Army Widows: The Battle is yet not over

Mohini Giri, ex president of the National Commission for Women and a devoted worker for the rehabilitation of widows in India has very rightly said, “Widowhood is a condition of social death, even among the higher castes”. Several border conflicts have taken place since Independence and insurgency is rife in many parts of the country, which the Army is combatting. This has led to an increasing number of army widows who need care and rehabilitation.

Socially retrograde practices and customs prevalent in some parts of Indian society see widows as an embodiment of “bad luck and omen”. The laws of Manu declared women as “appendages” to be controlled and protected by men; it is these beliefs that are carried forward and at times, widows are forced to marry their brother in law. Family members take this step to ensure that the land and property remain within the family, as division could occur if she chose to remarry an outsider. Earlier, the Government encouraged levirate marriages through archaic rules, which stated that a widow on remarriage would not be entitled to pension. However, the pension remained admissible if she remarried her late husband’s brother. Prior to 1996, pension benefits were not admissible to widows who remarried outside the family.[1] The widows from the many conflicts fought before 1996 thus remained discriminated against. It is only in the year 2006, that remarrying outside the family was recognised and widows won a tough battle against the mindset that promotes their subordinate and “property-like” status.[2]

There remains a significant knowledge gap that exists between the beneficiaries and the organisations[3],which are responsible for delivering these benefits. Several widows do not receive enough guidance on who to approach to request for pensions. A ninety year old widow, Pushpvanti used to get rupees seventy per month as family pension. It is only when she approached the Supreme Court that her pension has now been raised to Rupees 18,000. The Court expressed that they were flooded with such complaints from serving and retired army personnel as well as widows and that there is an urgent need to set up a single commission to handle their financial assistance requests.

Interstate disparities have been observed in granting pension to the widows. Widows in Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana received better pension than their counter parts in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. A significant imbalance also exists between the pension granted to Kargil war widows with those from the 1971 and 1965 wars. The latter have been known to receive meager pension with no benefits. As if this is not enough, some politicians, bureaucrats and army officials have been involved in grabbing plots and apartments meant for housing war widows as well as ex-servicemen. The 1971 war widows who are often invited to receive honours and awards on behalf of their husbands feel that their real needs have not been addressed. Some of them need housing, a facility that for widows can be vital to decrease their dependence on their families.[4]

Many widows are not aware of the procedural formalities required to file for pensions and most are even far from knowing the exact amount they are entitled to receive after their husband’s death. “Illiterate Malhori Devi, widow of L/NK Kharak Singh does not even know how many zeroes are there in Rupees 7.5 Lakhs” .Under such circumstances, the families take undue advantage of their ignorance for their own personal gains. “Women in Uttarakhand have to walk several kilometers to the post office to collect their pension, the employees at the post office force them to give some share for the services rendered”.

Research conducted by National Commission for Women showed that there are only few Zilla Sainik Welfare Board (grassroots agency) with modern facilities like computers and updated information of the deceased soldiers to enable them to process the pension formalities. This leaves the majority of such institutions inefficient to address the basic needs of the war widows. Zilla Sainik Welfare Board collude with the families and force the widows to remarry within the same family to settle the financial disputes and at the same time lighten the burden of paper work over their shoulders. According to a survey conducted by National Commission for Women, 68 percent of women had to approach the Sainik Welfare Boards themselves to put up a request for pension. It is a moral duty of these organisations to take the first step and come forward to help these women. This can be achieved through an increased counseling and sensitisation on the matter. War widows and army wives involved in the decision making level at these institutions would prove to be beneficial to cater to the needs of widows and their grievances.  How can one expect the traumatised “ghunghat clad women” to confide in men who have received no training to handle such issues?

Army Wives Welfare Association is currently doing yeoman service in providing psychological help and counseling to the army widows. The grief attached to the stigma and trauma state of widowhood is immeasurable. Most of these widows have confessed that they were forced to marry their brother in law so that the financial disputes could be settled well within the family. Many chose to marry the brother in laws themselves because they had no other choice to sustain themselves and their children. They have cited that the transition to a wife of their own brother in law was an immensely traumatic experience for them. Kalpana, widow of L/Nk Naresh of 4 Jat received a mutilated body of her dead husband after the war. Their psychological trauma is immense and efforts should be directed towards exorcising their grief and rage. Social organizations and women’s groups could also step forward to help these women.

Widows also suffer in their new homes because they often have to give in writing that the pension meant for them should be granted to the parents of the martyr. A widow who was allotted a petrol pump by the Government refused to have it on grounds of constant threats she received from her relatives who were eyeing every single penny from her pension money. Madhuri Dixit, wife of Raghunath Dixit was allotted a gas agency by the Government which is looked after by her relatives. She receives rupees 5000 per month but is never allowed by them to visit the agency.

