For three long years, 22-year-old Sanjana Chauhan has somehow eked out an existence, working hard to support the needs of her mother and her growing daughter, who was born a mere 13 days before her husband succumbed to tuberculosis.
Now that she is finally on the threshold of a new life, having married a second time, a panchayat in the heart of the city has passed the verdict that the child be handed over to the parents of her first husband.
“For all the years, when I, my mother and my daughter were living our life in distress, there was no panchayat that came to ask me whether I was being able to take care of my child by myself, and whether the in-laws should be asked to chip in for her needs. Now that she is finally getting a father, the panchayat is asking me to hand her over to her grandparents. I am not going to let this happen. The panchayat has even gone to the extent of threatening to excommunicate me and my family from the community if the child isn’t handed over,” said Sanjana. “She’s my daughter. My present husband has accepted her. I am her guardian and will keep her with me all my life, taking responsibility for all her needs,” she added.
Sanjana and her first husband, Bharat Maru, were both born into the Meghwal community, which has a population of nearly 14 lakh in Mumbai, and 10,000 in Tulsiwadi in Tardeo. After her marriage to Maru in 2009, Chauhan delivered a baby girl on December 19. Thirteen days later, on December 31, Bharat succumbed to tuberculosis. Since then, Sanjana has been living with her mother at Tulsiwadi.
Two years after her husband’s death, she decided to move on and tie the knot again with another man from the same area. But the trouble began on December 1, when Sanjana approached the community panchayat — Tulsiwadi Meghwal Panchayat — for a divorce from her first husband’s family, as per the norms of the community (see box).
Mahendra Rabhadiya, secretary of the panchayat, confirmed that Sanjana had approached the panchayat, which passed the verdict that her child be handed over to her paternal grandparents. “The mother has remarried, and she approached us for a talak from her deceased husband’s family. Hence we asked her that she should give the daughter to the grandparents and go ahead with her marriage. After the father’s death, the child anyway belongs to his father. She also will have some right to his property. Also, the lady’s new husband might not take care of the child,” said Rabhadiya, without batting an eyelid.
Talak from a family?
According to Rabhadiya, the Meghwal community has been following a custom for generations, which dictates that when a married man dies, the widow needs to take permission from her deceased husband’s family for the green signal for another marriage. The permission can even be oral.
“I don’t want anything from my deceased husband’s family, I want to sever all ties with that family and lead a happy and safe life ahead. Hence I approached the panchayat. But now, all has gone against my happiness. I don’t want any money or maintenance for the child, but only my daughter. I hear that they plan to take away my daughter on December 19, when the kid turns three,” said a distraught Sanjana.
Rabhadiya however denied any such threat from the panchayat to Sanjana. “We are trying to solve the matter amicably and hence are asking the woman to give the child to the grandparents,” he said.
‘No legal standing’
Advocate Manisha Tulpule, who deals with such socio-legal cases and was approached by Sanjana for help, said, “As per the law, the mother is the natural guardian of the child as long as she is alive. On what grounds can the panchayat ask a mother to hand over her child to someone else? Such panchayats have no legal sanctity and even if the grandparents want the child, they will have to approach the court of justice, not some panchayat. If Sanjana approaches a court, she will definitely have justice on her side.”
Dr Sarala Bijapurkar, associate professor of sociology at K J Somaiya College, said, “Even in a developed city like Mumbai, such panchayats are in existence for the purpose of close bonding and maintaining traditions. However, there is this revival of the tradition by its so-called keepers, who want to show their dominance, and control the women in the community. The woman may win her legal battle, but in the end, her community may excommunicate her and she won’t even be able to complain.”