It says something about the way that India and other countries fail to look after those in need that it has taken an Indian businessman based in London to alert the world to the plight of widows who are cast aside in their thousands by families after their husbands die.
Yesterday Lord (Raj) Loomba was lauded at a reception in Downing Street and a large banquet in the government’s Whitehall Banqueting House for bringing the problem to international attention. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, who hosted the reception, said that Loomba had shone a light on an international problem that had not previously been identified. Loomba became a Lib-Dem peer last year and donated £150,000 to the party a few months ago.
Earlier in the day, Cherie Blair, wife of Britain’s former Labour prime minister, and Cilla Black, a famous singer and entertainer, led a group of supporters with 20 goats across London Bridge on a wet and windy walk to draw attention to the widows’ plight.
“For widows in South Asia and across Africa, owning a goat is often a lifeline – providing milk and sometimes meat for an impoverished family,” says Blair, who is president of the Loomba Foundation. “And though the Loomba Foundation hasn’t yet bought goats for widows, it’s certainly considering it”. “The goat is a symbol of wealth and prosperity and often a life-line for many widows in South Asia and across Africa”, says the Foundation website. This of course is mere symbolism, as is the provision of 10,000 sewing machines for widows announced last night, but people on yesterday’s walk told me that they saw it as a way of increasing awareness.
Is India’s social conscience so lacking that it has to be left to an Indian businessman seeking social recognition, and to a goat parade and elite events in Whitehall, to wake up the country to the widows’ plight?
Widows suffer in many parts of the world but the problem is especially serious in India where they are shunned and discriminated against, especially over inheritance, at all levels of society. This reflects a broad negative bias – the discrimination, and abuse and even killings, are on a scale unparalleled in the top 19 economies of the world, according to a recent poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The treatment of widows is worse in the north and in different areas such as West Bengal, which is among the harshest. Thousands of poor women retreat after their husbands die to ashrams in Vrindavan, a holy Hindu city between Delhi and Agra, and to Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city on the Ganges, where they are frequently treated abominably without adequate shelter and food (see this NDTV video). In 2000, when Deepa Mehta, a well known film maker, planned to record the widows’ plight in Vrindavan and Varanasi, radical political activists who did not want their traditions publicized or criticised drove her out and she made the film three years later in Sri Lanka
Viewed from London, this is a disgraceful social problem, which is why Loomba was celebrated last night at a level rarely awarded to an individual. Yet the celebration also illustrates how charity work is often undertaken by people looking primarily for self-aggrandisement and recognition, drawing the rich and powerful into often wastefully extravagant elite social gatherings that boost their own images as well as generating funds for causes.
Look at the Loomba Foundation’s website home page and you find only details of yesterday events and a very large picture (left) of Loomba with Cherie Blair standing in front of the Palace of Westminster with Lord Dholakia, a Liberal-Democratic Party deputy leader of which Loomba is a member.
Raj Loomba was born and brought up in Punjab and moved with his family to the UK in 1962 when he was almost 20. He built up a fashion and clothing business (Rinku Fashions), became involved in various charities, and set up the Loomba Foundation in 1997, initially to educate Indian widows’ children. A mild-looking man, he always been controversial, as a 2005 article in the Calcutta Telegraph showed – including a widely reported (and denied) allegation that widows had been left unfed in the heat of Delhi after they had been bussed in for a photo shoot with lunchtime dignitaries at his house in Prithviraj Road.
He has been inspired by his mother, who was widowed at an early age and by 2006 some 3,600 children had been educated in India. The current figure is 3,000, plus more in Africa where Loomba works with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite charity. Elsewhere the foundation is linked with the Prince of Wales’ Youth Business International helping widows start small businesses.
In 2005, Cherie Blair launched International Widows Day at the House of Lords in London and an international campaign gathered top international names. Then, last December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution officially recognising 23 June – the anniversary of the day Loomba’s mother became a widow – as International Widows Day.
That is a remarkable achievement, whatever the original motivation. Loomba’s friends have always known that his primary target was to become a member of the House of Lords, which he did in January last year via an earlier CBE. It is that single-minded focus that generates cynical criticism from Indians in both the UK and India because of the effort that has been put into gaining personal recognition.
But what most people at yesterday’s events in London probably did not realise as they sipped champagne is that this is not a problem that can just be addressed directly by government action, especially in India where there is neither the political will nor strong institutions and western-style social conscience to tackle such issues.
The treatment of widows is rooted deep in Indian’s patriarchal society and includes ancient Hindu practices such a sati, where a widow leaps onto a husband’s funeral pyre. It affects all classes from the poorest to the elite – though there are notable exceptions like Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi as well as members of other dynasties where a widow can be a political asset.
There are basic mercenary motivations. Women are often bullied out of inheriting land, which passes down the male line in order to limit the fragmentation of land holdings through successive generations. There have been social movements to correct this and make helping widows a noble social act, but that is not a general approach.
What is needed is a change of attitude at all levels of society in India so that widows have automatic rights of inheritance and are empowered to make new lives and remarry. I doubt whether marking an International Widows’ Day by walking goats, feasting in Downing Street, and providing sewing machines will have much impact on that.