Lord Bentinck’s Regulation XVII of 1829, which declared sati a criminal offence, marked the culmination of a sustained campaign against Hinduism by British Evangelicals and missionaries anxious to Anglicize and Christianize India. The attack on Hinduism was initiated by the Evangelist, Charles Grant, an employee of the East India Company and subsequently member of the Court of Directors. In 1792, he presented his famous treatise, Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain. A harash evaluation of Hindu Society, it challenged the then current Orientalist policy of respecting Indian laws, religion, and customs set in motion by the Governor General, Warren Hastings. Grant argued that the introduction of the language and religion of the conquerors would be “an obvious means of assimilating the conquered people to them”. He was joined in his endeavours by other Evangelicals, and Baptist missionaries, who began arriving surreptitiously in Bengal from 1793.
This is not a work on Sati per se. It does not address, in any depth, issues of the possible origins of the rite; its voluntary or mandatory nature; the role, if any , of priests or family members; or any other aspect associated with the actual practice of widow immolation. Its primary focus is the colonial debate on sati, particularly the role of Evangelicals and Baptist missionaries. It argues that sati was an “exceptional act”, performed by a miniscule number of Hindu widows over the centuries. Its accurance was, however, exaggerated in the nineteenth century by Evangelicals and Baptist missionaries eager to Anglicize and Christianize India.
Meenakshi Jain is former Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and currently, Associate Professor in History at Gargi College, University of Delhi. Her recent publications include Parallel Pathways: Essays on Hindu- Muslim Relations (1707-1857), 2010; The India They Saw : Foreign Accounts of India from the 8th to mid- 19th Century, 3 vols, 2011; and Rama and Ayodhya, 2013.
Though banned by the British Government in 1829 and subsequently, by the Government of independent India in 1956 and 1987, incidents of sati continue to be sporadically reported from various parts of India. The case of eighteen-year old Roop Kanwar in Deorala village, Sikar district, Rajasthan, which triggered the 1987 legislation, is perhaps the most well-known in recent decades (Manushi 1987: 15-25; Seminar 1988: 342; Upreti and Upreti 1991: 46-63). But instances of widows immolating themselves on the pyres of their husbands have occurred intermittently even thereafter.
On 6th August 2002, for instance, in Patna Tomali village in Panna zila (Madhya Pradesh), Kattubai immolated herself. As a punitive measure, the state administration imposed a fine on the entire village for allegedly abetting the act. Another incident took place in 2006, in village Baniyani in Chattarpur zila. In this case, the four sons of the widow were held accountable and sentenced to life imprisonment. In May, the same year, a thirty-five year old widow immolated herself in village Rari Buzurg in Fatehpur zila, Uttar Pradesh. And in August, a forty-year old jumped on the pyre of her husband in Sagar zila (Bhaskar 12-10-2008). Bundelkhand witnessed four instances of widow immolation and ten attempts at the same in the preceding seven years (Hindus tan Times 17-10-2008).
On 13th October 2008, the Hindustan Times reported that a seventy-year old woman had immolated herself on the pyre of her husband in Chechar village of Kasdol development block, about 120 km from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Her seventy-five year old husband had died after a prolonged illness. Family members told police officials who rushed to the place that Lalmati Verma had been a devout woman but they had not expected her to take this extreme step. They discovered she was missing on returning from the cremation of her husband. When they began searching for her, some villagers informed them that they had seen her proceeding towards the cremation site. They hurried to the spot, but it was too late. This was the first case of sati in Chhattisgarh and created a sensation in the area. The Times Of India carried a news item the same day that a large number of people from neighbouring villages gathered at the spot to offer prayers to 'sati mata.'
In August 2009, the sixty-year old widow of Nanchhu Ram Meena of Kuchar village in Sikar district, Rajasthan, attempted to immolate herself, but was thwarted by her family, the village community, and the police, "after a lot of drama and tension" (Mail Today 11-8-2009; Times Of India 16-8-2009). In the same month, the forty-two year old childless widow of a temple priest in Chanderi, near Bhopal, allegedly committed suicide and was cremated with her husband. Neighbours, who viewed this as a case of sati, said they had seen the woman free the pet dog and cow after which she was missing (Hindus tan Times 24-8-2009).
As recently as December 2014, The Pioneer reported the case of seventy-year old Gahwa Devi, who jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband in Parmania village in Saharsa district, Bihar (The Pioneer 15-12-2014). Clearly, sati remains a living subject.
Despite the ban on the glorification of sati, temples dedicated to sati matas (mothers) exist and continue to attract devotees particularly in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Pargana in Bundelkhand has a thriving sati temple. In 1989, at Jari in Uttar Pradesh's Banda district, a huge temple was built in memory of savitri, a fifteen-year old Brahmin widow who had immolated herself. The Rani Sati temple in Jhunjhunu district, Rajasthan, commemorating thirteen satis of the jalan family, still draws large numbers (Hindus tan Times 17-10-08; Upreti and Upreti 1991: 33). Sati veneration remains "a major aspect" of the religious lives of Rajput women (Harlan 1994: 79-80; Noble and Sankhyan 2001: 364-365). The state has over two hundred sati temples (Storm 2013: 135).
