India is home to an estimated 40 million widows—approximately 10 per cent of the country’s women. Many of them fall victim to abuse. Others are simply abandoned to a life of social isolation because of their lowly status within society. Yet their plight is often invisible, with many people unaware of the injustices taking place. Due to the practically non-existent social welfare system in India, many of these widows live lives of poverty. All widows over the age of 60 are eligible for a small government pension worth less than $5 (£3.21) a month. But most of these women are illiterate and do not have bank accounts to access even that. There are indeed some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charities, such as Maitri, trying to help these women with their finances. There are also documentaries about widows, such as The Widow Colony – India’s Unsettled Settlement directed by Harpreet Kaur. This documentary takes an in-depth look into the lives of the widows of the Sikh men who were killed in the anti-Sikh massacre of November 1984 and highlights the trauma and suffering faced by the survivors of the carnage of ’84. Yet, despite the work that has been done, widows continue to be shunned and remain invisible in Indian society.
Before I continue, please forgive me if this piece does not include all the themes and issues surrounding widowhood in India. I have tried my best to include as many narratives as I can, but this article is written mainly to share the story of my incredible maternal grandmother, Surjit Kaur, and to highlight some of the discrimination faced by widows in the Sikh and South Asian communities.
Surjit Kaur was born around 1936. Due to the lack of official records and documentation in Panjab during this time, we are not entirely sure of her official birth date. She was lovingly known as Beeji, both within our family and the local community, because she was a mother to us all. Everyone that met her was astounded by her intelligence, her strength, her humility and her pure heart. Not once would you ever hear her utter hateful words to anyone; she could only utter words of kindness. But unfortunately, fate did not treat her with the same consideration…
She was one of five siblings. After years of trying, her parents eventually had a son, who was significantly younger than Beeji. Beeji’s mother died when she was young, so it was Beeji and her sisters’ duty to look after their younger brother, raise him and eventually secure a place for him in a Christian school in Panjab. When she was of age, her marriage was arranged with my Nanaji(grandfather), Kundan Singh. They were blessed with two children: my amazing mother and my uncle. However, when my mother was only two and a half, her father died. Without any modern ventilations or fans, it was common to sleep on the chata (roof) during warm nights. But on one warm summer night, my Nanaji slipped and fell off the chata, breaking his spine. A frantic Beeji took him to the hospital, but he did not survive. My Beeji lost her husband, and my mother and uncle lost their father far too soon. He was a well-educated man who adored his wife and children and worked hard in his profession in the railways as well as when labouring on the land.
My Beeji was now left in a difficult position. Fortunately, her father-in-law was a good man who helped look after her for a while. After a few years, however, he became very ill with cancer. No one except for my Beeji would stay with him in hospital because they were afraid of the stench, bad hygiene and contagious diseases there. Beeji stayed and looked after him till his dying day. On his deathbed, he told my Beeji to be strong, but gave her a frightening warning. He forewarned her that as a widow his other two sons might harass her and not look after her and said, “They are going to hurt you a lot. You will have to be a doormat all your life”. As much as she loved her father-in-law, she did not let those words unnerve her; she was determined to look after her children on her own. Sadly, his warning came true. After his death, his other sons started troubling Beeji. They enjoyed watching her suffer, abused her and deprived her of basic necessities. One of the sons made sure that no one in the pind (village) would let her use their water pump for her crops. Others in the village watched silently. These tensions continued for years. Such tensions between widows and their families are primarily economic, as a widow is an extra mouth to feed and could also try to stake a claim to the family property.
Much to the disbelief of those in the pind, Beeji continued to work hard on the family land, completing all the manual labour, building and ploughing by herself. Her cousin would sometimes help, but the majority of backbreaking chores she did on her own, to feed her two children. She wanted to make sure her children were educated and would not have to face the same hardships as she did. My mother tells me stories of how Beeji would wake her and my uncle up before sunrise with a lantern and make them read and write before they went to school every morning.
One of the things I admired most about my Beeji was that against the will of others in the family, she made sure my mother carried on with her schooling. Family members said that my mother should be kept within the home, undertaking activities more suited to her gender, such as sewing or cooking, but my Beeji held her ground and said, “If my daughter wants to study, then she will”. Thanks to my Beeji, my mother was one of the few women in the pind to go to college.
From the day that Beeji lost her husband, she no longer wore colourful clothes. Her beautiful kameezes (dresses) and dupattas (scarfs) were hidden away in old dusty cupboards. Her head remained covered with a white chunni (common scarf) till her dying day. From the outset there was a lack of sympathy and empathy from her family and the local community, to the extent that she was told by other women to stay away from their husbands. Yet, despite the hardship she endured for almost 50 years, she ultimately received the utmost respect from the members of her village. She was undoubtedly a woman made of steel, but had a heart as soft as feathers. People now speak of her with such respect and admiration, you would think she was something of a war veteran. And, in fact, the injustice that she had to endure and suffer through for years was as if she was at war. She was a survivor. She was a warrior. She is my warrior. And I know that her strength has passed on to my mother and hopefully on to me, for I come from a bloodline of heroines.
