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Sati Pratha: Widow Burning in India

Meaning Of Sati- Sati (Su-Thi Or Suttee) Is The Traditional Indian (Hindu) Practice Of A Widow Immolating Herself On Her Husband's Funeral Pyre

Indian society might have progressed and move forward but the social evil of sati continues to hang around in Indian society. The recent shocking incident of a seventy one year old woman performing sati in Chattisgarh (13th October 2008) is an eye opener. The practice of sati has been a part of Indian society for ages with its inception being traced to the time of the Gupta period.

Though sati is illegal and is highly condemned in Indian society, the act of sati being performed in the 21st century has shocked people. Lalmati aged seventy one, resident of Chechar village in the Raipur district in Chattisgarh, had come to the funeral pyre of her husband Shivnandan Verma, dressed in a new sari. When the husband's body had been almost burnt and the villagers were about to leave, Lalmati jumped into the pyre and was reduced to ashes in moments (The Hindustan ,newspaper, Lucknow, India, editorial ,17 October 2008 ).

It is yet not known whether Lalmati chose to do this voluntarily or was pushed by someone. A police case has been registered and investigation is ongoing. But the incident is a glaring example of how such incidents continue to occur in rural India.

Sati was never widespread, and it has been illegal since 1829, but a few cases of sati still occur in India every year. In choosing to die with her husband, a woman gains great merit and power and is thought to bring kudos to her husband's patrilineage and to others who honour her. Thus, through her meritorious death, a widow avoids disdain and achieves

glory, not only for herself, but for all of her kin as well In September 1987, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar, a young widow (she was married for just 8 months ) of Rajasthan was forced to commit sati after the death of her husband. Many litres of ghee (cooking butter) were poured on her as she burnt to death on her husband's funeral pyre. People who assisted her in suicide were arrested. But Roop Kanwar is idolized and has attained the status of a deity; a temple was built for her.

In October 1996, the Indian Court upholds the suicide as a social tradition and acquitted all 38 defendants who assisted Roop Kanwar. Another incident was the case of Kuttu Bai, a 65 year widow committed sati in the state of Madhya Pradesh in August 2002 , another was Vidyawati a 35-year-old woman committed Sati by jumping into the blazing funeral pyre of her husband in the year 2006 in Utter Pradesh, Janakrani (40years old) was burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband in Sager District of Madhya Pradesh in August 2006 and very recently one Lalmati (71 years old) of Chatisgarh has committed sati in October 2008.

In some regions of India, women are still treated as appendages to their husbands, and are expected to either follow their husbands into death or to remain chaste throughout their widowhood. Social pressures to commit sati remain strong in certain areas of India.

But now a days the people are being aware of all the rights and also the condition of women is improving and it also can be improved when all the people understand and help the women who are still facing problems in some regions of India

Religious Aspect:

In ancient Hindu law, stridharma (dharma signifies one's duty, responsibility, or moral responsibility) is the dharma of women. Stridharma for women entails devotion to one's husband, a woman's husband is a sort of God and, in fact, the Sanskrit word for

"husband" - "Swaami" - literally means "Lord and Master". He is essentially her "lord" for the very meaning of the word husband (Pati) means both husband and lord. In view of that, what chance does a woman have? The ideal wife is one whose sole joy in life is to satisfy her husband.

Her only concern is to perform properly any of the services demanded by her husband. Such a woman is attached to her husband even after he has died. Total subservience is enjoined and the ultimate expression of such complete marital devotion was expressed in sati. Although many widows are treated less harshly today they still face discrimination and neglect. In some corners of this strange and complex land, that act of murdering widows is a tradition.

Economic And Political Aspects:

Insofar as the community is concerned, there is and economic gain to be made from the commercialisation of a sati and the worship surrounding her death (Jethmalani, Widows, Abandoned and Destitute Women, 46; ILHR Mar. 1991; p72). The latter practice is illustrated by Roop Kanwar's story. The proponents of sati glorified her sacrifice by

having town celebrations and by constructing a temple in her honour, without interference from the authorities. In 1990, 400 people attended a celebration of her death, even though the celebration was banned. An article in Women, Law and Development-Action for Change, points out that the region where this incident occurred is a fairly "modern" one, where the literacy rate is relatively high.

