Deadly Laws and Zealous Reformers
The Conflicting Interpretations and Politics of Sati
Report by All India Democratic Women's Association
In large parts of the world people are busy making preparations to celebrate the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third. This millennium has not been a particularly happy one for India. Throughout the past thousand years, this subcontinent witnessed a series of invasions with certain regions experiencing repeated plunder and political subjugation by rule of the conquerors. In some instances, however, instead of returning to their homelands after collecting enough loot, the invaders settled down in India giving impetus to a new cultural mix and thereby creating a need for building bridges of communication between the conflicting groups. But nothing disrupted and damaged this country as much as British colonisation, which lasted nearly two centuries.
Unlike earlier conquerors, the British didn't just stop at pillage and appropriation of wealth. They attempted to destroy almost all indigenous institutions, knowledge, notion of ethics, and most importantly, the sense of self-worth among the people of South Asia. The modern education system they imposed on us created an elite trained to look at their own society through colonial eyes, and to treat their own people as colonial subjects — especially if they happen to be poor and uneducated.
Our erstwhile colonial rulers who needed the pretense of being on a civilising mission here to justify their brutal reign had a vested interest in identifying select criminal acts and projecting them as Indian traditions in need of reform. They began this cultural invasion by deliberately targeting a few cases of young widows in Bengal who were forcibly burnt on their husband's pyres, calling those murders sati and banning it by law, so they could appear as agents of a superior civilisation rescuing victims from a savage culture. They even called their mission the White Man's Burden! Thereafter, the supposedly miserable plight of a newly invented creature called the Indian women became emblematic of the inferior civilisation and culture of the Indian people.
There is absolutely no evidence that any of our vast array of religious texts sanctified such murders as sati. The word "sati" derives from the word "sat" which means "truth." So sati means a woman who is true – not a woman who spontaneously combusts. In this context, it is noteworthy that none of the mythological heroines revered as mahasatis - Sati (Shiva's wife), Draupadi, Mandodari, Tara, Ahalya and Sita - burned on their husband's pyre. Though some references to women committing voluntary self-immolation along with their dead husbands can be found in the Mahabharata and Puranas, the practice never received much sanctity or popularity. It is only in 19th century British discourse that forced immolation of women on the husband's pyre came to be regarded as "sati."
It is understandable that the British should resort to such distortion and defamation as part of the imperial game of convincing Indians that they were "uncivilised" and hence unfit for self governance. When reformers in post-Independence India operate with the same colonial mindset while dealing with the customs of their own people, it only goes to prove that the brown sahibs of India have learnt to treat the people of this country with the same contempt as did our colonial masters.
The recent debate on sati, following Charan Shah's self-immolation on November 11, 1999 in Satpura village located in Uttar Pradesh's Mahoba district illustrates this attitude very well.
Without as much as conducting a preliminary investigation into the circumstances under which the immolation took place, several activists passed a verdict solely on the basis of some sensational and misleading media reports that Charan Shah's in-laws and other relatives are guilty of abetting her suicide.* They, along with some powerful voices in the media, demanded that the family along with other villagers should be arrested and charged under the Sati Prevention Act. This was even before they checked to find out if her in-laws were indeed alive and/or living in that village. As it turned out, Charan Shah lived with her grown-up son and was surrounded by her own natal family at the time of her husband's death. Some had decided in advance that there must have been a property angle to it, without finding out whether this poor Dalit family had any land worth its name.
Among others, Charan Shah's own sister, brother and son have repeatedly stated that they had no idea she was contemplating such an act. She quietly walked out of the house and rushed to the burning pyre while other women attended to post-cremation ceremonies and the men had left for the ritual bath. By the time people realised what had happened, Charan Shah was already in flames. Despite such repeated clarifications, some zealots are still insisting that the draconian provisions of the Sati Prevention Act must be invoked against the people of Satpura. Thanks to this concerted pressure, the police felt compelled to save their skin by arresting Charan Shah's son and maternal uncle. These two were kept in police custody for two days and pressured into stating that Charan Shah was mentally deranged.
One section of reformers is also demanding that all those who witnessed the event ought to be arrested and punished sternly. In addition, they demand action against all those who interpret her immolation as a case of sati, under the Sati Prevention Act. It is shocking that several responsible and respected people and even some human rights organisations should respond in such a high handed manner to the death of 55 year old Charan Shah.
