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A Visit to Shaheed Bhavan and the War Widows Association

The author and her husband (second and third from left) at the WWA

The stories of other members are no less heartrending. Each officer bearer carries the burden of loss and each has transformed tragedy into the will to do good for society. These brave women have faced the vicissitudes of life with a smile and turned their personal tragedies into a universal good.

by Zenobia Panthaki (w/o Veteran Brig BM Panthaki)

On December 9, 2019, we had the privilege of visiting Shaheed Bhawan, the location from which the War Widows’ Association of Delhi operates. All office bearers were women who had lost their spouses in the line of duty, but the misfortune of those whose husbands continue to remain ‘missing in action’ since 1971, was beyond imagination. To carry the burden of grief without coming to closure for close to half a century is beyond endurance…or so we thought until we met our host, then General Secretary and now President of the Association, Damayanti V. Tambay.

Married in 1970 to fighter pilot, Flt Lt Vijay Vasant Tambay, this was not the life she had envisioned, but fate ruled otherwise. Her husband’s aircraft was shot down somewhere in the western sector and he was declared ‘missing in action’ by the Army. Fortunately, sports was Damayanti’s forte. Not allowing herself to wallow in grief, she took up a job as Sports Director for Jawaharlal Nehru University, training young sportspersons. While holding this position, she was also called upon by policy-making committees of UGC, CBSE, NCERT, Sports Authority of India, Badminton Association and NADA for consultations on how to promote sport and physical education. Damayanti served the University for 43 years with commitment and passion.

The stories of other members are no less heartrending. Each officer bearer carries the burden of loss and each has transformed tragedy into the will to do good for society. The Chairperson of the Organization, Dr. V. Mohini Giri, paid a befitting tribute to the organization when she called it a ‘premier institute’ and ‘a caregiver to many’, that has worked ‘to make the world a better place’. The WWA was started in 1972, post the 1971 war with Pakistan. Apart from Delhi, there are WWA chapters in many other states. The mission of the organization is to provide succor to and empower war widows, to take up the cause of their entitlements and to prevail on the government to locate approximately 50 soldiers declared ‘missing in action’.

Working closely with Zila Sainik Boards and Ex-Servicemen’s Leagues, WWA identifies and locates war widows and their families and reaches out to them with legal and financial aid. They work with individuals to resolve pension issues since the death of the defense personnel brings with it severe financial constraints. At Shaheed Bhawan’s Dialogue Centre, WWA conducts sessions to make widows aware of their legal rights, government schemes and entitlements. The longer-term goal is to bolster confidence and a sense of self-worth and to empower them through education and training to be financially independent.  WWA runs Vocational Training classes in tailoring, beauty culture, nursing, computer education and spoken English, computer courses focus on basic literacy, use of Microsoft programs and the internet.

This training has opened avenues for employment and some widows have even set up their own businesses. WWA has adroitly put into practice the adage, ‘give a (wo)man a fish and she eats for a day, teach a (wo)man to fish and you feed her for a lifetime’. After the initial success with War Widows, the Association decided to expand its outreach to include marginalized women and children. Coaching classes for children in grades X-XII and for competitive exams are critical and popular. Free English classes are conducted for children at secondary and University level with a focus on spoken English as many of them aspire go abroad for further studies.  In March 2017 WWA inaugurated ‘Summit’, a play school for toddlers which serves as daycare cum kindergarten. The curriculum includes prayers, reading and writing in Hindi and English, mathematics, social sciences, general knowledge, physical education and cultural activities.

A midday meal is also provided.  The striking achievement of this school has been that in 2019 three children from Summit got admission to their neighbourhood Central School. At PTA meetings, guidance is given to the mothers on primary health, cleanliness, discipline, punctuality, the importance of inculcating good habits and avoidance of gender discrimination. There are free medical check-ups for mothers and older siblings who attend!  Unfortunately, fathers seldom make it.  Given their socio-economic background, they probably cannot afford to take time off from work.

Recently, WWA organized a free Gynecology Camp for mothers and daughters with a discussion on ‘Sexual and Reproductive Health’. The focus was on contraception, family planning and the benefit of a small but healthy family. Information was also provided on cancer and its treatment by leading professionals in the field. All these talks and discussions are conducted in Hindi and interactive to encourage participation. Social issues are also discussed to raise awareness of women’s rights, violence against women and gender equality. Recently, a camp was organized on pranayam and meditation.

Besides its own programs, WWA has now started partnering with another humanitarian organization. It supports the Sarahana Society which works with autistic and special needs children through occupational and dance therapy, special education, sports and provision of nutritional supplements. It supported five children of Shanti Sahyog, an NGO that works in urban slums, by providing funding for their tuition, books, stationery, uniforms, health care and vocational training.  Two of the children have a widowed mother who is handicapped, two are orphans and one is the child of a very poor widow.

It works with Angel Home, an orphanage, that runs a school from KG to Class XII. WWA’s outreach has been able to provide love, affection and a path to independence through education to abandoned children. WWA became a partner of Enfold Proactive Health Trust, a CSR and advocacy partnership venture, to help sexually abused children resist exploitation, report predators and to move on to rehabilitation and eventually to education and independence. Rs. 1,50,000 was given to AASRA, a suicide prevention and counselling NGO, to support children with severe disabilities. The funds will be used to set up a hostel for orphans. Rs.50,000 was also given to ‘Family of Disabled’, another NGO, which has for over 30 years worked for the disabled. This NGO is the brainchild of an quadriplegic philanthropist who works from his bed.

The list of humanitarian work is exhaustive and makes one wonder where the energy comes from. But WWA does take breaks to celebrate national days and festivals like International Women’s Day and Kargil Diwas. A Veer Nari Samman Sammaroh was organized on Vijay Diwas, December 16, 2017, where three war widows were honored. WWA has also decided to give a one-time grant of Rs 10,000 to all war widows or next-of-kin of defense personnel killed in the line of duty. On February 14, 2019 homage was paid to the 40 CRPF martyrs of the Pulwama attack and a sum of Rs.25,000 was given to each of their widows.

These brave women have faced the vicissitudes of life with a smile and turned their personal tragedies into a universal good.  Damayanti V. Tambay continues, over the years, to meet with the Defence Ministers to pursue the case of the 54 missing defense personnel which has been the core of her life for the past 49 years. The heart-wrenching documentary, ‘Hope Dies Last in War’ by Supriyo Sen, poignantly reflects the anguish, pain, loss and desperation of the families of service personnel declared ‘missing in action’.

The ex-President of WWA, Jasjiwan Kaur, reminds us of the famous message from the fallen, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” I would like to end with this postscript, “Yes, for our tomorrow you gave your today, and your Veer Naris are honouring your memory and sacrifice by giving their todays to make many tomorrows brighter.”

Any contribution to WWA will go a long way in bringing cheer to a deserving family!  Contributions are tax exempt under 80G of the IT Act, 1961

If you wish to donate, make  out the cheque to: War Widows Association, New Delhi.

 Address: War Widows Association, Shaheed Bhawan, 18/1 Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, New Delhi – 110067