The woman who divided India
On the morning of September 4th 1987, Roop Kanwar an 18-year-old girl, was led to the funeral pyre of her husband. There, she clambered onto the pyre held her husband’s head in her hands and let the flames consume her as the crowds cheered.
All were in wonder and awe at a living sati – a woman who had become a goddess through the fire, who had been willing to sacrifice herself after her husband’s death to join him in the afterlife. But as the fires consumed Roop Kanwar on that dreary morning, it struck a match to set the whole India aflame – flames born of an old debate; tradition versus morality.
Protests broke out against the practice, even more would assemble in favour of it. A push and pull for the liberation of tradition and the liberation of woman became a constant. These two would battle it out across cities, newspapers, books and radio, anywhere where an ear would be willing to listen. They would preach their convictions and their stance in the fight.
And so, India was torn in two through the death of a single woman.
The village of Deorala, where Roop’s sati had taken place had become a center point for these practices. It was tradition. But to understand what happened to her on that day, we must first understand the practice itself, and what it means to the Hindu people.
Sati is a very old tradition within India. Stretching as far back to 400CE, around the Gupta era. It holds a connection to Dakshayani or Sati, a goddess in the Hindu pantheon who represents felicity. She is a sort of patron of the act of sati itself.
It is a true Hindu practice. The definition of sati in the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary is: "the rite of widow-burning; i.e., the burning of the living widow along with the corpse of her husband, as practiced by people of certain castes among the Hindus, and eminently by the Rajputs.”
This is the most rudimentary definition of the term. A specific act done by a widow. In the western world we would say she ‘committed sati’, as if it was an act of suicide or murder – a decidedly negative connotation – where as in India, the concept is much different. The word has a far broader meaning in Indian cultures. For them, sati is not an act, but in a broader terms a person.
Essentially, a woman becomes sati, or a ‘good woman’ a sadhvi.
This is a woman who devotes herself to her husband in all things – even death. She becomes a ‘true’ sati once she commits the final act of widow burning and almost becomes a goddess of sort. So what we can see from this particularly is that the Hindu people see sati as not something to be scorned, but instead praised above all else.
The Rajputs and Marwari clans in particular are quite fond of this tradition, and still attempt to keep it alive in India today. They are old families of the highest esteem. Their word holds sway, as would be shown during the aftermath of Roop Kanwar’s death.
They would see figures wandering the house at night,
Who was Roop Kanwar?
Roop Kanwar was from a rich family, and the marriage to her husband Mai Singh was a celebrated one. From testimonies gathered from her parents and friends, Room was quite devote in her worship of the goddess sati. She preferred the temples to the teahouses, and when she was a girl, she played with small idols instead of her dolls. She was truly a devoted Hindu.
And sati was not an obscure practice. In the 80s No less than 40 sati’s has been held in the field where Roop would be burned. So, to worship the goddess Sati, was to believe in its practice.
When she marred into the Rajput family, she was, as tradition dictates, sent along with a dowry which accumulated to around 30 000 rubles – a small fortune in that time. Despite this worldly sum, her marriage to her Singh did come without some troubles.
Singh was a sickly man. He struggled often with his health, and furthermore he failed his entrance exam into medical school – which was one of the reasons why her parents approved of the marriage. Singh had, at the time of the marriage the potential to become a doctor, which was quite prestigious and ensured their daughter would be taken care of.
Shortly after they were married, Roop was sent back to her parents for a around seven months, allowing her husband to focus on his second attempt at the exams. She would return a few weeks before the exams, but he would fail again.
According to the doctor, Singh suffered heavily after the second failure.
He plunged into depression, suffered through sweats and sickness, and on the night of his death, the doctor who treated him diagnosed him with gastroenteritis. However, it was quickly ruled out, as he only showed one symptom; stomach ache. Others rather believed the young man was poisoned.
However, he died, it was time for a funeral. Roop, as customed dictated after the death of a husband for one so young, should have gone back to her parents, taking her dowry with her to hopefully find a new husband. But it was not to be.
The day of her Sati
Testimonies conflict as to what exactly happened on the day. But one singular point is agreed upon; Roop was burned alive.
Pro-sati activists say Roop was the image of dedicated Hindu. She had walked in front of the procession with a grace and poise no one had ever seen. A calm happiness seemed follow her and the crowds cheered at her willingness. She would dance before the pyre before finally climbing atop and take hold her husband’s head. They claim that the pyre was set ablaze by her belief, and she held her hands aloft to shower the people with praise.
