By meghna at 11 May, 2010, 8:05 pm
Sati as a practice was not invented by Ancient Indian texts but by the greed of people. Most of the contemporary historians believe that the practice of Sati was encouraged to deprive the widows from the property of their deceased husbands. Family members (usually the surviving brothers of the deceased) cloaked their desires under the shadow of religion. Hinduism was used as a weapon to rightly ask for the lives of innocent widowed women. The women under societal pressure were made to self immolate themselves. This served twin purposes; the family was no longer entitled to maintain the widow and her sacrifice ensured that the share of her deceased husband would revert to the surviving members.
It is a privilege to state; the evil practice of Sati is no longer practiced in India. But at the same time it is a shame to admit that the condition of Hindu widows has turned worse with time. Even today most of the widows in the country are abounded from their houses. They have no place to go. They are unable to maintain themselves and thus are forced to take refuge under the Vidhwa ashrams.
Most of the ashrams in the country are situated in the holy cities of Vindravan and Mathura. It is estimated that Vrindavan has more than 4,000 temples and ashrams with about 2,957 widows living in them. The widows seek shelter in the ashrams for various reasons most of them being abounded or sexually abused by their family members believe that holy places like these would help them to attain salvation and would bring them nearer to god. Many regard Vrindavan as the only place where they can live and die peacefully with the protection of all mighty.
Unfortunately these ashrams do not have much to offer. Majority of the widows are seen begging on the streets or soliciting for earning their livelihood. Ashrams encourage practices of prostitution and sexual abuse to gauge funds and finance. The young widows are often supplied to rich customers by the ashram itself in lieu of a heavy sum. The ashrams are scattered with diseases like tuberculosis, STD’s and dysentery. There is inadequate number of toilets in most of the places. There is lack of proper sewage system and non-availability of running water in these places. The widows are forced to live in an unhygienic and unhealthy environment. They are unaware of the widow pension and health schemes and hardly take benefit of it. Recently issued report by National Commission for Women states that 80% of them are illiterate whereas 60% of them are above 60 years of age. Most of these old widows (even those who are unable to walk properly) have to climb stairs to reach their rooms. Some of them are too old to even cook for themselves. They are forced to sleep on pieces of jute sacks. They are neither supplied with blankets nor hot water in winters. Moreover there is no institutional support for cremation of the dead bodies. The necessities in today’s life are a luxury for these unfortunate ones.
The PIL filed by advocate Mr. Ravindra Bana in the Supreme Court in November 2008 had brought the grievances of this marginalized section in limelight. Supreme Court had issued directions to NCW for conducting a survey in this regard. After much delay NCW has finally released its report on the plight of these widows. It is disheartening that in spite of various initiatives by the government hardly any benefit is availed by these women. The report said “As per records of the district welfare office, 2,819 women received old age pension and 892 widow pensions. However, among the 225 randomly interviewed women 68 per cent were found without pensions and 58 per cent without ration cards.”
The Sevadasi system (service done to the rich and powerful pilgrims are seen as a form of piety) prevalent in these institutions, further encourage practices of trafficking and prostitution. Under this system, the widows are supposed to offer every service to please the owners of Dharamshalas and Bhajan Ashrams in which sex is also included. The Bhajan ashrams offer these widows to earn Rs 3 to 4 a day and some meagre ration, if they assemble in the bhajan ashrams to sing bhajans (devotional songs) in mornings and evenings. The food, shelter and clothing of these destitute women depend on the mercy of these ashrams and some courteous travellers.
Most of the widows who reach these Bhajan ashrams belong to West Bengal and Bangladesh. The government of U.P. and W.B. have failed to take any collaborative steps to improve the situation of these widows. The widow pension granted by U.P. government is Rs.1, 800 a year, or Rs.150 a month. Although on records it seems that this meagre amount is serving its purpose, in reality it is not. The shelter homes built by the government have only provided limited relief to them. The government has turned a blind eye towards the illegal practices observed in these ashrams. Deepa Mehta who directed ‘Water’, the film which through a fictional story depicted the miseries of the widows living in these ashrams had to face opposition from all sections of the society. The close nexus between politics and religious bigots has always proved dreadful. If the government actively opposes the practices in Vrindavan, it would face opposition from both public and religious leaders. Most of the widows being uneducated become vulnerable. The victims are scared to raise their voices against the Dharamshalas and Bhajan Ashrams as they know they have no other place to go.
It is very important that the widows are made aware of their legal and constitutional rights. The pensions must be increased and should duly reach the beneficiaries. Some part of the tourism revenue earned from Mathura and Vrindavan must be utilized for the upliftment of these widows. The welfare legislations like Hindu Succession (Amendment 2005) Act and Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 have definitely ensured that widows are not deprived of their husband’s property. But unfortunately these widows are found unaffected by the legal developments around the country. They must be provided with vocational training. Psychological and medical help must be made available to them. Medical facilities and hygienic conditions must be ensured in these ashrams. The number of government shelter homes must be increased. Above all citizens must be made aware of the injustices done to this vulnerable section. A public pressure can indeed bring considerable changes in these places. I seriously think by selling the bodies of these pious women, the ashrams are killing their souls and somewhere I hold everyone of us responsible for this injustice.