what wrong have I committed”?
Yet a mother’s love is undying and Jpanne Harris has said it beautifully, “Children are knives. They don’t mean to, but they cut. And yet we cling to them, don’t we, we clasp them until the blood flows.”
Many a widow is abandoned especially in rural and urban India and they flock in their thousands to the holy cities of Vrindavan and Banaras. They seek their spiritual salvation as they live in the hope to die. Their parched lips mumble the prayers even as the younger ones remain dead silent about the abuse and exploitation some undergo just to manage a square meal.
They never challenged their fate due to lack of education and the absence of legal aid. Widowhood in India can be a lifelong punishment particularly because of the impunity of those who abandon their widowed mothers and mother-in-law.
To attract the attention of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their enormous sufferings and hardships, the destitute mothers – the widows – who have been deserted by their family members soon after the death of their husbands, launched a coffee-table book INDIA’S “ABANDONED” MOTHERS: WIDOWS OF BANARAS AND VRINDAVAN” in the national capital and urged the Prime Minister to bring a Bill in the Parliament and enact laws and protect the neglected, abandoned and destitute mothers of Kashi, Prayag, Banaras, Vrindavan, Mathura and other parts of the country.
They also pleaded the Prime Minister, whose father Damodardas Mulchand Modi died in 1989 leaving behind his widow Heeraben Modi and children, including Narendra Modi, to enact ‘strict laws’ against the wards and children of those widows who were deserted, abandoned to prevent the menace in future. The book is dedicated to the Prime Minister also.
Sulabh International Social Service Organisation’s founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, who was the chief guest on this occation, said that they are also consulting experts, lawyers and judges to ask the government to pass a Bill for these widows shunned by their families. The Bill will seek to establish welfare board by the state for the welfare of the neglected, abandoned and destitute women,” said adding “our primary concern was to change the mindset, behavior and attitude of the people and their family members towards the widows in general. They faced humiliation and insult from the family and society, which often treated the widowhood inauspicious.”
The book, sixth in the series of “Aandolan:Ek Pustak Se” was penned by India’s Correspondent of Special Broadcasting Service (SBS Radio), Sydney, Australia Shivnath Jha and his educationist wife Ms Neena Jha.
Mr Jha said that “how irony is that there are over four dozen Acts and laws, including Indian Penal Code for the protection of women and girls, there is hardly any one concrete law for the protection and welfare of the widows in general and destitute widows in particular”.
He further said “on the death of a man, the heirs immediately clamor for partition of the property, even the dwelling house; but in such a situation the widow is often left homeless, or dependent on the son. It seems, in the patriarchal society, women are second class citizens and widows third class,” adding “it is estimated that between 2003 and 2014, more than 5000 widows were killed after being branded as witches.”
In India, there are millions of such ‘unfortunate women’ who lose their husbands untimely, and become widows. Most of them are old, infirm, disabled and no source of livelihood. There position becomes miserable if they have dependent children. When a widow does not have any permanent source of income or livelihood, she is driven out of her in-law’s home or even from her permanent home. Many such widows can be seen begging in the streets and public places all over the country. They are termed as ‘witches’ and tortured even by their own kith and kin and others. They are treated as bad and unholy women by the society.
In 2011, following a newspaper report about the plight of abandoned and destitute women, particularly widows, who take shelter in Vrindavan, the National Legal Services Authorities (NALSA) had filed a social justice litigation before the Supreme Court for ameliorating the pitiable condition of these women and directed the District Legal Services Authority of Mathura to conduct a survey of these destitute mothers.
The survey revealed that “the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, were disposed by chopping them into pieces and putting them in gunny bags on the plea of lack of money for their proper cremation.”
A year later, taking a strong note to the manner in which the bodies of destitute mothers were disposed in the shelters, the apex court asked the NALSA to contact the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation to find out whether they could come forward to help the 1,780-odd widows living the shelters. It also requested the Sulabh ‘to consider this matter in the most benevolent manner and explore the possibility to render relief and substance, including food, medicals and last rites for these destitute women living in the government shelters.’
For want of adequate money, most of these widows were surviving with tea, biscuits and some snacks only. The incumbents do have their ration cards, however, the aged and their sickness, these women who were entrusted with cooking the food find it very difficult to do. Majority of them were suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes and other perennial health problems.
Sulabh has so far adopted over 2000 destitute mothers of Vrindavan and Varanasi – including the widows of Uttarakhand whose husbands were washed away during the devastating floods – by ensuring Rs 2000 monthly, besides a series of other welfare measures including over dozen ambulances, refrigerators, power-back ups, vocational training centres, TV sets and others.
Expressing his gratitude to the author, Dr Pathak said, “Ours is a welfare state. It is the foremost duty of the state to initiate welfare measures, protect them and provide maintenance to them so fat they can live with dignity and honour.”
Ten years ago Shivnath and Neena had launched the movement “Andolan:Ek Pustak Se” to identify, locate and provide a dignified, if not luxurious, life to the bloodlines and descendants of the forgotten heroes and martyrs of India’s freedom movement – 1857-1947. They couple had published five books so far and tried their best in giving infusion in the life of Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan (now dead) and descendants of martyr Tatya Tope, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Udham Singh and Ram Prasad Bismil.
“India’s Abandoned Mothers: Widows of Banaras and Vrindavan” will give an infusion in the life of a grand daughter-in-law of a martyr of India’s freedom movement. Incidentally, she is also widow.