The reportage on each new incident of widow immolation generally results in furious condemnation of the rite and demands for more stringent laws against alleged abettors. Interestingly, the nationwide debate sparked off by Roop Kanwar's immolation was remarkably reminiscent of the colonial discourse in the nineteenth century. As in the colonial period, issues of shastric sanction, antiquity of the rite, and its forced or voluntary nature were raised and fiercely contested.
The Marxist-feminist scholar, Lata Mani, identified four types of responses to Roop Kanwar's immolation - the "liberal" position that criticized sati as "traditional," "religious," "barbaric," and as representing a failure of the project of modernization; the conservative stand which valourized sati's "religious" and "traditional" status and described it as a practice inaccessible to westernized, urban Indians; a third stance, critical of both approaches, represented by Ashis Nandy: and the "genuinely anti-imperialist position" taken by feminists (Mani 1990: 24-41).
Feminists viewed Roop Kanwar's immolation in the context of the general subordination of women in Indian society. They stressed the persistence of the custom a century-and-a-half after it was outlawed by the British, "One hundred and fifty years later we are having to remind ourselves that women are not for burning" (Bhasin and Menon Seminar 1988: 12).
Theories of patriarchy and class and caste ideologies were cited to explain why the custom had endured. Roop Kanwar's immolation was attributed to an alliance of religion, commerce, and patriarchy. The three upper castes-Brahmins, Banias, and Rajputs-were accused of having conspired to revive the practice in the area for their own gain (this was the first sati in Deorala in sixty-nine years). Sharda Jain, a scholar and activist based in Jaipur, for instance, stated, "The Banias have the economic power, the Rajputs the political power and the Brahmins the power of religious knowledge." These vested interests, she claimed, were controlling a woman's identity (Tully 1991: 223; Jain, Misra, and Srivastava 1987: 1891-94).
A team of the Women and Media Committee, which visited Deorala towards the end of September 1987, also held the union of religion, commerce, and patriarchy responsible for this "most violent of patriarchal practices" (Menon, Seshu, and Anandan 1987: 1-7). These arguments were elaborated by other scholars who dwelt on the collaboration between Brahmins, Rajputs, and Banias in creating a heady mix of ideological, ritual, and commemorative elements for periodic spectacles of sati (Vaid and Sangari 1991 Economic and Political Weekly WS-2 - WS-18).
The editors of Manushi pointed to the modernity of the incident. They described the Deorala event as "a modern day sati". Distancing themselves from the anti-sati campaign, they depicted Roop Kanwar's immolation as the creation of modern economic, political, and social forces. Deorala, they pointed out, was a modern village with modern amenities and a literacy rate of over seventy per cent. The pro-sati group in the village, they stated, consisted of men who were urban, educated, and in their twenties and thirties. The sati cult, in its current form, was primarily the product of "a phoney religiosity that is the accompaniment of new-found prosperity, harnessed by political leaders for their own vested interests." They countered the suggestion that it was "a traditional residue from the rural backwaters" (Kishwar and Vanita Manushi: Nos. 42-43, Sept-Dec 1987).
Ashis Nandy, a critic of the philosophy of modernization, viewed the search for grand spectacles of evil by metropolitan India as "a search for evidences of the inferiority of the other India." Those who declared the Deorala sati a pure case of murder, he said, attacked in the same breath "Indian traditions, village superstitions, even the Mahabharata and the Ramayana." Could a pure case of murder not involve pure greed and could it not be tackled under the Indian penal code, "without reference to the larger cultural factors." Nandy held that "the feigned panic and the hyperbole" that followed Deorala ignored the fact that in the post-independence era, cases of sati have mainly been confined to one state, and within it, to one region (Nandy 1994: 133).
While condemning the in-authenticity of sati in kaliyuga, Nandy stressed the need to respectfully admit "the authenticity of the values that speak through the acts of sati recorded in the epics and myths" (Nandy 1994: 138). He cited the example of Rammohan Roy, closely associated with the struggle against sati. Roy, he pointed out, appreciated the values underpinning the mythology of sati; the rite presumed "the superiority in the cosmos of the feminine principle over the masculine and recognized the woman's greater loyalty, courage, and firmness of spirit" (Nandy 1994: 140). The Tagore family, Nandy further stated, was in the forefront of the movement against sati, yet Rabindranath and Abanindranath presented awe-inspiring reverential depictions of sati with great sensitivity and sense of tragedy (Nandy 1994: 136).
M.P. Rege argued that a critical area of contestation between the pro- and anti-sati groups was the belief of the former in the possibility of a truly “dharmic” sati, in which the widow was not victim, but victories. This was a viewpoint wholly rejected by the anti-sati bloc (Rege 1987).
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