Effective monitoring mechanisms and performance evaluation mechanisms could prove to be a boon to make the pension-related organisations more accountable and responsive. Organisations like War Widows Association of India have stepped forward to provide skill building and livelihood opportunities to these women. Women’s self help groups have proved to be effective to organize these women to generate income.[5] Since most of these widows come from an agrarian background, it is imperative that the Government makes provisions to grant them land rights. The need of the hour is to pull them out of the social stigma and empower them to lead dignified and economically sound lives.

Amidst all the debates going on for increased defence cooperation, technology and development, let us not forget the families of those who laid their lives for the nation. Adopting a holistic approach to cater to the needs of the families and widows could also prove to be a major strategy to motivate the soldiers who can be assured that their families will be taken care of after them. To achieve that, we have to stop viewing widows as passive recipients of the welfare schemes, but active contributors and authors who can carve out their own destiny. The battle for many of these widows is still ongoing.

Few Recommendations that emerge out of this article are as follows:

  • Fifty percent reservations for women in the Zilla Sainik Welfare Boards would enable bringing women’s issues on the forefront
  • Zilla Sainik Welfare Boards must liaise with social organisations, which handle aspects like psychological counseling, employment opportunities, skill building and education of women.
  • Zilla Sainik Welfare Boards should have information centres to provide guidance to women on the procedural formalities and queries.
  • All centres dealing with welfare of army personnel and widows should be sensitised regarding these issues. Controller General of Defence Accounts, Department of Pensioners’ and Pension Welfare, Sainik Welfare Boards are organisations that should be approached for financial assistance.

References-

-Lal Neeta, “ Light and Action Women” ,Grassroots-Reporting Human Condition, October 2006

-Phadtare R.G, “The Rehabilitation of War Widows and Ex Servicemen’s Widows: Problem and Remedies, Women’s Link, April-June 2004

-Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, “Report on the study of War Widows”, National Commission for Women

-Narula Vinita, Anand Sarita, “Life after death: a journey into the lives of war widows” , National Commission for Women, 2002

-Giri Mohini, Khanna Meera, “Widows of the unsung Brave of Kargil” , Living , Death Trauma of Widowhood in India” , Gyan, 2002

-Iqbal Naveed, “Honours but no home for 1971 War Widows” , Indian Express, December, 2011

-Parmar Leena, “ Money Matters”, Manushi Journal, February 2004

-V Narula, S Anand, B Babbar, “Life After Death: Glimpse into the plight of War Widows” , Manushi Journal

-BBC News South Asia, “India Chief Minister resigns amid war widows scam probe”, November 2010

-Shaikh Nermeen, Mohini Giri: India’s Voice for the Voiceless, Asia Society

-Indian Military Info, “ Status of Special Family Pension on remarriage for pre 1996 cases : need to educate” ,August 2010 http://www.indianmilitary.info/2010/08/status-of-special-family-pension-on.html

-Press Trust of India, “War Widow was getting rupees 70 a month as pension”,

February 2011

-India Today, “Top army men, netas grab plot for war widows”, October 2010

-Interview with Ms. J Gurmit Singh, President, War Widows Association of India

-Video interviews of Kailashi Devi and Madhuri Dixit (War Widows) provided by Major Chandrakant Singh, Vrc (Retd).

The author is Research Assistant at CLAWS

Views expressed are personal

 

[1]Kailashi Devi, widow of a martyr from the 1971 war, while describing  her experiences mentioned of receiving a telegram informing of her husband’s death and that she was entitled to rupees 132 per month. The telegram mentioned that the pension will be discontinued if she remarries someone except her brother in law. This mindless and unthinking attitude of the government disposed a 17 year old woman to perpetual widowhood for a pension of 132 rupees per month.

[2] The childless widow of a deceased employee who expired before 1.1.2006 , shall also be eligible for family pension irrespective of the fact that the remarriage of the widow had taken place prior to/on or after 1.1.2006 subject to fulfillment of other conditions. The financial benefits in such cases has, however, been allowed from 1.1.2006. (Govt of India, Dept of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, No.1(6)/2011-D(Pen-Policy)

[3] Controller General of Defence Accounts, Department of Pension & Pensioners Welfare (Ministry of Personnel , Public Grievances & Pensions)

[4]  Some widows have to trade away their financial independence with the shelter provided

[5] Vaikunthi Devi, a Kargil War widow is one amongst 700 women who work for Uttaranchal Power Corporation. She repairs fuses and climbs up electricity polls to fix faults

 Original Source: Centre for Land Warfare Studies

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