NORTH 24 PARAGANAS, India (WOMENSENEWS)–The first time Saraswati Singh’s husband was arrested was in 2008.
Her husband, Rajkumar Singh, 29, a worker in a prominent jute mill in this district of West Bengal, joined others in demanding retirement benefits for workers. The management retaliated by charging them with murder.
"I knew what my husband was doing involved a lot of risk," remembers Singh, with her four children huddled around her. "His company was notorious for ruthlessly suppressing workers’ movements. So I expected him to be beaten up or sacked any day. What I didn’t expect was that he would be falsely implicated in a murder case."
In May 2008, her husband–with 19 others–was booked under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and jailed on charges of murder. It took them three months to be out on bail.
"Those were the worst days of my life," says Singh. "There was no money. The kids often starved when shopkeepers refused to extend credit. The electricity line was disconnected because of non-payment."
The trauma was worse than the hunger, recalls Salma Khatun, who is married Peer Mohammed, a co-worker and cellmate of Rajkumar Singh. "As the court dismissed one bail plea after the other, I was certain my husband would remain imprisoned for years. I couldn’t eat or sleep, imagining the worst."
Basanti Shaw’s brother, Shyam Sundar Shaw, led the workers bringing the demands. "I knew my brother and his friends were no criminals," she says. "They had to go to jail because they had the temerity to demand their basic rights."
Shaw was engaged at the time of arrest her brother’s arrest, but the wedding was called off when her groom’s family learned she had a brother in prison. Three years on, the family is still looking for a suitable boy willing to marry an ex-prisoner’s sister.
Freedom brought little relief to the families of the prisoners, who couldn’t get back their jobs after their release.
Singh’s children had to leave school and two meals a day became a luxury for the family. The local doctor refused to treat them on credit. When the hungry children fell ill, she says she fantasized about just running away.
"I even entertained thoughts of taking my two youngest and jumping in front of a speeding train to end it all," Singh says.
The jobless men picketed outside the mill, held countless meetings with supporters, staged hunger strikes and publicly pressed charges of managers siphoning funds from workers’ retirement accounts.
After the Lok Sabha election of 2009, a new member of parliament promised to help. Rajkumar Singh and his coworkers were taken back by a very reluctant management.
In 2010, mill authorities conceded to a few demands. They began to issue payments to a slew of retired workers. There was a whiff of victory in the air.
"But I knew that things would not remain rosy," sighs Khatun.
After a few months the retirement payments stopped and the battle began again. In January 2011, mill managers lodged complaints of attempted murder by a number of the workers against one of their representatives.
"Our husbands had no choice but to abscond," says Singh. "They became fugitives from the law. Despite help from other workers, our children often went to bed hungry."
For the wives and sisters it was another round of hardship. Khatun was pregnant and in a critical stage. Singh’s eldest son, around 10, took to petty crime. Shaw was resigned to a life of drudgery with her mother taking to her bed and the burden of the family falling entirely on her.
The situation has barely improved since then. The men have returned and are out on bail and have good lawyers, but the financial pressures remain acute.
Singh’s children still do not go to school.
Khatun’s newborn daughter is an underweight baby, in and out of hospital.
"The worst part," she says, "is the constant fear that our men may get falsely convicted and be thrown into prison again, never to come out."
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This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org.
Sharmistha Choudhury is a Kolkata-based journalist who specializes in gender and development issues.