Sati: Suicide, Murder, or Martyrdom?

A woman sitting on the pyre of her dead husband with his head on her lap waiting to go up in flames with him…joining him in his final journey. As much as it would appear a scene from a film set in pre-independence India, there are still parts of the country that are recent witnesses to such a scene. And this is the manner in which the practice of sati has been eulogized, romanticized, worshipped and has achieved divine status in parts of northern India. Temples have been built in reverence. Stories of the unflinching valor in the lap of flames have been told and re-told…of ordinary women leading less than ordinary lives. Most of the time not even treated as equal in their marital homes, these women tragically achieved an individual identity in death.

Sati is believed to have been ritualized in medieval India. It came to be particularly closely associated with a warrior caste in the north state of Rajasthan and sati was seen as an extreme expression of marital valor. Banned in colonial India in 1829, the practice has managed to survive raising a debate on the continued existence of sati temples in north-west India.

The turning point in the practice in more recent years came with the Roop Kanwar episode of 1987, which re-initiated a debate on the subject in the fiftieth year of India's independence. This incident of Sati in Deorala – a small village in Rajasthan – became a flash point for the clash between woman's rights groups and a ritual held in divine reverence by many. Roop Kanwar – the sati – was seventeen at the time she committed (or was compelled to commit) the act. If she had survived the chances of her leading a respectable life were even more limited having lost her husband barely eight months into the marriage. Even more horrific than the sight of her dying perhaps was the blasé manner in which her death was glorified by local politicians who even protested the police action following the incident. The scenes following her death were of congregations and celebrations, ceremonies and festivals in the surrounding villages, district and state to the extent that money was raised through collections from believers for the construction of a temple at the site where the incident took place, and all this under the hawk-eye of the law.

A series of sustained protests led to the promulgation of the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance, 1987, by the State government in an attempt to prevent the glorification of an act seen as murder by many, making any attempt to commit, abetment and glorification of sati punishable. Despite the law all people booked under the law following the 1987 incident were able to go scot-free in 2004. A reflection of the hurdles for similar future prosecutions was evidenced in the manner in which senior government officials and functionaries reneged on their earlier statements as witnesses. It also reflected the deep-seated patriarchal beliefs of honor and valor that determine the lives – as also how they die – of women trapped in such social set-ups.

Recently the Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry recommended several amendments to this law for the cabinet to consider and, in seeking to treat the woman who is forced to die along with her husband as a victim of a crime, suggested the usage of the term 'sati murder' instead of sati incidents. The prevailing ant-sati law treats a woman who might survive the bid to be made a sati as an accomplice in the crime. This means that a would-be sati could end up serving a year's jail term for attempting suicide on her dead husband's pyre. Had Roop Kanwar survived then in all probability she – and not the people responsible for coercing her into that situation – would have served her time in jail. And this brings up another side of the debate on the issue of a woman's agency – and how prudent would it be to make her a hapless victim and what would it do with regard to women and their voices in other situations.

Coming back to the new proposed amendments the jail terms for the abettors have been enhanced significantly. Besides, the entire community is to be held accountable for any incidence of sati. But for a custom that has survived 500 years how much can longer prison sentences do to deter a practice that for many women is the very basis (and perhaps the only basis) of their identities – to live for and die with their husbands. These are identities based on the reinforcement of traditional assumptions about family, community and the social order, within which women occupy a defined and subordinate place.

While well-meaning the changes seek to make the law act as a strong deterrent to the crime by protecting unwilling women coerced into the funeral pyre the amendments proposed have already run into rough weather. The Union Minister for Mines, himself from the state of Rajasthan has sought that only temples built post-1987 should come under the spanner. If accepted it would mean that while Roop Kanwar stands to lose her divine status those who killed themselves (or were killed) prior to the 1987 incident get to hold on to their divinity even as their families reap the harvest from their untimely death and godly status eulogized in the temples built in their memory.

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  • invalid-0

    Great Article Yet again Deepali!!!

    It reminds me of my visit to the heart of Bundelkhand in search of a Sati story way back in Jan, 2002. While travelling in Banda District in run up to UP polls in 2002, a source told me about the recent Sati incident in a remote village. It was indeed a journey into the heart of Banda. An 80 yr old lady had committed Sati, I was told by villagers. It was the first incident where a Chamar lady had committed Sati. It was widely seen as an upper caste phenomenon…and here was a case where a SC lady chose to commit Sati. It was a predominantly Chamar village where this happened. More than 22 men were put behind bars. Was she forced to commit Sati or did she do so on her own? No one had any answer. I interviewed the son of the ‘Sati’…He had no qualms in saying that his mother had become a goddess overnight what no chamar lady had managed in India’s history…A case of sanskritisation???

    Then, on my way to Banda town, the place was full of Sati temples…People idoloize it…and the politicians do not oppose it. The police acts only if media highlights the issue. A few cases of Sati even went unnoticed!!!

    Well, another imp aspect of Banda’s social landscape. The Gun culture is widely popular there. A local district judge…in his retirement speech…said: If a man from Banda was asked to chose between his gun and his wife, he would go for a gun. Reason: ‘Without Gun there is no social prestige. Wife can be arranged at a short notice’!!! Is someone trying to change the social world in Banda??? No one.

    Great Story Deepali!!!!


  • deepali-gaur-singh

    Thank you for the input Himanshu. This gun culture thing you bring up is so interesting because Afghan society defines itself also like that especially because of the endless years of violence there. Makes one wonder how different are we really considering women are seen and treated in exactly the same manner – as materail assets. And we console ourselves with the better evil! The incident you mention is so interesting because this is something that has been going on for a while. The need to adopt regressive practises even by communities that never really did so because that elevates your status in some superficial way and that too in death and NEVER when alive. You commit suicide when you are 'dishonoured', you commit suicide when your husband dies…and in death you achieve a status that would have been impossible while alive.

  • invalid-0

    Deepali Gaur singh

    How many Satis have you witnessed in your life? Let me guess behalf of you.. it must be ZERO… You must be very young, so let me ask of your grandmother.. How many has she witnessed? my guess still is zero… Please do not let your struggling career as a columnist get the best of your head.. Perhaps, you should try some fiction writing. Sati is a debate in Comtemporary India? O boy, i better update my News channels as they report nothing regarding this raging debate. it is become a habit of few people to use the gullible audience to sustain their career by fictional contemporay INDIA… Thank GOD, you didn’t talk about the movie “water” set in 1930…