Tribal 'wife' of Nehru is outcast, driven to poverty

Panchet, Purulia, March 28: Fifteen-year-old Budhni Mejhan was delighted when she was asked to garland Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to welcome him during his visit on December 6, 1959.

She was a casual labourer of the Damodar Valley Corporation and Pandit Nehru was coming to inaugurate the newly-built Panchet Dam. DVC officers chose this santhal girl and another DVC labourer Rabon Majhi as part of the reception team. On that day, Budhni dressed in all santhal finery, garlanded Nehru and etched a red tika on his forehead. The late Prime Minister asked her to accompany him to the inauguration site and made her press the button that officially opened the gates of the dam.

Unfortunately, when she returned home to her village Karbona that evening, Budhni realised that the gates had slammed shut on her fate. The santhal tribe, governed by its own laws, told Budhni that she had garlanded Nehru and, therefore, had "married" him.

The heads called a meeting the next day and passed the "verdict" that Budhni was Nehru's wife and was ineligible to marry any man in the village. And since Nehru was not a santhal, Budhni had committed the crime of marrying outside the community, they told her. She was shunned by the tribe and chased out of the village.

"My family did not stand by me either," Budhni recalled the day nearly 42 years ago. "I guess it was better to sacrifice a daughter than be ostracised by society," she said.

Budhni went from door to door in the village for a few days but no one offered her even a glass of water. Later, one Sudhir Dutta of Panchet took her in and they began living as man and wife. She had a daughter by Dutta, who till today is not accepted by the santhal community in Purulia. They told Budhni sometime ago that her daughter, Ratna, cannot look for a husband in the community either.

Poverty crouched close on the heels of exile. Budhni was suddenly sacked by DVC in 1962. "They had told me I was a permanent staff when I was given the job. No reason was put forward for my dismissal," Budhni said. Life was very difficult for the next 23 years, recalls Budhni. She supported her daughter by doing odd jobs.

In 1985, she went to Delhi to meet the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi reinstalled her in DVC where the 58-year-old works till today. The money takes care of her body but not her mind. "I wish they would allow me to go back to Karbona," Budhni said.

Referred by:Balram Sampla
Published on: March 30, 2001
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