They were widowed young but have gracefully accepted the bad hand that fate dealt them. No matter how bad things appeared to be, these Veer Naris --- euphemism for widows in army parlance --- never allowed anger, self-pity or skepticism come in the way of finding equilibrium in their lives.
The memories of their gallant husbands, lost to the killing fields of Northeast and J&K, gave them strength to bounce back in life.
But today they are asking questions and reminding a nation which by impulse worships and forgets heroes that ingratitude is the worst sin of all.
Archi Sharma’s husband, a major in the armoured corps, was killed in Kashmir in March 2004. His valour earned him a Sena Medal for gallantry, a decoration that entitles his wife a one-time 'princely sum' of Rs 3,000 from the UP government. Trips to the Zila Sainik Board have proved futile. Archi’s yet to get that money.
Archi told HT from Meerut: “Money does not mean a thing to me. But can’t we treat a martyr’s wife with a little more respect. Imagine the plight of a jawan’s wife.”
Only the names change, not the complexion of the problem. Scores of Veer Naris like her are getting a taste of government’s apathy around the country. Their belief in the system is beginning to waver. Jaya Babbar is still awaiting the Rs 5-lakh compensation promised by Assam government after her husband Major Inderjeet Singh Babbar laid down his life fighting insurgents. He was awarded the Kirti Chakra (posthumous) in August 2003.
Politicians have not kept their promises, there are problems of housing and jobs are not easy to find. Figures made available to Parliament by defence minister AK Antony show that counter-insurgency operations in J&K alone claimed the lives of 180 army personnel between January and December 2006. An army officer said recent trends showed that roughly 150 soldiers were getting killed in the counter-insurgency grid per year.
Ask 33-year-old Shivani what’s that one thing she would want the government to do for her. “It will be wonderful if I am allowed to retain the army accommodation for a little more while. Till the time my house is ready, “Shivani told HT from Chandimandir. Her husband Major Navneet Vats was killed in a gun battle with terrorists in November 2003 and awarded a Sena Medal for gallantry.
Army widows are entitled to retain government accommodation for three and half years. They want it extended to five years. Several widows have moved a petition before the Ministry of Defence to take a sympathetic view. Shivani said: “I don’t want to turn to my parents or in-laws for support. When my daughter grows up, I want her to know that her mother had the strength to triumph over life’s biggest setback.”
Raising children without the security of a permanent job is another top-of-the-mind concern. Poonam Guleria, who is raising an eight-year-old son, turned down a Class I job offered by Himachal government after her husband Captain Deepak Guleria was killed in the Valley over seven years ago. He was also awarded a Sena Medal for gallantry. She preferred to teach at Army School “to stay connected with Deepak in some way.” Her suggestion: “Procedures should be simplified to provide permanent jobs to widows in Army Schools as long as they meet the laid down criteria.”
Major Yashen Acharya’s widow Jaitri summed it up like this from Mumbai: “Once a soldier is dead. He is a forgotten story.” Awarded Sena Medal for gallantry, Yashen was 35 when he fell to terrorists’ bullets in the Valley.
But widows would like to emphasise that the army as an organisation has been an integral part of their support system and stood by them at every stage. It is the politicians and the state governments who have let them down. Archi said: “They invite us for functions to cash in on our image. That's about it”.