Sati i.e. the rite or the practice of burning off a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband was one such barbaric custom which began to be practiced in the name of religion.
Sati had its origin in the dark ages of medieval India and was in vogue during the occupation of the sub-continent by the British. Raja Ram Mohun Ray, a social reformer and a champion of the women’s cause, waged a veritable crusade against this evil practice.
He strongly supported the British Government in their attempt to stop the barbaric practice of ‘satidaha’ as it was known in those days.
Ram Mohun Roy proved that there was no religious sanction for this evil and organized a fiery public agitation against the practice through signature campaigns and a petition to the British parliament. In 1829, the government took courage and put a ban on this evil practice.
However, it is a sad commentary on the prevailing social conditions in some of the less developed parts of the country that this horrendous crime is still committed and even educated people believe in Sati worship.
There have been many cases of burning of widows tied to the dead bodies of their husbands under coercion, threat, intimidation and deception.
It is true that a widow’s life is full of misery and even today she is considered an outcast and has to live in ignominy.
A country which has been independent for 50 years and has constitutionally guaranteed the fundamental right to life to every citizen.
Where even an attempt at suicide is a crime and a serious offence, practices like Sati really make one aware of the truth the despite all progress, education, legal and constitutional safeguards, social evils continue to plague our society.
Roop Kanwar’s immolation at Deorala, a small village in Rajasthan, and its fervent glorification a few years back came as rude shock to the enlightened and secular minded in the society.
It started a countrywide debate. People began to wonder whether we were back to the dark ages or slipping into the stone age while we were busy preparing for stepping into the 21st century.
The murder of Roop Kanwar on the funeral pyre of her husband proved how backwardness and primitivism had been preserved in rural India through misinterpretation of scriptures.
Raja Ram Mohun Roy had, as early as 19th century, proved that Sati was not an integral part of Indian religion. Even today eminent scholars and religious teachers condemn the practice and have declared that Sati has no. religious sanction.
In fact, it started a debate between Swami Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi, who condemned the continuation of the practice, and Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Niranjan Dev, who took the side of the orthodox Hindus.
It is indeed a shame that grotesque and macabre practice of Sati is being revived and political parties are trying to exploit the event for their own selfish ends.
Initially the law enforcing authorities of the Deorala area and the governments in the State and at the centre turned a Nelson’s eye to the entire Roop Kanwar episode and treated it as a nonevent.
But the press and several women’s organizations took up the issue with determination.
When the government saw that the feelings and passions of people had been aroused to high pitch and public was strongly demanding action against those who had executed the crime under the guise of Sati, it asked the CID (Crime Branch) in Rajasthan to start criminal proceedings against 32 accused persons, including the in-laws of the victim.
Meanwhile, as is the common belief, elaborate arrangements got under way to celebrate the Chunari Mahotsav and to build a Sati temple.
There is a belief in Rajasthan that Sati worship is auspicious. In spite of government legislation, police ‘bandobust’ and hue and cry raised by women’s organizations, thousands or people gathered at Deorala to have a glimpse of the ‘Satisthal’.
Many shops, eating houses, entertainment centres sprang up in Deorala overnight to take care of the pilgrims. All these prove that people still believe in such practices.
Despite all progress and development, Indian society is still holding on to its superstitions. It is a known fact that societies deeply rooted in traditions resist change.
It was precisely for this reason that the British, to begin with, had not made any effort to bring about social reforms.
They were afraid that it will be- interpreted as interference in the religious sentiments by the orthodox and the princely classes, though later with the support of thinkers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy they started taking concrete steps to rid the Indian society of many evil practices.
With the achievement of freedom, Indian government began to implement their programme for major socio-economic reforms. Persons like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Radhakrishanan appealed to people to shed their ignorance.
However the old order does not yield to the new so easily. Hence crimes such as Sati continue to be committed and people manage to get away with them.
Therefore, the fight against Sati and other social evils should not be limited to government and law courts. Education among the masses and enlightened public opinion can go a long way in eradicating such practices.
It is indeed shameful that in a country which boasts of rubbing shoulders with the advanced countries in the field of scientific and technological advancement, such barbaric crimes are still committed.
It makes the country appear uncivilized to the rest of the world despite tail claims.
Unless steps are taken to implement compulsory education, eradicate poverty and a comprehensive anti-Sati law is passed by the government, there cannot be much hope for any change in the plight of the widows.
But a vigilant law enforcing machinery and enlightened public can save the woman from such gruesome death.
Anationwide awakening of public consciousness and stringent punishment for the abettors of this crime alone can dissuade in-laws from forcing a widow to die with her husband and save women from becoming the victims of the heinous and obnoxious crime.