The Indian government has dropped attempts to strengthen the anti-Sati law, more than 20 years after it was first enacted (The Times of India, 23 April 2008).The proposed legislation recommended that coercing a woman to commit sati be made a non-bailable offence.

The women and child development ministry said the amendments have been dropped following political pressure. Some influential persons in the ruling party as well as politicians from certain states had actually been actively campaigning and lobbying against tougher laws for those inciting sati.

One of the person who has opposed the law is a minister in the present UPA government, is not keen on stopping or deterring the practice of sati. That may be because Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan), his constituency, is famous for its Rani Sati temple, a big tourist attraction for hundreds of thousands of devotees, and obviously an important economic engine for his constituency

The Historical Background
Ibn Batuta, an Arab traveler (1333 A.D.) observed that sati was considered praiseworthy by the Hindus, without however being obligatory. Historically, efforts to prevent sati by formal means existed even before the Moghul rulers came to power. Under the Delhi Sultanates (Alauddin Khilji, 1294-1316 and Muhammad bin Tughlaq, 1325-1351) permission had to be sought prior for sati to be committed. In time this check against compulsion became a mere formality.

In any case Hindu women from royal families continued to burn unchecked (Mahajan, V.D, History of Medieval India, S.Chand, N.Delhi). Humayun(1530-1540 ) tried to prevent sati, but eventually withdrew a royal fiat against it. Akbar ( 1556 -1606) insisted that no woman could commit sati without the

specific permission of his Kotwals ( police officers in charge of police station) ). They were instructed to delay the woman's decision for as long as possible. Pensions, gifts and rehabilitative help were offered to the potential someone who might commit sati to wean her away from committing the Act.

Children were strictly forbidden from the practice. The later Mughals continued to put obstacles in the way but the practice carried on in the areas outside Agra. In their own sphere of influence the Portuguese, Dutch and French banned sati but efforts to stamp out sati were formalised only under Lord William Bentinck after 1829(Anne E. Carr, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Religion, Feminism, and the Family, Westminster John Knox Press,1996 ).

British Regulation

The British were by no means certain of their approach to the custom no matter how abhorrent they found it. Following Mughal example, for a while they tried to regulate it by requiring that it be carried out in the presence of their officials and strictly according to custom. Perhaps Bentinck was spurred on to legislation by the unacceptable rise in sati in his province, Bengal (Sarkar, Jadunath , A History of Jaipur, Orient Longmanc 1984). In

the 10 years between 1815 and 1825, the figure had doubled to 639 deaths by burning (Binita Mehta, Widows, Pariahs, and Bayad�res: India As Spectacle Published by Bucknell University Press 2002 ). He was certainly under pressure from the constant entreaties of missionaries and encouraged to action by the sea change being wrought amongst an influential section of Hindus led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy's Brahmo Samaj.

Lord William Bentinck passed the Sati Regulation, XVII of 1827 on 4 December after assuming the governorship of Bengal. The regulation was clear, concise and unequivocal in its condemnation of Sati, declaring it illegal and punishable by the criminal courts (C. A. Bayly, General Editor, The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947.

London: National Portrait Gallery Publications 1990). It made zamindars (landlords), petty land owners, local agents and officers in charge of revenue collection especially accountable for immediate communication to the officers of their nearest police station of any intended sacrifice of the nature described. In case of willful neglect the responsible officer was liable to a fine of Rs.200 or 6 months in jail for default

The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987:

The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987, substituted the various legislation that had been operative in different parts of the country with a central law that sought not only to prevent and punish the commission of the act itself, but also to make any glorification of the act of sati an offence.