No one actually knows whether Charan Shah killed herself on the spur of the moment, or if it was a premeditated act. One thing is certain: there was no ceremony, no ritual preparation, no ideological statement made before she flung herself on the pyre. Yet, it is assumed that Charan Shah acted out of an obscurantist belief that her life as a widow was useless and that she would gain religious merit by following her husband in death.
Why is she considered
incapable of other motives or sentiments? Could she not have acted out
of love? After all, by all accounts, she nursed her husband for thirty
long years with total dedication. Maybe, they had a tender loving relationship.
Some villagers were reported to have remarked: "She has been a sati for
30 years. This was only the culminating act." Or maybe she became so worn
out from her life of poverty that she thought there would be no purpose
in living on any further. Could it be that she killed herself in a mood
of quiet rage and protest, because her son reportedly turned down her request
for carrying Man Shah's dead body in a decorated doli, and cremating him
with ceremonial band-baaja? Could it be that Charan Shah felt hurt at this
refusal and burnt herself on her husbands pyre - as though to say "I save
you the expense of my funeral as well?"
There is something macabre about the fact that the torchbearers of modern civilisation who wish to cure Satpura villagers of their "cultural backwardness," "superstitious beliefs" and "obscurantism" are paying little attention to the fact that people of this region live in abject poverty. Situated in a chronically drought afflicted, neglected region of Uttar Pradesh, this particular village is located 7-8 kilometers away from the main road, accessible only through a dirt track. Satpura lacks even a primary health centre. One located in a nearby village exists only in name and does not provide even minimal services as is the case with most PHCs in north India.
Charan Shah's own family has a small plot of unirrigated land which does not provide year round subsistence for them. Therefore, they work as labourers on other people's fields as well. Even land-owning families in this drought stricken region are pathetically poor. Thus, wage rates are also abysmally low. The family is so poor that they could not afford medical treatment for either Charan Shah's tuberculosis - infected husband, or her elder son, who died earlier from the same disease. People succumbing in the prime of their lives to a curable disease like TB speaks volumes about the failure of our health care system.
What is the wonderful gesture of concern our reformers have to offer to all these people living such impoverished lives? Vigorous demands that the police should be sent to arrest them and criminal cases should be instituted for "murdering" Charan Shah, or at least, "abetting" her suicide, since they did not or could not prevent her death. Thus, they are to be taught their mandatory lessons in modern cultural values through the agency of our notoriously corrupt and tyrannical police.
Despite the fact that no one has been able to provide any evidence of coercion in this case, Charan Shah's family and community are still considered liable for action because they effectively did nothing to prevent her from killing herself. The facts, as given in several reports, suggest otherwise. A shepherd boy did raise an alarm as soon he saw her moving towards the pyre. Women did come running after her as soon as they realised she had left for the cremation ground. Men who had left to bathe also rushed to the scene upon hearing this. But they all say she was already burning by then. At this point they are held guilty for failing to pull her out of the fire. I find this expectation unreasonable. Firstly, pulling someone out of a raging pyre amounts to running the risk of getting burnt yourself — the kind of courage even those recommending such action for Satpura villagers are not likely to have.
More important, who in their sane mind would want to pull out a half burnt person in a village which lacks treatment facilities even for ordinary diseases, leave alone for life-threatening injuries? If this family could not access T.B. treatment, could they possibly handle a case of severe burns without proper medical help? Charan Shah would have died a far more painful and slower death. Do we have to insist on interventions that make things worse for the victims?
Much is being made of the supposedly conflicting versions coming from villagers now. In the article, Countering Earlier Reports: Charan Shah's Immolation (see page 17) the versions of some neighbouring villagers in Imaliya is counterpoised against those of Satpura's inhabitants to build a case that the latter's story cannot be trusted even with regard to the timing of Man Shah's death. By turning the village into a police camp and starting an aggressive campaign against a whole community through the national and international press to label them criminals, aren't we creating conditions for them to protect themselves by doctoring their story according to police requirements? However, even in these circumstances, the Satpura villagers have by and large given one consistent story. Narratives of nearby villagers are bound to vary with ones from Satpura, because those people are likely to depend on hearsay, rather than first-hand eyewitness accounts. Charan Shah's son's plea says it all: "I will call it whatever you want me to. If you want to call it a suicide then so be it. Equally, if you say it was a sati, then I will follow suit."
