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Sati glorification: Crime, Society
And The Wheels Of Injustice

By Rakesh Shukla

19 March, 2004

On March 3, 2004, women's groups including the Rajasthan University Women's Association, Sathin Karmachari Sangh and the National Federation of Indian Women, under the banner of Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Andolan, staged a march in Jaipur protesting the acquittal, on January 31, of all
the accused in four criminal cases of glorification of sati, which was abolished in 1829 by Lord Bentinck. The accused include, among others, a former minister, a former IAS officer, an advocate and the president of the Rajput Maha Sabha.

The cases go back to Deorala 1987, and have a chequered career. The Rajasthan High Court quashed the chargesheets in December 1987 itself!
The Supreme Court finally reversed the high court judgement and sent the cases back for trial in January 2003.

On September 4, 1987 in Deorala, a nondescript village in Rajasthan, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar burned to death on the pyre of her husband Maal Singh. Dressed in bridal finery, Roop Kanwar walked at the head of the funeral procession to the centre of the village and ascended the pyre. The family lit the pyre fully aware that she was sitting on it, alive, with hundreds of onlookers watching the proceedings. In fact, relatives even fed a thousand people in honour of 'Sati Mata'. Based on a petition by women activists the
Rajasthan High Court, on September 14, 1987, ordered the state government to prevent a function glorifying sati from taking place on the 13th day of Roop Kanwar's death. The ceremony was nevertheless held with much fanfare. A festive 'chunari', taken round in procession, draped over a trishul to resemble the form of a woman, was set ablaze in the presence of VIPs, politicians,
legislators and thousands of people. Cries of " Sati Mata ki jai ," " Jab tak suraj-chand rahega, Roop Kanwar tera naam rahega " ("As long as the sun and the moon exist, Roop Kanwar will be remembered") rent the air.

Pressure from women's groups led to the promulgation of the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance, 1987, on October 1, 1987, prohibiting the glorification of sati. The Sati Dharma Suraksha Samiti dropped 'Sati' from its name and
organised a massive rally, mid-October, in Jaipur. People carried naked swords and shouted slogans in favour of sati and Roop Kanwar.

Similar rallies were organised in the districts of Alwar and Sikar. Under the ordinance, 22 criminal cases pertaining to these rallies were
filed for 'glorification of sati'. On October 11, 1996, the additional district and
sessions judge at Neem-ka-Thana in Rajasthan pronounced all 32 accused, including Roop Kanwar's father-in-law, 'not guilty' with regard to the immolation. They were acquitted. The main reason for their acquittal was stated to be the absence of eyewitnesses to the immolation, which took place in the presence of hundreds of onlookers. In fact, the court declared that the
prosecution had not been able to prove that Roop Kanwar was alive when she sat on the pyre and was burnt to death!

The court's finding brings us to the acquittal, on January 31, 2004, of all the accused including former minister and vice-president of the state's
BJP Rajendra Singh Rathore, former Bharatiya Yuva Morcha president and nephew of vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Pratap Singh Khachariawas, president of the Rajput Maha Sabha, Narendra Singh Rajawat, former IAS officer Onkar Singh and advocate Ram Singh Manohar in four of
the criminal cases under the 1987 ordinance. Under the ordinance, 'sati' constitutes the burning or burying alive of any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or with any article, object or thing associated with the
husband, irrespective of whether such burning or burying is voluntary on the part of the widow or otherwise.

Glorification has been defined under section 2(b) of the ordinance. The first limb of the provision defines 'glorification' as including the observance of any ceremony or the taking out of a procession in connection with sati. Interposing
'or', the second limb declares the creation of a trust, collection of funds, construction of a temple or the performance of any ceremony thereat with a view to perpetuating the honour of, or to preserve the memory of a widow committing sati as glorification.

The court, duty-bound to apply the definition of sati as laid down in the law, instead declares that 'sati' means a "woman being virtuous, having strong character, completely devoted towards her husband and having a relationship with only one man during her whole life". Applying this subjective meaning, betraying a patriarchal mindset, the judgement refers to Sita and Anusuya
as 'satis' and observes that the invocation of their name would obviously not make a person guilty of sati glorification.

The provision is then interpreted to mean that the observance of any ceremony or the taking out of a procession must also be in relation to a particular incident for the act to be punishable. Carrying this twisted logic further, the court rules that as the Roop Kanwar incident has itself not been proved to be one of 'sati', 'sati glorification' is not established by the taking out of processions.

The other striking feature of the case is the turning hostile of senior government officials including police officers. In what is probably unprecedented, ADM Nar Hari Sharma, SDM Gyan Prakash Shukla, SHO Bhilwara Satish Kumar, SHO Nagar Nigam, Jaipur Chagan Lal, amongst other
ASIs and constables, all changed their testimonies in court and refused to support the prosecution launched and conducted by their own
administration. Lapses on the part of the prosecution, such as a delay in filing an FIR (First Information Report), failure to prove the photographs, speeches recorded and news items through the examination of photographers,
technicians and the journalists concerned, the absence of test identification all contributed to the acquittal.

As time for an appeal with the high court runs out, continuing protests within the state and across the country have failed to persuade the state government, headed by Vasundhara Raje, to file an appeal against the acquittal and take steps to conduct, with due care and diligence,
the prosecution of 18 cases of 'sati glorification' still pending trial.
(Rakesh Shukla is an advocate with the Supreme Court)
InfoChange News & Features, March 2004
Courtesy:Harsh Kapoor/SACW