Let us not forget some of the warriors widows in our history such as Maharani Jind Kaur, our renowned ‘Rebel Queen’, a fearless Maharani who waged two wars against the British during their rule in India. ‘’She was famous for her beauty, energy and strength of purpose’’ and was popularly known as Rani Jindan, but her fame is derived chiefly from the fear she engendered in the British in India, who described her as “the Messalina of the Punjab”. In a time where widows were expected to commit sati (widow burning), she refused to jump into her late husband Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre along with his other wives. She rejected both sati and purdah (female seclusion), led the courts and had meetings with chief ministers and armies, all of which took her counsel. Christy Campbell—author of The Maharajah’s Box, a book about the Maharani’s son, Duleep—says Jindan was “one of the most remarkable characters of 19th-century history, let alone Indian or Sikh history”.
Yet another story I wish to share is one of an actual warrior, a formidable Akali or Nihang (Sikh soldiers traditionally known for their bravery and ruthlessness in the battlefield) who did not let her widowhood define her destiny. She decided instead to bear the arms of her dead husband and joined the Akali sect. The following quote was stated by the Foreign Missionary Council in 1843 and the illustration was completed by Emily Eden in 1838.
“We were visited this forenoon by a most singular character, an Akalin, or female faqir of a peculiar sect. Like the class of mendicants to whom she belongs, she was armed to the teeth. Over her shoulder was slung a sword, while her belt was graced with a large horse pistol, a dagger, and sundry other weapons of destruction. Another sword hung by her side. Her turban was ornamented with a panji and five or six chakkars. The panji is a horrid instrument made something in form of a tiger’s claws, with five curved blades exceedingly sharp. The chakkar is a steel discus, of six or eight inches diametre, very sharp also, and no doubt a destructive weapon when hurled with sufficient force. She was, certainly, the most dangerous looking lady I ever saw… It appeared by her own statement that she was a widow, and that her husband was an Akali; that after his death she had joined the sect and remained with them ever since. She had, she stated, been on a tour to the south of India, and had travelled a great deal since she had become a faqir.”
This particular widow refused to live by the stereotypes of her gender. She did not want to live as a vulnerable widow in need of help and protection and instead took arms and became a sight that struck fear in others.
Finally, we cannot forget the warrior widows of 1984. In the days immediately following Indira Gandhi’s death, there were mass reprisals against Sikhs. Tens of thousands of Sikh men were pulled out of buses and trains, slaughtered on the streets, in their homes and in their workplace—resulting in thousands upon thousands of deaths and displacements. There is no denying that in the 30 years since the massacre, we have spoken of the atrocities and conveyed a narrative of victimhood, but we have ignored these survivors and their current hardship. Nanki Kaur tells the story of how after Indira Gandhi’s death an angry mob came to where she lived. Her husband tried to escape by climbing up to the roof. Mrs. Kaur’s last memory of her husband is of him being dragged away by shouting people—many of whom she recognised as neighbours. They set him on fire and burnt him alive. Kaur recounts, “When I think about what has happened it still makes me cry. Both brothers from the same family were killed. It’s only me and my children and grandchildren now.”
The following story, shared in Jyoti Grewal’s work Betrayed by the State: The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984,describes a common horror that widows have to face: the fear of rape and abuse now that their husbands are no longer able to protect them: “After they had burnt my husband, that same night they came back for me three times. I was very beautiful then, strikingly beautiful. Now I am nothing. They came back three times that night, three times, looking for me. My sons and I were hiding in our Hindu neighbour’s house. They came over there and asked them, ‘Where is the Sardar’s beauty? Where is that Sardar’s Mrs? My older son had a cough; I covered his mouth with my hand. I put the little one to my breast to suckle. We were hiding in the adjoining room and I could hear them talk. They were so persistent, kept asking for me… they had the nerve to say that they had killed the Sardar because they wanted to get their hands on me.”
These widows had been betrayed by their state and their own communities. But, let us not continue to see them merely as victims of an atrocious massacre; let us also acknowledge and respect them for their strength and their bravery to share the truth of what happened during those days.
Simply because of their gender, these phenomenal women that I have spoken of have been betrayed by their families, their communities and by the state. I feel we, as a community, need to continue to voice these narratives of women who have remained invisible—behind closed doors, dressed in black clothes and covered heads, afraid to speak. They should no longer be treated as ‘others’. They are ours. They are our family. They are our daughters, our mothers and our grandmothers.
Whether it is my Beeji or a Nihang travelling across India, to me these women are not vulnerable or weak; these women are all Warrior Widows.