Above the cheers and smoke, they claim you could see Roop waving her arms, you could hear her screaming, but due the crowds it was difficult to determine what she was screaming. Some claimed she called for her father to help her.
By their accounts, it was murder.
The news of Roop and her husband’s death reached her parents the following morning. In the News Paper. They had not even been aware that Mai Singh had been dead.
Surprisingly, they were accepting of it. Afterall, the mother would later say, the death of a son is a far more tragic occurrence than that of a daughter.
But the rest of the community were not so accepting.
The news of Roop and her husband’s death reached her parents the following morning. In the News Paper. They had not even been aware that Mai Singh had been dead. Surprisingly, they were accepting of it. Afterall, the mother would later say, the death of a son is a far more tragic occurrence than that of a daughter.
Feminists marched to the paper and demanded that they be given a chance at a rebuttal against the article they considered damaging. The article in question had glorified the horrendous act, calling it a ‘sign of her devotion to her religion’ and they were having none of it. The paper accepted to run their article, and the feminists were given the chance to explain their perspective on the matter: how immoral and wrong the tradition was. But the Rajputs would not take this sitting down.
They started their own campaign "Committee for the Defense of the Religion of Sati” and made sure to praise sati as a wonderful Hindu practice. They claimed that women who underwent this act, did not feel pain, it was a transendous state. As close to the gods as once could be. The activist groups called this utter nonsense – being burned is being burned. There is no glory or beauty in it.
The Hindu conservatives argued further, pushing for the communities to uphold old traditions. It has been part of the Hindu belief for thousands of years, after all. “She had done so willingly,” they claimed, “It was her choice!”
But the rest of the community were not so accepting.
But, the feminists argued, whether it had been her choice or not, does not matter. The very fact that sati was still being practiced was, in of itself, abhorrent. These were living people, burned alive for no other reason than tradition. It did not matter if had been her choice, the fact that the choice had been made available was the problem.
The activists would protest with a silent march through the streets of Jaipur 3000 people would attend. But the Rajputs would launch a counter protest, gathering over 70 000 people in favour of keeping sati as part of the religion.
The law was, technically, on the side of the feminists. Sati had a bit of a history in the context of law, it had been deliberately outlawed in 1829 by the East India Trading company. But In 1946 after India was given its independence, the laws were rewritten to include embedding suicide and outright murder as criminal acts. They felt this was sufficient to include the act of sati.
But this is not how the Hindu’s perceived it. They believed it precludes sati, as it is not directly stated to be illegal, as it is not, after all murder or suicide. It is the act of transcendence, of the purist of acts a woman can participate in. To put it into perspective, there are laws in Spain set to protect vertebrae animals, but bullfights are still legal in many cities. As tradition trumps law.
However, despite their protests, the law did not entirely agree with their arguments. Shortly after the protests started, the younger brother, the father in-law and one other man were arrested for embedding suicide. The police further explained how they had broken up no less than five sati’s the previous year, and at least five more had taken place. Despite trying to stop these practices, they had little power to do so. Because there were no direct laws against the practice of sati, they really had no leg to stand on. A few months later, the men were all set free.
But the feminists wouldn’t let up. They contacted Rajiv Gandhi's Congress government in New Delhi demanding that the law be changed, that something be done to protect women from such a horrible fate.
Then, a breakthrough. In 1987 a new law was approved, abolishing the glorification of sati. Nowhere, no temple or family was allowed to speak of sati as something glorious. It was a small victory, but there was one problem.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987, was implemented shortly after Roop’s tragic death. What made the act so problematic was how the law explained sati, and why it was illegal. Essentially, the act was illegal because it was suicide, and if a woman (forced or no) participated, she was liable. Instead of simply stating ‘sati is an illegal practice because it results in the death of woman’, they instead opted to simply copy the 1829 law and apply it to modern standards. The feminists had won their battle, but it was a bitter-sweet one to be sure.
Up to date, no other sati events have transpired in India. For the Hindu’s it is a blow to their traditions and practices, to the women it could be a relief to be free of the impending pyre of your husband. The life of Hindu women are difficult and unforgiving, as proven by dowry murders, or … burnings. Over 2000 women die every year from dowry murders – some are in constant fear for their lives.
But at least they impending pyre of their husband’s will not be their final resting place.
Sati - the ongoing war on widow burning