Members of Sulabh tied rakhi to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan Left to Right: Bhagwati, Usha Sharma, Abha Kumar, Aakanksha Sharma, Nitya Pathak, Jyotsna Pathak
Every year, most of us look forward to the festive season with all sorts of hope and expectation that this year should be the best festival ever. Same were the hope and prayers of scavengers (erstwhile) and widows a few years back, when they wished for a life filled with colours of festivities. And who knew, that one day their wishes will be answered by God in a way no one ever thought of. That somebody like Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, will take them under his protective ‘Sulabh umbrella’?
For the last few years, the same women whom people considered untouchable and inauspicious, are rakhi the sacred thread of Raksha Bandhan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And, the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi, whom their own families left in the dark alley of life- alone, miserable, hurt and hopeless, got Dr Bindeshwar Pathak and PM Modi as their brothers and protectors. Yes, it’s true. These erstwhile scavengers and widows tie rakhi every year to Dr Pathak and now to PM Modi.
This is what Raksha Bandhan festival is all about.
What is Raksha Bandhan, truly?
Raksha Bandhan in Sanskrit literally means “the tie or knot of protection”. It is an ancient Hindu festival that ritually celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters. It is one of the several occasions in which family ties are affirmed in India.
The festival is also an occasion to celebrate brother-sister like family ties between cousins or distant family members, sometimes between biologically unrelated men and women. To many, the festival transcends biological family, brings together men and women across religions, diverse ethnic groups and ritually emphasises harmony and love. It is observed in the Hindu calendar month of Śrāvana, and typically falls in August every year.
Raksha Bandhan is now considered as a day to celebrate the sacred relation of a brother and a sister. Yet there have been examples in history wherein rakhi have just been a Raksha or protection. It could be tied by wife, a daughter or mother. The Rishis tied rakhi to the people who came seeking their blessings. The sages tied the sacred thread to themselves to safeguard them from the evil. It is, by all means, the ‘Paap Todak, Punya Pradayak Parva’ or the day that bestows boons and ends all sins as it is mentioned in the scriptures.
Previously, Rakhi festival encompassed the warmth shared between the siblings but now it goes way beyond it. Some people tie Rakhi to neighbours and close friends signifying a peaceful co-existence of every individual. Rakhi Utsav was first popularised by Rabindranath Tagore to promote the feeling of unity and a commitment to all members of society to protect each other and encourage a harmonious social life.
In today’s scenario, the day has a different perspective. The occasion involves a pledge of life-time practice of moral, cultural and spiritual values. The values and the sentiments attached to the rituals of this festival are worth inculcating by the entire human race, the sentiments of harmony and peaceful coexistence. The festival of Raksha Bandhan assumes all forms of Raksha or protection, of righteousness and destroyer of all sin.
Breaking Shackles of Social Stigma
Following the ritual, ahead of Raksha Bandhan this year on 26th August, erstwhile scavenger Usha Sharma and Bhagwati along with Abha Kumar, Nitya Pathak, Jyotsna Pathak and Aakanksha Sharma (members of Sulabh) met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tie Rakhi. This was not the first time when erstwhile scavengers celebrated Raksha Bandhan with PM Modi.
Several manual scavengers, liberated by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, tied rakhi to PM Narendra Modi on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan last year also.
Not only the erstwhile scavengers but widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi have also tied rakhi to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the past.
Back in 2014 and years ahead
The widows of Vrindavan, long ostracised and excluded from festivities, took another small step to reclaim their space in society by publicly celebrating Rakhi (Raksha Bandhan), even as a few of them prepared to meet ‘brother’ Narendra Modi with 1,000 rakhis and seek his protection.
A delegation of six widows, three each from Vrindavan and Varanasi, were granted permission to meet the Prime Minister. They carried the “Modi Rakhis” — each had a picture of the PM — that were hand-made by 100 widows, most of them in their 80s.
They tied Rakhi to PM Modi and sought a better future for widows.
The meeting with Modi highlighted the growing confidence of these women and the strides they have taken since they started defying oppressive customs since 2014.
The same tradition was followed in 2015, when ageing widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi designed around 1,000 special rakhis for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sent it to him on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan on August 29. The elderly women living in Meera Sahabhagini Ashram in Vrindavan made rakhis displaying pictures of Modi and sent it to the PM’s house.
A group of five women from manual-scavenging background also tied rakhi to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In 2017, the group of five erstwhile scavengers handed over 1,000 rakhis to Modi designed by the widows from Vrindavana and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh who have been looked after by Sulabh International.
Tying Rakhi to prime minister is a major symbol against the existing stigma towards manual scavengers and widows. It is a sad thing that widows have been considered inauspicious and manual scavengers as untouchables.
With the help of Sulabh International, these people have been moved from manual scavenging to works like beauty parlour, embroidery and painting.
Earlier on Raksha Bandhan, hundreds of manual scavengers and widows also tied rakhis on the wrist of Hindu priests and Sanskrit scholars.
A special programme was organised at the five-century-old Gopinath temple in Vrindavan, where rakhis were packed in beautifully decorated baskets carrying sweets. Widows living in Vrindavan’s Meera Sahabhigini Ashram made a major contribution in the making of these sacred threads.
The event is part of efforts to bring these women, who have been socially ostracised for ages and kept away from festivals and other celebrations, into the social mainstream.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak feels that such an initiative will not just bring cheer in the lives of these women, but also help bring a change in the social outlook. “Widows, after the death of their husbands, still face humiliation and insult from their family members. They are even restricted from attending any auspicious function in their families. They are not allowed to wear colourful saris, ornaments and have to wear only white clothes. So, my idea is how to change the thoughts, behaviour and attitude of the people of this country towards the widows of India, who are their mothers and sisters,” said Dr Pathak, who has been putting all his efforts in helping improve the lives of around 1,500 such women in Varanasi, Vrindavan and Kedarnath Valley.
Breaking shackles of social stigma, these women had taken part in Holi, Diwali and Durga Puja celebrations following efforts of Dr Pathak and his Sulabh organisation.
Sulabh International, known worldwide for promoting the concept of low-cost sanitation, has been committed to the welfare of widows after the Supreme Court took strong exception in 2012 to the manner in which the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, were disposed.
The initiative was taken by the founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, who has been campaigning for social equality for five decades.
The idea behind this is how to change thoughts, behaviour and attitude of the people of the country towards widows, who are their mothers, sisters, aunts, and so forth.
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