Against Sati

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Transcript of Against Sati

  • The History of DoingAn Illustrated Account of Movements

    for Women's Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990

    R A D H A K U M A R

    koli for women


  • The History of Doing: An IJJmtmted Account of Movementsfor Women's in 1800-1990

    was first published by

    Safi for Women.A 36 Gubnohar ParkNewDeIMH049

    Radha Kumar 1993Photographs as credited at end

    All fights r&erved81-85107-15-0

    Typesetting by IPP Catalog Publications Pvt Ltd,, New Delhiand printed at Indraprastha Press (CBT), New Delhi

  • 11. The Agitation Against Sati 1987-88

    Protesting against Roop Kanwar'simmolation, Delhi 1987


    Young widow with her husband'sdead body, just before immolation, private

    family album, Sitapur, date not known

    In September 1987, an incident of sati (widow immola-tion) in a village in Rajasthan sparked off a campaignwhich gave rise to a furious debate which spanned notonly the rights and wrongs of Hindu women, but ques-tions of religious identity, communal autonomy and the

    Immolation, private family album,Sitapur, date not known

    role of the law and the State in a society as complex andas diverse as India's. While some of the arguments usedin the debate were not new, its form and structure wereilluminating, as much for what they obscured as for whatthey revealed of the intricate web of social change inIndia (including the current state of the feministmovement).

    In the course of the debate a series of binary opposi-tions were invoked, between rural and urban, traditionand modernity, complementarity and sameness, thestate and religious communities, spiritualism and mate-rialism, and so on. The invocation of these oppositionshad the effect of presenting either side (for and againstsati) as homogeneous, so that the former were describedas representing rural, traditional communities who werestruggling to preserve themselves from the homogeniz-ing tendencies of the Indian nation-state, while the latterwere described as representing elite, urban, modernsections of society, who were pressing the state to inter-vene in communities they bore no relation to, and werethus supporting and encouraging the nation-state toextend its sphere of control over civil society.

    Versions of this argument began to be advancedwithin a couple of weeks of the incident of sati, andalmost immediately after the campaign against it began.While the argument itself was earlier used by the sup-porters of the Muslim Women's Bill in 1986-87, the wayin which it appeared in the debate over sati showed howgreatly the argument had developed. For example, inthe earlier agitation the argument was advanced mainlyby pro-Bill leaders, but in the latter it was advanced bothby pro-sati leaders and by a group of 'outsiders' (in theform of a series of newspaper articles). These appearedfirst in the Delhi-based Hindi and English languagenational dailies, Jan Satta, ('Banwari' 29.9.87), IndianExpress (Ashis Nandy, 5.10.87 and Statesman (Patrick DHarrigan, 5.11.87), and all three writers, in their various

    Painted chariot celebrating widowimmolation, Rajasthan, 1987


    ways, lent a kind of outsider respectability to theargument so that it also began to be advocated byconsiderable numbers of those very urban, modernsections of society which it sought to attack.

    Perhaps the most striking point about the articles by'Banwari', Ashis Nandy and Patrick Harrigan was that allthree propounded their arguments in the form of apolemic against the Indian feminist movement, accus-ing Indian feminists of being agents of modernity whowere attempting to impose crass market-dominatedviews of equality and liberty on a society which once gavethe noble, the self-sacrificing and the spiritual therespect they deserve, but which is now being rapidlydestroyed by the essentially selfish forces of the market.All three, moreover, defined these crass market-domi-nated views of equality and liberty as being drawn fromthe West, so Indian feminists stood accused of beingWesternists, colonialists, cultural imperialists, andindirectlysupporters of capitalist ideology.

    Though Indian feminists had suffered a series ofattacks in the eighties, this was to date the most major ofthem, for not only did it appear to be concerted, itstiming was such that it appeared to lend legitimacy bothto an ideology which claimed that the finest act a womancould perform was to die with her husband, and to aspecific incident of sad which was beginning to seemmore and more like an incident of murder. Outrageousas the accusations against themselves seemed to Indianfeminists, who had shown themselves to be anti-imperi-alist and anti-capitalist in a number of waysand manyof whom had, ironically enough, themselves launched acritique of 'Western feminist' goals and methods manyyears prior to this attackwhat made it worse was thefact that not one of these writers addressed themselvesto the question of what had happened, or was happen-ing, in Deorala where the sati had taken place, nor didany of them ask under what conditions Roop Kanwarhad lived, or under what conditions she had died.

