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.
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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.