Sheeja still remembers the last time she spoke to her husband Manoj. It was nineteen years ago. A BSF constable attached to 39 Battalion, his unit was to shift from Amarkot in Punjab to Jeruz in Jammu and Kashmir in May 1998. Over phone, Manoj told Sheeja that he would come home to Kannur on leave, once his unit shifts to J&K.
29-year-old Manoj did not make the journey back home. He drowned to death while taking a bath on May 16, while his unit camped near Tawi river at Udhampur.
With no job and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter in hand, Sheeja went on to wage a fight against all odds to prove that she was eligible to get a job on compassionate grounds. Ninteteen years and several rejections later, Sheeja is now relieved that her appointment order would soon land on her doorstep.
From 2000 onwards, consecutive state governments of Kerala rejected Sheeja's applications on the basis that Manoj had drowned to death and not in combat. However, seven years after Sheeja filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, the court has said that her husband had indeed died while discharging his duties and that she was eligible for job on compassionate grounds, despite the delay.
Manoj's story and Sheeja's struggle
The elder son of a police constable from Kannur, Manoj chose to join the BSF. The couple got married in July, 1994 and Manoj, who was then posted in Punjab, had to leave home ten days after their wedding. At the time of his death, Manoj had served ten years in the BSF.
With no mobile phones then, Manoj could only reach her through a neighbour's landline phone or through letters. The last time they spoke, Manoj had promised to come home on leave soon.
On May 18, while Sheeja was attending a relative's wedding ceremony with her family, BSF personnel brought the news of Manoj's illness.
"The constable told me that he (Manoj) had fallen ill and that one of us had to go there. Manoj's brother went to Udhampur with the constable and came back to tell us that he had drowned to death. I wasn't even able to see him one last time, they cremated him there itself," Sheeja told TNM.
In the years that followed, Sheeja did not respond to the central government's offer for a job outside Kerala and the Kerala state government kept rejecting her application on the ground that she did not fulfill eligibility.
"I didn't know what to make sense of what was happening to me. I was only 23; I had a toddler to look after and no job. I was in depression and after the mourning period, I shifted to my parents' home in Kannur. The state government did not accept any of my applications. I didn't want to shift to Punjab or Jammu. I understand only Malayalam and it was not possible for me to relocate with a child,â she says.
Sometime in the early 2000s, when the then Chief Minister AK Antony visited Kannur for an event, Sheeja met him and narrated her ordeal. Although she was promised help, her job application was rejected. At another instance, the government asked Sheeja to produce an âAttributablity Certificateâ from the Army, to prove that her husband had died in combat. When she submitted the certificate six years later, the government rejected it saying it was from the BSF and not from the Indian Army.
In 2010, Sheeja again approached the CM of the state, this time VS Achuthanandan of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. When VS rejected her representation, Sheeja approached the Kerala High Court against this.
What does the judgement say?
The court observed that Sheeja's husband had died during peacetime but the BSF has consistently certified that he died during operations. The court also said that a BSF personnel dying of accident, including drowning, "should be seen as accident during peacetime but directly relatable to the jawanâs discharging his duties."
According to the eligibility criteria under Clause 3 of the G.O.(P) No.315/96/GAD dated 12.11.1996, a dependent is entitled to get compassionate appointment if the person is killed, missing or disabled in action, killed/disabled in operation areas due to high altitude or adverse climatic conditions or due to explosion of mines, booby traps, vehicle accidents, etc and, death/disability/missing in operation areas, due to accidents during peace time conditions circumstances of which are identical to activities during operational engagements.
Sheeja's counsel Advocate Sreeja Sohan says that the state government is expected to give Sheeja a job soon, although the High Court has not stipulated a time frame.
"This is one of those genuine cases where the petitioner is aggrieved also because there is nobody to support her," advocate Sreeja said.
As for Sheeja, whose daughter is now 21 years old and in her final year of undergraduate course, getting the job will ease her financial troubles.
"My father used to work in a beedi company, but he passed away a few years ago. After this, my mother Radha began to work as a domestic help. I did too, for a few months to make a living. I don't know how to react to the High Court accepting my plea. It's been so long since he's gone..."