In this context, it is noteworthy that Satpura does not seem to have a very repressive code for widows. Several reports have told us that when Charan Shah's eldest son died, his widow was remarried to the younger brother, with whom she has raised a family. If a young widow in that family was not treated as an inauspicious pariah or forced to immolate herself, it is far-fetched to believe that Charan Shah's sons would have pushed their 55 year old mother to commit such an extreme act – especially when she was an earner, an authority figure and an effective head of the family, rather than a hapless dependent.
Moreover, as the AIDWA report points out, members of this family are followers of a progressive sect, the Charan Data Panth. Charan Shah's son let it be known in all the interviews that among their community, they did not encourage practices such as sati. Had the family any intention of building a sati cult and temple around her, they would not have chosen the common cremation ground of the village for the last rites because according to traditional beliefs a temple cannot be built on such a site. They would have chosen a special spot as happened in the Roop Kanwar's case. But once Charan Shah committed the act, it was not within their control to stop others from treating it with awe and reverence. Dramatic acts of self-sacrifice in any society evoke such sentiments.
Even after it was grudgingly acknowledged after more careful investigations that Charan Shah was not impelled to burn at her husband's pyre, many social justice advocates are convinced that the Sati Prevention Act must be invoked against the people of Mahoba region. They are upset at "the local people who refuse to regard the incident as a crime." Their reasoning: irrespective of whether she died voluntarily or whether she was pressured into the act, the very fact of her deification by villagers, and evidence indicating the existence of a whole sati cult centering her, consolidates and propagates injurious traditions against women. The reformers insist that anyone from a neighbouring village who comes to pay respects at Charan Shah's cremation site should also be arrested and tried for the crime of glorifying sati.
The truth is, despite a highly draconian law, that provides for the death penalty for anyone accused of participating in sati, and life-imprisonment for anyone glorifying sati, several million people in this country refuse to be "modernised" into believing that voluntary self immolation is a crime. Just as most people don't believe that suicide is a crime though many modern states in the world (even India) have declared it to be so. The question is, how do we wish to deal with people who hold different values? How many millions do we want to imprison for life and put to death for subscribing to cultural norms which somehow do not meet the approval of "modernists" like us?
I personally abhor the practice of sati and would do everything in my power to persuade or prevent a woman from killing herself in such a gruesome fashion. Similarly, I abhor killings in the name of national wars and do all I can to build opinion against warmongering. However, I would not suggest "ruthless action" against those who refuse to heed me.
Responsible societies lay down certain limits of conduct even during war, such as the principle of not attacking unarmed populations. The fervour of self-appointed reformers knows no limits. They are not bothered with mundane details like confirming if even one family in that entire village has the means and money to secure bail, or to hire lawyers for fighting the prolonged litigation that would follow such a case. In all likelihood, the accused would rot in jail till death do them release from the benevolent concern of our social activists. The Charan Shah episode only underscores how reforming zeal without respect for facts, empathic understanding and compassion can easily degenerate into Khomeinivaad.
Why doesn't anyone demand the arrest and conviction of health ministry officials of the UP government for criminal negligence and dereliction of duty, since they failed to provide a decent health centre in Satpura? Or that public works department officials face trial and also to link this village by road, for failing to provide basic public transport in five decades of independence - so that it would have been easier for Charan Shah to take her spouse to a city hospital? If both her eldest son and her husband did not have easily avoidable premature deaths, she may not have felt the need to end her own life in such a way.
Let's face the question squarely: what is it about her death that bothers us? That she did not want to outlive her husband? Or that she chose a politically incorrect form of death? Is it conceivable that Charan Shah's death would have evoked similar outrage, had she popped a few dozen sleeping pills along with a few pegs of liquor in Marilyn Monroe style, and let it be known through a poetic suicide note that she was ending her life because she felt jilted by a lover? Then she might have qualified as a subject for many a bestseller, as well as Hollywood romance. Monroe continues to be one of the most celebrated icons of femininity in the western world. But Charan Shah was foolish enough to be born poor in a country which is the favourite object of contempt and flagellation for 20th century modernists, and so she becomes a symbol of Indian primitivism. Would we be as outraged if, out of grief, she stopped eating and slowly starved herself to death?
