|Basanti Mishra at her Ichak home on Sunday. Picture by Vishvendu Jaipuriar
Hazaribagh, June 24: Basanti Mishra fought for the right to exercise her choice when death visited upon the family earlier this month: she performed the last rites of her husband who succumbed to sunstroke.
In life nine days on, the 38-year-old lady was not given a choice: she was tonsured last night in the presence of community elders.
“I had no choice,” Basanti told The Telegraph. “Maine wahi kiya jo mujhse kaha gaya. Virodh karke kahan jayenge. Ab to pati bhi nahi hai aur rehna isi samaj mei hai (I did what I was told to do. Where do I go after rebelling? My husband is gone and I have to live in this society),” she said.
The location of the events also resonates with significance: Basanti’s village falls in Ichak block in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh, infamous in the 1990s for clocking India’s largest number of dowry deaths. The block is around 30km from the district headquarters.
The community elders in Daria village had insisted that the mundan was mandatory for anyone who performed the last rites. Widows were tonsured in the last century but it is seen as an inhuman symbol of ostracism now.
In Basanti’s case, many suspect that the tonsure was punishment meted out in the guise of a religious requirement because she performed a ritual that has been considered as a male prerogative.
This is also the first reported instance in which a Brahmin woman has been tonsured in Jharkhand for performing the last rites. Upper caste women are usually spared such humiliation.
Several women in Daria who spoke to this correspondent said they were seething with anger but did not dare speak out. The refrain: “What happened to Basanti is wrong and degrading. But please don’t take my name.”
Basanti’s husband, a farmer and priest, died of sunstroke on June 15 while returning home after conducting a puja.
Basanti told the village elders that she would perform the agni sanskar, the Hindu funeral ritual usually associated with males though instances of women carrying it out are not unheard of. The lady said she was entitled to do so as the couple had no son. Basanti has a daughter aged five.
But some men reacted with derision. “They told me that it was against religious customs,” she said. The bereaved lady stuck to her stand and, on the afternoon of June 15, performed the agni sanskar.
Soon after the ritual, some community elders told Basanti to get herself tonsured. A section of influential villagers said that since Basanti had not tonsured at the time of the agni sanskar, she should do it on the dash karam (tenth day). Local priest Pandit Parmeshwar Mishra quoted from a book of tenets named Nirnay Sindhu and declared that anyone performing the rite should opt for the tonsure.
Basanti resisted for eight days but gave in on the ninth.
Since Basanti has said she would not file a complaint, Ichak police officers said their hands were tied.
The lone voice of protest in public has been that of Ichak block development officer Leena Priya. “This is open humiliation of a woman and not acceptable,” Priya said, adding that she would look into the matter.