Even after 60 years of Independence, widows in India continue to face not just cultural ostracism, but a lack of dignity and denial of basic human rights. And for the thousands of widows living in the temple town of Vrindavan, near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, every festival, every celebration, is just another cruel reminder that they are no longer 'sadhwas' or married women.
There has been a steady influx of widows into Vrindavan, not just because they have been abandoned by their families but also because they want to escape the humiliation of having to beg for survival in their own villages, according to the findings of a recent study conducted by the Guild of Service, a Delhi-based NGO.
"On the one hand, we are celebrating the election of the first woman President of the country and on the other, widowhood continues to be stigmatized. Just because they have lost their husbands, their rights are taken away from them. They are discarded by society and Vrindavan becomes their only haven," says Dr V. Mohini Giri, Chairperson, Guild of Service (GOS).
Although there are no proper estimates on the number of widows living in Brajdham - Vrindavan and the adjoining areas of Radha Kund, Goverdhan, Barsana, Nandgaon and Mathura - it is an established fact that a vast majority comes from West Bengal. A Vrindavan Municipal Corporation survey last year found as many as 3,105 widows from West Bengal. In 1996, when the GOS conducted its first survey in the area, it had found that most of the widows were from West Bengal. Ten years later, the situation remains the same.
In its latest report, titled 'Spirituality, Poverty, Charity Brings Widows to Vrindavan', the GOS, which runs a rehabilitation home for widows in the city, found that despite a decade of awareness generation and programmes initiated by government and other NGOs to improve the condition of widows, the numbers have only increased. The UNIFEM-supported research found that of the 255 widows studied, 40 per cent had come to Vrindavan in the last four years. Around 18 per cent of them had lived here for the last five to nine years, while only 11 per cent had come 30 years ago.
"The objective of this study was to find out why widows continue to come to Vrindavan and prefer to live on charity. Also, why does the majority still come from West Bengal? Do they come only because they believe they would gain 'moksha' (liberation) if they die here or is there some other reason? These were some of the questions that needed to be answered," says Usha Rai, senior journalist and principal investigator of the study.
To get some answers, Rai and her team of two researchers traveled to Nadia and Burdwan, two districts in West Bengal from where the maximum number of Bengali widows come to Vrindavan. Interestingly, in Burdwan, they found that approximately 25 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, as compared to 35 per cent in the rest of the state. Even the literacy rate in the district is high at 70 per cent. Yet, this had no bearing on the attitude towards widows, who continue to be abandoned or ill-treated.
While the families of these women may have given up on them, the state government has made some provision, albeit very nominal, in the form of the widow's pension scheme. Incidentally, a widow in West Bengal gets a pension of Rs 750 (US$1=Rs 40), the highest in the country. (Widows in Uttar Pradesh have to remain content with a paltry sum of Rs 150.) But even this has not prevented widows from leaving their villages. One reason being cited for this is the lack of awareness about the scheme and information on how to avail of it. Although there are two short-stay homes in Burdwan, each with a capacity for housing 25 widows, the women prefer either to migrate to or be left in Vrindavan even if it means begging for survival there.
Sushila Das, 100, was married at the age of five and widowed at nine. Even at that tender age, she was forced to wear white, eat frugally and was barred from being part of any social event or festival. A resident of a Bhajan Ashram in Vrindavan, Das says she is better off in Vrindavan than her village despite the fact that she has to sing for her supper, literally. (Most of the widows of Vrindavan live in one of six Bhajan Ashrams in the town.)
According to the rules of the ashram, any widow who sings bhajans (hymns) or chants for four hours or more in a day is entitled to certain benefits. This survival package includes some rice, some money and new clothing once a year. In addition, she can also beg without being insulted and humiliated. Interestingly, even though the status of widows remains low and a majority of them survive on begging, the last couple of years have seen a steady inflow of young widows and, surprisingly, even married women. "This is something which was not seen in the last study. 'Batta Batti' or goods given in charity, like food and blankets, have been on the rise. So young widows feel they have better opportunities for survival and livelihood here," remarks Rai.
Rai says many of the married women living here feel they are not doing anything wrong by claiming this charity since they, too, are poor, have a sick or disabled husband and children they need to get married back home in their villages. In fact, according to the manager of a Bhajan Ashram, while initially it may have been spirituality that drew them to Vrindavan, now it is the alms.
Is this the life that reformer Ram Mohan Roy envisaged for widows when he persuaded the British Governor, Lord William Bentinck, to outlaw the cruel practice of sati in 1829? Certainly not. The government needs to rethink its strategy, so that it does not end up completely neglecting these women.
It can start by instituting more rehabilitation homes with food and medical facilities in Vrindavan and West Bengal, build more night shelters, ensure greater dissemination of pension schemes, start schools for the children of widows, and provide below-poverty line ration and health cards for all widows. Perhaps then, widows have a fair chance at living a life of dignity.