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The wife, the family and the Army – the politics of ‘Veer Nari’ and compensation

India has the highest number of war widows in the world, but little research on their lived experiences. Perhaps it's time to question the Army's dynamics and relationship with women.

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On 28 February 2019, barely two weeks after the death of her husband H. Guru in the Pulwama encounter in Kashmir, his wife Kalavathi called the cops. She reported that trouble started brewing soon after the death of Guru as assurances of monetary compensation kept pouring in not only from the central government and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) but also from the Karnataka chief minister who promised a hefty sum as well as a government job for Kalavathi. Besides this, a multinational corporation assured monetary compensation, and the wife of a late actor-politician promised half an acre of land to the family. 

Kalavathi complained to the police that as soon as the compensations were declared, Guru’s family members started pressurising her to get married to Guru’s younger brother for the compensation money to stay within the family. This incident brings into limelight a law within the Indian military which was repealed in November 2017 after several representations from various quarters. According to this law, a widow of a gallantry awardee would be denied pension by the government if she remarried; pension would, however, continue only if the she gets married to the brother-in-law and “lives a communal life with the living eligible heir.”

India has the highest number of war widows in the world, which makes it ironic that there is so little research on the lived experiences of war widows in India. It is essentially the ghettoised nature of the army aimed at creating a “lofty” image which wards off civil society. The army comes across as a walled, unobtrusive and impermeable space of beliefs, norms, rituals, laws and practices. It is from this very understanding of the army as a political space that one should start asking questions about its objectives as well as its functioning. 

The Pulwama terrorist attack in Kashmir and its aftermath has been unsettling in more ways than one. While some people actively battled the war, some others like the jawans (Indian army soldiers) and their families have been battled due to the war. Perhaps it is time to question the lofty dispensation of the Indian Army by questioning its outer and inner dynamics and its relationship with women.

This essay brings into the limelight the issue of remarriage of war widows in India to understand how and in what ways images of the veer nari or war widow have been constructed in explaining the relationship between the army, the family and the state. It argues that the role of the army is not just limited to providing security to the country; it also plays an active role in the ideological disciplining of the nation by oppressing women. The army is, thus, yet another arm of the state which overtly and covertly oppresses women.


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From Kargil to Pulwama

A crucial perspective on the question of widow remarriage and compensation of war widows in India is offered by Leena Parmar’s study of Kargil War widows in rural Rajasthan, where she points out that 90% women got married to their brothers-in-law after the death of their husbands through a ritual called churi pahanana (where glass bangles are put on the woman’s wrist to mark the end of her widowhood and her re-entry in conjugality).

Parmar explained the remarriage of war widows to brothers-in-law in the context of sociocultural ideas of widow remarriage in North India and underplayed the role of the state in withdrawing pension to war widows. She has, however, concluded that when asked to the war widows whether they were forced to get married to their brothers-in-law only for money, 100% of the respondents said “yes”.

The respondents explained, “It was so clear from the very beginning. I do not understand much regarding money matters. If I would have not married to (sic) my brother-in-law, then the property would have gone to somewhere else (in case I marry somebody outside the family) so I was forced to get married in this family” (Parmar 2003). The Kargil War took place in 1999 when the law on widow remarriage to brothers-in-law within the army was in full swing. The question is: 20 years later, in 2019, when the law is retracted, has anything really changed?


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The wife, the family, and the Army

There is an inherent sense of contradiction in the idea of the army vis-à-vis the family, especially the conjugal family in India. Although they are not mutually antagonistic of each other, there is a relationship of resentment between the two marked by a continuous sense of negotiation and compromise. This antagonism essentially stems from the deployment of a jawan’s masculinity by the state. It is the state that not only decides on the nature and form of masculinity that has to be delivered within the army, but also that which has to be disbursed within domesticity.

It is, however, the state which is the ultimate beneficiary of the antagonism between the family and the army. Through the same policies that the state uses to govern the army, it also disciplines the family—sometimes even after the death of the jawan. The “jawan,” as the etymology of the word suggests, is the repository of masculine youth and energy. Chowdhry (2010) has pointed out that army service is an alpha-male space and is considered to be the “privilege of men” (Chowdhry 2010). The tussle between the army and the conjugal family is located in the disposal and disbursement of masculinity, and masculine duties within domesticity vis-à-vis duties of the motherland.

The most common way of understanding the commitment and sacrifices of an army person in India is by celebrating his absence in domesticity. His physical and/or emotional absence thereafter becomes a eulogy in glorifying his devotion to the motherland. The absence in the domestic sphere becomes another figurative emphasis on the responsibility that the jawan holds towards his nation.

The most common narrative among the wives of army men describes the motherland as the first love of their husbands. The image of Mother India is recalled time and again where Mother India is “both divine and human; as ‘Indian’ but also reminiscent of female figurations of the nation from other parts of the world, especially the imperial West; as invincible but also vulnerable; as benevolent but also bloodthirsty; as comely maiden but also as ageless matron; and as guardian goddess of the nation but at the same time in need of her sons’ care and protection” (Ramaswamy 2008).

