Date: Sun, 12 Dec 1999 17:58:33 -0600 (CST)
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Widow Immolation Custom Prevails Over Law
By Ranjit Dev Raj, IPS, 8 dec 1999
NEW DELHI, Dec 8 (IPS) - Activist groups are demanding stricter implementation of Indian laws against glorifying 'sati' -- the practice of widows burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands -- another instance of which occurred last month.
After visiting Satpurva village in northern Uttar Pradesh state where Charan Shah, 55, killed herself on Nov. 11, they are demanding "action" against three temples in the area built on the site of previous immolations, which are banned by law.
According to the report by Nirantar, Saheli and other autonomous groups, the belief that a sati has the power to grant wishes has attracted people, especially women, to these shrines at Magrauta, Mahoba and Jaari, the last built for a sati in 1980.
The groups also want action against people who 'participated' in Charan Shah's gruesome death and who are now attempting to glorify it and build the customary shrine at the site.
Everyone in the village admitted to letting the widow burn but wished to steer clear of the possibility of being accused of forcing her or even instigating her into the act.
Some villagers told the 12-member team that Charan Shah was pushed back into the fire and there were active efforts to keep the fire going. There could, in any case, have been no "innocent witnessing" of such an event, the report said.
"The manner in which reactionary patriarchal values combines with the desire to commercialise religion and strengthen orthodox notions of womanhood makes this a particularly dangerous trend."
According to the report, Charan Shah's death was a case of sati rather than a simple suicide as concluded by the left-wing, All-India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) following a separate investigation.
The National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body, went a step further and declared Charan Shah a "highly distressed and depressed person," who acted "irrationally."
According to lawyer Jayanti Natarajan, member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house of Parliament, an avoidable controversy was created by those who went public with findings that Charan Shah committed suicide and not sati.
"In a very real sense, this vitiated a proper probe by the local authorities who had the jurisdiction, facilities and responsibility to get to the truth of the matter," Natarajan wrote in 'The Hindu' newspaper, Dec. 3.
Natarajan also found fault with the view expressed in an article by Madhu Kishwar, the editor of the feminist magazine, 'Manushi', that while forcible sati was criminal, sati committed voluntarily was a cultural tradition.
Similar views have been expressed in the past by leading members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rose to power over the last decade through a sustained Hindu fundamentalist campaign.
"There was and never can be a cultural tradition that sanctifies the death of a human being," Natarajan declared.
Natarajan said sati was a barbaric practice which should be stamped out with "uncompromising ruthlessness," and that those who counselled caution would be "falling into the trap of apologists for sati who exist in this country even today."
The British colonial administration first banned sati in 1829 but stray incidents have continued to happen -- the most sensational occurring in the largely feudal, northwestern Rajasthan state just 12 years ago.
In that case hundreds of people watched as Roop Kanwar, an educated 18-year-old was led to the funeral pyre of her husband to be burnt alive in her bridal finery.
Local politicians had then vied to be involved in the incident in order to gain political mileage out of it. Agitated women's groups forced the government to amend existing anti-sati laws to make the glorification of the event punishable.
Despite the public outcry over the sati of Roop Kanwar and the new laws, all 32 persons arrested in connection with it were acquitted by courts for "lack of evidence" and because of the willful inaction of the state government of Rajasthan.
Roop Kanwar's gory death also enriched her community through generous donations which poured in and may have served as further encouragement for the practice.
"In addition to the fundamental problem of the low status of women and patriarchal misconceptions, economic gain is a potent motivation for the supporters of sati," Natarajan said.
Newspaper reports show the villagers of Satpurva strongly in favour of declaring the site sacred. "It is the will of god that we worship Charan Shah," they have been quoted as saying.
In spite of laws against the abetment of sati or its glorification, a local religious leader Padakhanda Shah has in newspaper interviews strongly favoured the granting of "satihood" to Charan Shah.
According to Natarajan, the phenomenon of sati can only be neutralised by "multi-pronged action on all fronts, including governmental, legislative and social."
Origin: New Delhi/RIGHTS-INDIA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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