So let me add my voice to the controversy generated by Mathura Member of Parliament Hema Malini’s comments about the thousands of destitute widows and abandoned women who live in her constituency. In the fashion of most public figures caught out, Hema has proceeded to retract her remarks, and claims that she wanted the sons and daughters of these women to take responsibility for them.
However, the issue is not just her insensitivity towards these women, many of who barely survive on alms and die miserable lonely deaths, but that the Bharatiya Janata Party member has also cynically used these women to rake up an entirely pointless issue of regionalism. Go back to where you came from, she said in effect. For someone who is supposed to be aware of the Indian Constitution and the rights it gives its citizens, this exceeds limits of not just insensitivity, but ignorance.
The only salutary purpose the BJP MP’s remarks have served is to draw attention again to a shameful tradition that has no place in 21st century India. If Hema is worried about the conditions in which these women live, she should be questioning the very reason that drives them to Vrindavan.
What she and all of us need to question is why in India a woman’s worth is measured primarily through the institution of marriage. Why should a woman’s life end when her husband dies, or abandons her? Why does she become ‘inauspicious’ when this happens? How can we support or justify ‘traditions’ that debase women for no other reason than that their husbands have died or have abandoned them?
We cannot speak of women’s rights and equality as long as traditions like this exist, traditions that are reinforced by politicians who suggest that the solution to the situation in Vrindavan is to get families to send their destitute widows to temples in their own states.
The National Commission for Women (NCW), at the behest of the Supreme Court, had done an interesting survey of the women in Vrindavan. In its 2009-10 report, the NCW makes a number of useful recommendations that Hema ought to read and pursue, given that she represents these women in Parliament. She should also take time to read the report as it contains useful data, including more accurate estimates of the number of widows and abandoned women in Vrindavan. Based on detailed interviews with 216 women, the report documents their pathetic life and the reasons for their coming to Vrindavan. Although the majority of them were from West Bengal, there were also women from other states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. Most of the women were in the 60 and older age group. Also, while the majority were widows, among them were women who had been divorced or separated, women who came to Vrindavan with destitute and ailing husbands, and women who had never been married.
The report quotes the 2005 survey conducted by the Vrindavan Nagar Palika Parishad that estimated the number of such women at 3,105. Another survey in 2008-09 of the number of women receiving pensions placed the figure at 3,710. Even if these are underestimates, and they most likely are, the total figure would surely not exceed 10,000 in a population of 63,005 in Vrindavan (2,011 census). Incidentally, between 2001 and 2011, the population of Vrindavan grew by less than 10,000. So there is more than a little exaggeration in the numbers of widowed and abandoned women flocking to the city. Numbers aside, even if a handful of women are compelled to leave their homes and travel to a temple town many miles away just to survive, it is a matter of shame. We have to rethink the value of a woman within the institution of marriage. As long as she is measured first by the amount of dowry she brings, second by her ability to produce a male heir, and third by dying before her husband, the tragic saga of the widows of Vrindavan will continue.
The Prime Minister is busy travelling around the world, projecting the image of an India impatient to change and move ahead. Perhaps he should turn his gaze to the condition of widows in his own constituency, Varanasi, and that of his party colleague’s, Vrindavan. India will move ahead when we understand what is holding back half our population.
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