-Bridge the Gap Bring the Change

Abandoned as a child bride, India’s first lady still hopes her husband will call

Jashodaben Modi, right, is a retired teacher. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
 January 25 
She’s waiting for him, as she has been all her life. But when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dines with Barack and Michelle Obama at a glittering banquet Sunday night, his wife won’t be by his side.

Modi, 64, kept his teenage marriage a secret for decades during his political ascent and only last year admitted that his wife exists.

The wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, is a retired teacher who lives in a small town in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Though she had not heard from her husband in years, she says she still hopes to join him one day in the capital as India’s first lady.

“If he calls me, I will go,” she said in an interview. “I hear all his speeches on TV. I feel very good when I hear him speak. I want him to fulfill all his promises to the people. That’s my prayer to God.”

Narendra Modi, the son of a man who sold tea in a railway station, comes from a lower caste called Ghanchi. He and his wife were promised to each other as children in keeping with the traditions of their community. They were married in a small ceremony when she was 17 and he was 18.

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“He was very young,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of the book “Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times.” “The exactly nature of the ceremony we don’t know. Nobody who has spoken about it is willing to talk. There would have been a ritual that joined them together as man and wife, but they would not have lived together. The family said that the two of them never cohabitated.”

Child marriage was and remains common in India, although it is technically illegal. More than a third of the women who married as child brides live in India, an estimated 240 million, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund.

Narendra Modi left shortly thereafter to wander in the Himalayas with little more than a change of clothing in his rucksack, Mukhopadhyay said. A devout Hindu, Modi was contemplating religious life. Instead, he returned to Gujarat and became a volunteer, or “pracharak,” in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., a Hindu nationalist group. The young workers, pracharaks, are discouraged from marrying or maintaining close family ties.

“He joined R.S.S. without divulging he had been married,” Mukhopadhyay said. “Without it he could not have become a pracharak. They had to be unmarried. Questions would have been asked.”

Modi never returned to his wife but never divorced her, even as he became the high-profile chief minister of Gujarat and last year, India’s premier. He never publicly spoke of his wife, and journalists who sniffed around on the topic as Modi’s fame grew were privately discouraged from doing so.

Jashodaben Modi saw her husband only once when he was chief minister, at a ceremony at a local temple, according to her brother, Ashok Modi. She lives with her brother in the small town of Unjha, in the northern part of the state.

“He had come to the [goddess temple] for a prayer. They did not speak. They did not even say a word to each other. They just met for five seconds,” the brother said.

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The prime minister only officially acknowledged his wife’s existence when he filed his affidavit in April as a candidate for Parliament in the town of Vadodara. His family said at the time that the couple had married as teens because of the customs of the time and that the union was never consummated.

During the election, the wife disappeared for a time, reportedly on a “barefoot pilgrimage,” in her husband’s honor. After he became prime minister, she was assigned an official security detail. But it has not been a happy experience.

Nearly a dozen guards watch her 24/7 and follow her in a shiny car as she takes auto rickshaws and public transportation, they say. When she visits friends or relatives, they have to cook for the guards, she said.

“The security travels in an air-conditioned car. But my sister takes buses, trains and auto rickshaws. What kind of justice is this? Should a prime minister’s wife not get a car?” her brother asked.

In November, Jashodaben Modi filed an official request under India’s right to information act asking for more information about who assigned her guards and what their duties were supposed to be, saying she was “scared” of them.

“I am the wife of the prime minister of India,” she said in the affidavit. “The security personnel tell me that they should be welcomed like guests. Which law makes provision for the same or which portion of the protocol prescribes this?”

The police eventually responded to her request, saying that the security comes from the local intelligence service that is exempt from the right-to-information law. The family is appealing.

Meanwhile, she subsists on a small pension from her time as a teacher. She keeps a small photo of her husband tucked in her prayer book and spends long hours in solitude.

“I wake up at 5 a.m. I pray at home. I go to the temple. My life is spent in prayer now,” she said.

Her brother says she gets depressed from time to time.

“When she feels dejected, we try to lift her mood,” the brother said. “We say, ‘The morning will come soon.’ We try to tell her that he will call her one day, soon. She has full faith that he will call her to him.”


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