    September 1987 was not the first time that Indianfeminists encountered the problem of sati. The firstencounter in Delhi was in 1983, when a campaign tofurther popularize the ideology of sati was launched bya Marwari-funded organization known as the Rani SatiSarva Sangh. The RSSS, which already ran several satitemples in Rajasthan and Delhi, had got the then Gov-ernment to grant them a plot of land in Delhi to buildyet another sati temple, and had decided to celebratediis grant by leading a procession of men and women todie temple. Delhi feminists heard of this plan, anddecided to hold a counter-demonstration along theroute of the procession, which they did with signalfailure, partly because they had had no time to mobilize,and thus found themselves outnumbered, and partlybecause this was the first time that they had had toconfront a group of women in a hostile situation; this

    was in itself so distressing that it took the heart out oftheir demonstration. Most distressing of all, however,was the way in which the processionists appropriated thelanguage of rights, stating that they should have theright, as Hindus and as women, to commit, worship andpropagate sati. At the same time, they also appropriatedfeminist slogans on women's militancy, for example,'hum Bharat ki nan hain, phool nahin, chingari hairi (we,the women of India, are not flowers but fiery sparks).The feminists who attended that demonstration experi-enced, therefore, the humiliating sense of loss whichaccompanies the discovery that your own words can soreadily be snatched and turned against you to serve anantithetical cause.1 This experience led to two differentreactions: one, the determination to research into theexistence of sati, sati temples and the proponents of'sati-dharma' in India; the other, to find non-confronta-tional ways in which to undermine the ideology of sati.Both, however, emphasized the need to study, compre-hend and deal with the traditional.

    Whether for these reasons, or because no furtherpublic campaigns in support of sati occurred, the issuefaded out until Roop Kanwar's death in 1987. Given thatthere has been, on an average, something like one satia year in India, why did this incident arouse such frenzywhen others had not? Only four months earlier, thepolice had prevented a woman called Banwari fromcommitting sati, and had dispersed the twenty thousandodd people who had assembled at Bagda village in Palidistrict to witness the event.2 Two years earlier, in March1985, the police had prevented another sati in Jaipurdistrict and had used both tear gas and lathicharges todisperse the thirty thousand odd people who had col-lected at the proposed site.3 In neither incident didpolice intervention result in agitations against them. YetRoop Kanwar's death, which no-one prevented, led to amassive agitation both for and against sati. It was only asa campaign around me issue developed that it becameevident that this particular sati was indeed different frommost of the others. In contrast to some of the other areasin which sati had been attempted, Deorala was a rela-tively highly developed village. The family, while notperhaps wealthy, were well-to-do. Roop Kanwar's father-in-law was headmaster of a district school, while sheherself was a graduate. A Rajput family, they had linkswith influential Rajputs and mainstream state-levelpoliticians.

    Roop Kanwar had only been married a short whilebefore her husband died. Her dowry included somethirty tolas of gold. Her husband suffered from mentaldisorder and they had spent only around six monthstogether. When, after his death, it was decided that RoopKanwar would 'become' sati, the impending event wasannounced in advance, because sati is always a publicspectacle. Yet her family were not informed. Evidence


    which trickled out pointed to murder: some of herneighbours said that she had run away and tried to hidein a barn before the ceremony, but was dragged out,pumped full of drugs, dressed in her bridal finery andput on the pyre, with logs and coconuts heaped uponher. The pyre itself was lit by her brother-in-law, aminor.4

    Hearing that the press was on its way, the organizersof her sati brought forward the 'event'. When the pressarrived at Deorala, they were abused and manhandledby self-appointed protectors of the Sati-sthal (site of sati).In other words, it was evident that the planners of thesati saw themselves as being in a state of siege before anyquestions of a battle had even arisen. Could it be thatthey themselves chalked out the battles: were they in factlooking for a battle? Some credence was lent to this viewby the response of