The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Widow vote in chains
- Sickly & scared, Vrindavan women cast ballots on orders from ashram madams

Vrindavan, April 10: Sickly, starved and exploited, the widows of Vrindavan don’t know how strong they are.

With over 20,000 of them in a single Assembly constituency, they can easily cut their deal with a poll candidate.

Instead, the deal is struck by the “madams”, the managers of the homes that shelter these abandoned widows, most of them from Bengal.

Jaake madam bolbe, taakei to deete hobe (I have to vote for whoever madam wants me to),” said 70-year-old Rani (name changed), who has been living in Vrindavan for the past 45 years.

Doesn’t she have her own favourite candidate' Rani is surprised at the question.

She knows nothing of politics, parties or candidates. Her prime concerns are two meals a day and a roof over her head.

“These women do not have any interest in elections. They vote for fear of their ashrams’ managers who often sell their votes to the parties,” said the chairperson of Vrindavan municipality, Pushpa Sharma.

“They are virtually poll slaves. They cannot at any cost anger the managers and risk losing the shelter the ashrams provide them.”

It’s not difficult to see why. Rani’s husband died when she was a young woman. Her in-laws ill-treated her, and after a few years she decided enough was enough and left for Vrindavan.

Like her, some of the widows came here by themselves, but most were brought and dumped here by relatives.

You can see them everywhere, an army of shaven-headed women in ragged white cotton saris, begging bowl in hand, moving around the temples and markets.

Aamaar to onno kothao jabar jaiga nei baba (I have nowhere else to go),” Rani said.

A small number of the widows can afford to live independently in rented rooms. The rest, like Rani, stay in the “ashrams”, four to six of them packed into one small and dank room.

There are over 50 of these shelters, the biggest being Amaar Baari Mahila Ashram at Tarash Mandir and Meera Sahbhagini Mahila Samaj Sanstha. They don’t give food to the women. To earn their meals, the widows must queue up to sing at the bhajan ashrams or beg.

The candidates know the importance of these 20,000 votes but don’t waste their time campaigning among these women.

They have already paid the managers and been assured a certain number of votes, Sharma said.

Vrindavan is part of the Assembly constituency of Mathura Sadar, which will vote in the second phase, on April 13.

Congress candidate Pradeep Mathur is trying to retain the seat but faces a fight from the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Guddu Gau- tam and the BJP’s Murari Lal Agrawal.

With polling still a few days away, the widows are busy with their daily routine, singing bhajans in praise of “Thakurji” for four hours in the morning to earn a cup of dal and rice.

There will be another stint in the evening, to get two rupees at the bhajan ashrams.

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