Mathura MP Hema Malini has hit upon a solution to the plight of widows in Vrindavan, part of her constituency — let them stay in West Bengal and Bihar, where they belong. Vrindavan has no more place for the destitute women, who have a “a bank balance” and “nice beds” but “beg out of habit”, she reportedly said, adding that they should find themselves a “nice temple” in their native state. The MP’s aides have since claimed that her remarks were misconstrued and she spoke out of concern for the women. But the unease created by the comments lingers.
Hema Malini seems to be buying into the most regressive form of identity politics, the kind where identity is circumscribed by geographic and ethnic boundaries, that says people of one state have no right to live and work in another. The Shiv Sena and MNS in Maharashtra have perfected this brand of politics, with their vitriolic Marathi manoos rhetoric and diatribes against migrants. There were worrying strains of it in the TRS’s surveys in Telangana, which seemed to be aimed at separating “natives” from “outsiders”. But Hema Malini, who was born in Tamil Nadu, became a star in Mumbai and went on to win an election in north India, might have been expected to transcend the pigeonholes of identity. Her life and career point to the best qualities of India’s political culture, a natural elasticity and a breadth of imagination that allow different people from different places to strike up a conversation.
With Hema Malini’s thoughtless remarks, Vrindavan’s widows are doubly marginalised. They are women who are rejected by the social mainstream — most were forced to leave home once their husbands died. Life in Vrindavan is usually one of hunger, poverty and exploitation. Now, they are cast as outsiders in the only place they could go to.