Did you know that until yesterday, if a gallantry award winner’s widow was to continue receiving the money due to her as a decorated soldier’s widow, she couldn’t marry anyone but her dead husband’s brother?
Not sure what that means? Can’t stop thinking of the plot of Ek Chadar Maili Si (which was amazingly and caustically reviewed by Ruth Vanitha in 1987), where Hema Malini was forced to marry her late alcoholic husband’s baby brother? We were a bit bamboozled when we read the news too.
Yesterday, a defence official told the media that the government was set to rescind a rule that dictated the very specific conditions under which gallantry award winners’ widows would receive their allowances. “The government, after considering the issue and receiving several representations, has now decided to remove the condition of the widow’s remarriage with her late husband’s brother for continuation of the monetary allowance.” It must be pointed out here that it’s not like the government took it upon itself to do this, and had, in fact, ignored several previous attempts to get this rule off the books, including an appeal to the Defence Minister in 2013.
The move comes now after the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) sharply criticised the rule and the government’s inaction in the case of an appeal filed by Janak Anand, the widow of Captain S C Sehgal, who was awarded a Vir Chakra during the 1971 Indo-Pak war when he was killed in battle a few months after his marriage.
Although Janak Anand continued to receive a “liberalised family pension” after her marriage to another army officer, Major Dipak Anand in 1974, she was no longer granted the monetary benefits from the Vir Chakra awarded to her late husband. This is because of the outlandishly bizarre rule reinforced by a letter issued by the Ministry of Defence in 1995 that reads, “The widow will continue to receive the allowance until her re-marriage or death. The payment of the allowance will, however, continue to a widow who re-marries the late husband’s brother and lives a communal life with the living heir eligible for family pension.”
Er, hullo? The law basically tells widows who to marry (and settled on their dead husband’s brother as the only option) if they want to keep receiving the payments due to them as war widows. What can you even say?
As obviously biased, bizarre and outdated as this rule is, it’s also interesting to note how the specific verbiage of the rule cleverly puts the traditional notion of levirate marriage on its head, making it seem as though this is a form of marriage where women have any choice, agency or control. Levirate marriage is widely practiced across many countries. It’s the name given to the situation when the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. The entire concept of levirate marriage focuses on the brother-in-law’s “duty” to protect his brother’s widow, and sees no exercise of agency on the part of the woman. This law, which says that payments will continue to a widow who remarries her husband’s brother, takes an outdated notion that’s inherently damaging to women and turns it on its head, actually requiring that women actively take part in the practice if they’re to receive monetary allowances.
It’s great news that this bizarre rule has been scrapped, but it also makes you wonder how many more insanities we’re left to find in all our rulebooks and statutes, and how long it will take to clean our laws up.