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Partners in pain

Partners in pain A common cause: Subhashini with Salma Shafeeq Ghori (red dupatta) and Shakuntala Bhandarkar | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Overcoming her personal loss, Subhashini Vasanth has created a support system for the martyrs' families

Subhashini Vasanth was rehearsing for a play when she got the news that her husband had been killed in the line of duty. It was too much of a coincidence. Playing the protagonist in The Silent Front, which paid tribute to the soldier’s wife, Subhashini realised that she was no longer enacting just a script.

On July 31, 2007, Col Vasanth Venugopal, commanding officer of 9 Maratha Light Infantry, died battling insurgents in Uri sector of Jammu and Kashmir. Six weeks later, Subhashini travelled to Delhi to stage the play penned by her. “Vasanth used to tell me that as a trained bharatnatyam dancer, I should use my perceptions and insights into life for the larger good,” says Subhashini. “And, The Silent Front was born. But he was not there to watch it. When the organisers called me, I sought some time. Vasanth’s loss had left a void in my life. In September 2007, we staged the play in Delhi and a few months later in Bengaluru.”

The play, directed by National School of Drama alumnus Seema Azmi, explores the mind of three generations of Army wives. If the pre-independence generation of women had taken part in the freedom movement and shown pride in their husbands joining the Army, the next generation supported their husbands and travelled with them on their postings. But today, when many women are aspiring to be in the Army, very few wives are comfortable with their husbands being sent to the front, says Subhashini.

“The Silent Front was an idea borne out of an urge to tell the story of the person behind the soldier. Though a dancer, I chose to make a theatre production as I felt it had the right mix—intense love, sacrifice for the country and, most importantly, the journey through the woman’s mind who is fighting a void every second,” she says. “It gives an insight into how changing priorities of women are affecting the armed forces today.”

In April 2007, Subhashini had accompanied Vasanth to Belgaum to visit a martyr’s family. “Instead of consoling the widow, I broke down,” she says. “After three months, Vasanth was martyred and I realised that I had my family, friends and people from across the world reaching out to me. But I knew of many women who spent these moments of grief alone. I wanted to be a bridge and help them regain their rhythm in life.”

Subhashini formed Vasantharatna Foundation for Art in October 2007 to build a network of families of martyrs in Karnataka. Shakuntala Bhandarkar, wife of Col Ajit Bhandarkar, a Kargil war martyr, joined as the executive director and Salma Shafeeq Ghori, wife of Major S.M.K. Ghori who died in 2001 while fighting terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, became the project coordinator.

“Most women we work with lost their husbands in their early 20s and have young children, and little to fall back on,” says Shakuntala. “The pension [Rs 16,000 to Rs 18,000] is often shared with the in-laws. In many cases, the family decides to get the widow remarried within the family so that the benefits remain with the family.”

Savithri, who lost her husband, Yeshwanth Kolkar, during the Kargil war, didn't know that war widows got a pension. “It was only after coming in touch with other women that I got to know about it,” she says. “Today, I run a gas agency.”

The paperwork for getting the entitlements is exhausting and the apathy appalling. It took Subhashini seven years to get the land promised to her by the Karnataka government as part of the compensation. “It hurts our dignity to keep running from pillar to post trying to claim our entitlement,” says Subhashini. “While some officials asked me why I needed land when my family was well off, there were others who told me I should blame myself for the situation because I chose to marry a soldier. I am fighting five court cases over the land allotted to me. Now, it is a question of principle and my dignity as a soldier’s wife. Justice Santosh Hegde told me to stand up for my rights as it will ensure that other needy families, too, get their due.”

THE FOUNDATION HAS started the 'gift-a-birthday' programme to celebrate the birthdays of wives and children of martyrs and instituted a memorial award for excellence and scholarships for children pursuing a master's programme (the government provides support only till graduation). It also organises an annual camp and leadership training programme in Belgaum. “We have fun activities and confidence-building exercises besides grievance redressal,” says Salma.

Being a soldier's wife is tough as they live under the constant fear of losing their loved one. But, for Subhashini, it was a spontaneous decision. She knew Vasanth from her school days. He was her sister's classmate.

For a soldier, death is a constant companion. “On his first posting after the marriage to Pathankot, I recall Vasanth becoming very emotional after renewing his will. I told him not to be silly. 'Everyone makes a will,' I told him. But the day he was martyred, I realised what it meant.”

Today, Subhashini divides her time between the foundation, dancing career and raising her two daughters. She is weary of people’s misplaced compassion. “Many people call us to say they want to marry a widow. I tell them, we don’t run a matrimonial bureau. It is important for people to respect these women and not pity them. Marriage is not the only way forward,” says Subhashini, who was recently presented with the Neerja Bhanot Award. “I'm elated as this award is in recognition of my work and not for being Vasanth’s widow,” she says.

A graduate in literature, journalism and psychology, Subhashini published Vasanth's biography in 2011. Titled Col Vasanth: Forever Forty, it is a compilation of the brave officer's experiences sourced through the 400-odd letters he wrote home during a career spanning 18 years. The book is a “celebration of a life well-lived,” says Subhashini.

Recently, Vasantharatna Found-ation made a documentary called Borders Create Widows to highlight the plight of the martyrs' families. Narrated by actor Amitabh Bachchan, it raises a pertinent question: who can a martyr's widow trust? The civic society needs to answer that.

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