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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 March 2005, 09:59 GMT
India's village of 'political widows'
By Amarnath Tewary
BBC News, Bihar

Sukhiya Devi's husband was killed by political rivals (Pics: Prashant Ravi)
Tears well up in 60-year-old Tara Devi's eyes when she remembers the day in August 1978 when her husband was shot dead near his home in Bihat, a village in India's northern Bihar state.

Sitaram Mishra, a popular Communist leader, was allegedly killed by his political rivals a mere eight months after he was elected to the state legislature from a constituency in Begusarai district.

Today, Tara Devi ekes out a miserable living on her husband's $51 a month pension. Her son is a coal miner.

"Somehow I just get on with my life. Otherwise, there is no meaning in living," she says.

Tara Devi is one of this backward village's many 'political widows' - or women who have lost their husbands in bloody, internecine political clashes over the years.

So much so that Bihat has earned the sobriquet of "village of political widows".

Traditional foes

According to one estimate, some 100 political workers, mostly belonging to the Communist and Congress parties, have been murdered in the village in a little over three decades.

Just another underdeveloped hamlet in India's poorest and most lawless state, Bihat is dominated by the upper Bhumihar caste.

Can someone please stop these mindless killings between the two parties? How many more women have to become political widows?
Renu Devi

Though Bhumihars make up about three per cent of Bihar's population, they comprise half of Bihat's people.

The Congress and Communist parties have been traditional foes in the area - and inevitably have clashed over greater political dominance.

The result has been a bloodbath which has no parallel even in Bihar's violent political culture.

"Bihat has seen more political violence and deaths than any other village in Bihar," says well-known political scientist Shaibal Gupta.

He alleges it all began when the Congress party, backed by local landlords, launched an assault on the Communists in the area.

The Communists were backed by the minority backward castes in the area.

"The unending bloodbath began when the Communists resisted the Congress party which was dominated and supported by feudal lords at that time," says Mr Gupta.

A local Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Chandeshwari Prasad, who has survived three attempts on his life, agrees Bihat's blood violence was triggered off when the "weaker sections stood up for their rights in face of feudalism".

Though the politics of Bihar changed over the years and lower castes became influential through powerful regional caste-based parties, the violence in Bihat showed no signs of letting-up.

Ahilya Devi, whose husband was murdered in 1989, has a polio stricken son
Shaibal Gupta says the political encounters of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to bloodier clashes between the supporters of the two rival parties over spoils from stolen goods from a local railroad yard and the awarding of contracts over a local fertiliser factory and power station.

Pitiful lot

The legacy is a village of widows of political wars - some of them have died and a few have remarried.

But revenge and retribution is almost a leitmotif of life in Bihat.

Tara Devi, for example, says that her only solace is that the seven men who were accused of killing her husband met the same fate.

"They were reprisal killings within two weeks of my husband's murder," she says.

The conditions of most of the poverty stricken widows who live in mud huts is pitiable.

Tara Devi
Tara Devi's only solace is her husband's alleged killers were also murdered
Ahilya Devi, whose husband was gunned down with another Communist party worker in 1989, lives on a paltry pension from the party.

That is hardly enough to look after her five daughters and a son.

"We do not have any means of livelihood. We don't have any land or livestock," she says.

Sirja Devi, another 'political widow', says she had received no government benefits meant for people living in abject poverty - cheaper food rations or low-cost housing, for example.

"What can I do? This has been the fate of the poor since the beginning. I keep voting the Communists thinking one day our lot will improve," she says.

A man mourning the death of his cousin, who was killed in a political clash
Shanti Devi says her husband was killed by local Communist party workers, and she and her family go to bed hungry most days.

"Most of the time we go to bed without food. We did not receive any assistance, neither from the government nor from the Congress party for which my husband sacrificed my life", she said.

Mamta Devi, whose contractor husband was shot dead two years ago, was slightly luckier - district authorities gave her a compensation of $232 after villagers blocked a road in protest against the murder.

'Mindless killings'

Today, the young widow lives with her three young daughters and her in-laws in a small thatch and mud hut.

"Politics claimed the life of my husband like many other women in the area," she said.

Renu Devi, whose husband was murdered in 1999, says the rival politicians should bury the hatchet and stop killings.

"Can someone please stop these mindless killings between the two parties? How many more women have to become political widows?, " she says.

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