The sad truth is that the educated elite expresses horror mostly about those things which the West looks down upon. People who cremate their dead instead of giving them a decent Christian burial are already somewhat uncivilised in the eyes of many westerners. Therefore, a Charan Shah who jumps onto her husband's pyre instead of swallowing sleeping pills becomes ten times more uncivilised. When women demean themselves in ways currently approved by the West, nobody is particularly upset.
There is some validity in the argument that by idealising such sacrificial acts, women are conditioned into believing that their lives are essentially worthless after their husband's death. But is it fair that people whose value system meets our disapproval, or whose deities we don't judge worthy of respect, should be treated as criminals simply because we have the privilege and power to implement any kind of legislation against them? Do the reformers give others similar rights to impose restrictions on their practices, values and objects of worship?
Some others taking a more benign approach argue that the poor villagers of Satpura take to extolling sati because they have been denied the benefits of modern, liberal education. Hence they retain `primitive' cultural practices. Reformers are convinced it is "a lethal combination of superstition and prejudice that accounts for the veneration elicited by Charan Shah." They tell us that "apart from stern official measures, it will take years of educational effort with a pronounced bias in favour of the cultivation of a rational and scientific temper," and "a genuine campaign for the empowerment of women through a sustained liberal education" to combat the culture which valorises anti-women traditions like sati.
However, the beneficiaries of liberal and rational education often worship and deify far more harmful varieties of icons on a much grander scale - and that too proudly - without granting others the right to protest or condemnation.
A good example of a lavish glorification cult constructed around a negative role model is that of Princess Diana, a woman who led a very self-destructive existence. She began her public life by willingly offering a virginity test to prove herself worthy of marrying a known philanderer - all because he belonged to a rich and royal family. Despite that, she failed to win either his respect or love. Diana herself admitted to constant humiliation and neglect by her husband while he had a merry time with his mistress. Yet, she desperately kept trying to be sexually attractive for him. In the process, she developed severe eating disorders, starved herself until she became a mental, emotional and physical wreck - all so that she could stay fashionably trim and beautiful for her uncaring prince. She spent a good part of her life shopping, buying designer clothes and jewellery in order to mesmerise people with her glamour and charm. When all those tactics failed with her princy, she got into a series of exploitative clandestine relationships - including one with her riding instructor, who literally auctioned their love story for millions of pounds. Finally, she died a perfectly unheroic death with yet another clandestine lover.
Ms. Diana had everything
going for her - a rich family, good, modern, `liberal' education, beauty,
health, social status, and powerful connections. Yet, what a sorry mess
she made of her life. She lent a bit of glamour to a few good causes by
occasional forays into social work, but the bulk of her energy seems to
have been channelled into looking pretty, engaging in unsatisfactory romantic
alliances, and copying with the resultant emotional melodramas.
Now, many of us do find this whole drama and glorification not just silly but also damaging. Diana's life holds up a very negative role model for women. It teaches women to be self-pitying, hungry and desperate for male attention, and to give in to feelings of worthlessness if men don't respond as desired. Yet would I have the right to propose that the crowds thronging Diana's grave should be declared criminals, lathi charged by police (as was done at Charan Shah's immolation site), arrested on charges of idealising this woman, and then sentenced to life imprisonment or death?
Since I don't believe in authoritarian, statist measures for reforming or curing people out of their mental kinks or personal values, I wouldn't actually suggest death sentences or prison terms for the crazies who went into mass madness over Diana. But I would certainly want to recommend psychiatric treatment for all such people, including some in our country who stayed glued to television for days on end, wallowing in Diana's tragic saga, and those who wasted huge amounts of newspaper space to give us detailed glimpses of that fairly flimsy life.
Needless to say, we wouldn't be allowed the right to rectify the worldviews of Diana devotees. But the rest of the world thinks it has the right to `educate', to `civilise', to `modernise' those who consider Charan Shah praiseworthy.
might well argue that the exaltation of Diana or Marilyn Monroe is secular
whereas Charan Shah has become a religious icon. There are serious flaws
in this line of argument. Are we concerned about potentially harmful icons
and role models or about whether they come with religious or secular connotations?
Why should only religious icons be banned and why not secular ones as well?
What is so sacred about the secular domain?
Manushi, Issue 115 Manushi content is reproduced on India Together with permission. Click here to visit the Manushi home page