Thus, images of motherhood mixed with notions of patriotism and bravery often produce the notion of an invincible and uninterrupted mother–son dyad in which the wife is literally and figuratively the outsider. Within this framework, the wife is an epitome of virtue, an ideal companion, if not a comrade. But how does the idea of a companionate army wife get institutionalised into the image of a veer nari as soon as she becomes a widow?


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Wife to Widow: Warrior Women or Women of the Warrior?

A veer nari is defined as the widow of an armed forces member who has laid down his life for the nation, whether in war or in a military operation. Therefore, not every army widow is a veer nari. An army wife becomes a veer nari only after she has lost her husband in the battlefield. Her bravery is primarily predicated on and emanates from her loss. The notion of the veer nari can be understood in two particular ways—first, as a “warrior woman,” and second, as the “woman of a warrior.” A woman becomes a “warrior woman” (veer nari) because her sacrifice essentially leaves her in a position where there is a lack/loss of masculine protection in her life which carves an image of a solitary fighter. It is predominantly a social perception of widowhood in India, which becomes yet another way of constructing widowhood as “helplessness.” 

At the same time, a veer nari can also be defined as the “woman of the warrior,” as a woman (nari) who belonged to a brave man (veer). An ideal veer nari is created with the amalgamation of these two roles as the “warrior woman” as well as the “woman of the warrior.” The idea of the veer nari as the “woman of the warrior” is crucial in this context. While a jawan becomes a veer through his work and accomplishments, his wife becomes a veer only through her loss and lack. In the process of constructing a veer nari as the “woman of a warrior,” the state reconstitutes masculine prowess and locates it in the widow of the martyr. Thereafter, there is a translocation of masculinity in the woman who is now hailed as the veer nari.

In both constructions of the veer nari, it is not the bravery of the woman which is in question. Rather bravery is endowed upon the woman from an outside source, as an offshoot of the masculine prowess of the husband. Thus, the veer nari becomes the repository, the bearer and rearer of the ideologies of the army within the family and outside.


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Army’s dynamics with women in India

The army in India has a bad name in perpetrating sexual crimes against women. Of the hundreds and thousands of cases that were reported and unreported, army atrocities in the twin villages of Kunan–Poshpora in Kashmir in 1991 and in Manipur still haunt us. In armed conflicts, sexual violence is an effective tool to break people (Batool 2018). Even within the army, sexual harassment and molestation of women officers is common and is often “used as an instrument of gender regulation which feminises women as sexual objects and masculinises men as sexual subjects. It not only reinforces the cultural power of supremacy of both men and masculinity but also reinforces the cultural subordination and inferiority of women and femininity” (Chowdhry 2010).

While these are the direct ways of oppression of women within and outside the army, there are also indirect ways. In the facade of the army taking responsibility of the martyred soldier’s family—in allocating funds for sponsoring children’s education to funding their marriage—the state basically ensures that there is no love lost between the army and the family of the martyred. It ensures that the influence of the state and the ideology of the army continue growing within the very wombs of an army family.

In tandem with the widow remarriage law within the military, which prevailed until November 2017, an ideal Veer Nari is constructed as one who is virtuous and asexual or one who limits her sexuality to her conjugal family by getting married to the brother-in-law and lives a communal life with an heir. She is also expected to take the responsibility of the extended family economically, socially, reproductively and sexually—limiting her identity to being the widow of a martyr. It is interesting how this “arrangement of convenience” is derived essentially from her being the widow of a martyr and continuously revolves around the same, as if there is no escape. The moment she decides to start afresh and chooses to get married to someone else, the state decides to withdraw her pension. 

This happened in the case of Janak Anand, whose first husband Captain S.K. Sehgal was killed in the 1971 war with Pakistan and was also awarded the Vir Chakra. When she got married to another army officer, Anand was denied pension. After a series of consistent petitions, Anand approached the Armed Forces Tribunal, which, in September 2017, pointed out the humiliating terms of the law and revoked it. Although the law is repealed, the practice is still continued to keep the compensation money within the family, as in the case of Kalavathi. 

While army families are undoubtedly the responsibility of the state, the question is: Is it under the purview of the state and/or the army to decide on the very composition, foundation and functioning of the army family? With the help of laws which prescribe the remarriage of widows to brothers-in-law, not only does the state encourage the family to get a grip on the woman’s economic resources but also her sexual resources and agency. Thus, while the state so long attributed a secondary position to the family in the jawan’s life, after his death, the family becomes the unit of primary importance.

The ideas of a Veer Nari are, therefore, irrevocably bound with the ideas of the nation; the Veer Nari is an individual whose rights are subsumed by the family and the state. The question is, while there is an escape from humiliating laws of the state, is there an escape from an idea of a family as determined by the state? What happens when laws, even if declared redundant, become a part of social custom? Is there a way a woman can deny or escape the unrestricted access of the family to her bodily, economic and social resources?

Sayantani Sur is an Assistant Professor of History at Harimohan Ghosh College, University of Calcutta. Views are personal.

The article titled, “After Pulwama: War Widows and the Construction of Veer Nari in India” was originally published by the Epw Engage on 29 December 2021.

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