There are provisions in the Act to take action against exploitation of such criminal occurrences either for financial or political purposes. Specifically, the Act makes a criminal offence, equivalent to murder, the abetment or encouragement of a Sati or an attempted Sati. Such action is liable to sentence of death or life imprisonment, with an appropriate fine (S-4(1))

Sati means the burning or burying alive of any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative or with anything or article associated with husband or such relative, or any woman along with the body of any of her relatives. Such burning or burying may either be voluntary or otherwise. (s 2 (1) (c))

The person committing sati is herself is liable to prosecution for attempted suicide, the Penalty being a year's imprisonment with a fine(s3). Glorification of sati is defined as the observation of any ceremonies or the taking out of processions in connection with the incidence or practice of sati; the support, justification or propagation of the practice; or the arrangement of or participation of any function to eulogies a person committing sati; the creation of a trust or fund or collection of donations for the purpose of a temple or any other structure with a view to perpetuate or honour the memory of a person committing sati; or the performance of any ceremony for the same purpose (s 2 (1) (b)).

Under the Act, all temples dedicated to such practice or persons are to be removed (s 7). The penalty for glorification of Sati is imprisonment from 1 to 7 years, a fine of Rs. 5,000- to Rs.30,000-and the confiscation of all assets collected in the name of Sati (s 5). Special Courts, equivalent to sessions courts, are to be convened for the trial of offences under this Act with judges of equal powers (s 9).

All such cases are to be tried without delay, there being required reasons to be furnished if trials are adjourned beyond the next day (s 12 (3)). The onus of proof of innocence rests with the accused (s 16). No person who had abetted the commission of sati may inherit the estate, either whole or even in part, of the deceased woman (s 18)

Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

Violence against women is a global problem. Violence against women manifests itself as Rape, molestation, stripping, kidnapping and abduction, domestic violence including wife battery, dowry harassment, dowry death, cruelty to women driving them to commit

suicide or other forms of murder like female foeticide and sati. A Convention on the Elimination Of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 18, 1979. The Convention

came into force in the year 1981. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. India has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) a few years ago.

Definition of "Discrimination against Women":

Although the International Bill of Human Rights laid down a comprehensive set of rights to which all persons, including women are entitled, additional means for protecting the human rights of women were considered as necessary because the mere fact of their 'humanity' has not been sufficient to guarantee women the protection of their rights. The

preamble to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women explains that, despite the existence of other instruments, women still do not have equal rights with men. Discrimination against Women continues to exist in every society.

Article 1 of the CEDAW defines the term 'Discrimination Against Women' as any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of humans rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

It is most unfortunate the present Indian Government has dropped the move for a stringent sati laws under the pressure of her own cabinet ministers. In any other civilized society, this would be called murder but still in India the act of murdering widows is traditional rituals. It is astonished that country's inability to cross political and Fundamentalist barriers in straightforward and non-confusing matters of human rights such as dowry and Sati.

India is a signatory of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, meaning that, along with other issues, slavery is prohibited by law, and yet, in the form of widows, there are millions of slaves existing in India today - innocent victims who have no way of defending themselves - and no longer an "escape" through "sati" - because society has come to accept their miserable plight as -- "all part of our Tradition and Culture ". For those who abuse widows, it is a Vulture's culture.

It would seem that males have not only used their extra physical strength to dominate women, but also their use of religion as a very powerful weapon. Though, the provisions of the Sati Act, CEDAW, and Optional Protocol must be enforced in its true spirit, it appears that certain amendments in Sati Act are also required as already discussed above .Social awakening is need of the hour. Literacy among the women is necessary. Not only this, the women also must come forward to achieve the

goal. Only then, ray of hope to save the lives of the innocent women can be seen. The Indian Constitution is actually far more liberal than those of many nations which have been governed by "democratic" systems for many years. India has produced a present female President, a female Prime Minister, female Governors, female Chief Ministers, High Court judges, university professors, surgeons, airline and Air-Force fighter pilots, to name only a few areas where women have been able to claim an equal place with the male species, however, in general, and especially when it comes to women of "lower" (yet with equal potential ) rank in society - those of "low" caste communities -women have a long way to go to reach the full human potential for which they were ordained.

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