Niladri Banerjee, descendant of legendary reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, visited Sulabh Gram
“As long as this salutary practice will be deferred, so long will the crimes of prostitution, adultery, incest and foeticide flow on in an ever increasing current… so long will a widow’s agony blaze on in fiercer flames…” Such was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s tryst with the upliftment of Hindu widows in Indian society.
In 1856, barely a year before the Sepoy Mutiny, a landmark legislation was passed by the British, thanks to the untiring efforts of a great educationist, humanist, and a social reformer of Bengal, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Vidyasagar’s life struggle was to dignify the life of the Hindu widows and ensure egalitarianism and dignity for those whom the caste system viewed as lower, unclean and polluted. This great reformer’s story is one of commitment and compassion – a commitment to the better of the society, a compassion towards the plights of widows, especially child widows. This influenced his passionate campaign and he worked hard to make life better for these young girls and women.
Ishwar Chandra passed away in 1891, but widows continued to be deprived of almost all social, personal, and economic rights. Until it was the year 2012 when Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, stepped in to take forward the legacy of Vidyasagar.
When Dr Niladri Banejree, a fifth generation descendant of the legendary Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagr, visited the much-heard-about Sulabh Gram, he was really happy to learn of the ways how Dr Pathak has been dedicated towards keeping ignited the legacy of his ancestor.
“The term ‘widow’ is in itself a problem. When a woman loses her husband, she is called a widow, but when a man loses his wife he is not given any name. I think the most important – or rather the strangest – thing is that it took over 150 years to uplift widows, and somebody still needs to work on it. It shows how slowly it has been taken up and how difficult it was over 150 years back. Certainly, what Dr Pathak is doing is definitely carrying this forward,” Dr Banerjee said. “You come to know about these activities, but working at the ground-level is very different from learning it by reading an article. So that is what his (Dr Pathak’s) main contribution is. He is actually doing something rather than mere researches or commentaries,” he added.
Dr Pathak even today recalls that day in August 2012, sometime during Rakshabandhan, when he had gone to Vrindavan and met the widows of the town. Most of them were reduced to begging on the streets. They surrounded him and shared stories of their plight – how they had to live without money, food, and basic amenities.
Informing Dr Banerjee about Sulabh’s endeavour, Dr Pathak said, “Whenever one turns the pages of work done for widows in history, the names of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar come on the top. The efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar against this cruel and inhuman practice.
He narrated the tale of how a seven-year-old girl was declined food in her own house after her husband died. She was told that since she is a widow now, she cannot eat the ‘puri-kheer’ like others, neither can she do a lot of other things – like being seen in the public or participating in auspicious occasions, etc. When Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar visited her house, he talked to the girl and told her that if you cannot eat, then I will also not.
“This malpractice of declaring women inauspicious the moment they turn into a widow, Ishwar Chandra fought against it his entire life. Sulabh has also been working in that direction only. We look after the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi. They live in Sulabh-assissted widow-homes and are given a stipend of Rs 2000/- a month to make their ends meet,” said Dr Pathak.
Dr Pathak also urged all the people, gathered for the morning assembly with Dr Niladri Banerjee, to make it a point to ensure that such malpractices are swept off our society.
“Social work begins from self efforts. All small-small efforts together become the force against such evils, and each such effort goes down the pages of history,” he said.
Dr Niladri Banerjee participated in Sulabh’s morning prayer and was welcomed in traditional manner with a scarf and garland and was gifted a Madhubani painting.
After the prayer, he headed to pay visit to the entire Sulabh Gram. Coming across the Sulabh technology, he said, “I think the Sulabh technology has enormous potential. It is extremely sustainable and low-cost technology, which has a potential to be widely adopted.”
“In order for any society to develop, I think that we as scientists or engineers or doctors need to play a much more active role in the society. Coming to Sulabh is a very nice learning experience. If we follow what this organisation (Sulabh) and Dr Pathak is saying, things are going to change,” he concluded.
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