The law, and the facts

Print edition : November 27, 1999

UNDER the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, "sati" is defined as the act of burning or burying alive any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative. This definition applies, irrespective of whether the widow voluntar ily submits herself to such burning or burying or is coerced or persuaded into doing so.

Under the Act, glorification of "sati" is defined as the observance of any ceremony or the taking out of a procession in connection with the commission of sati; the supporting, justifying or propagating of the practice of sati; and the arranging of any f unction to eulogise a person who has committed sati, or the creation of a trust, or the collection of funds, or the construction of temple or other structure, or the carrying on of any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony there, with a view to perpetuating the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, a person who has committed sati.

FOLLOWING media reports of Charan Shah's death on her husband's funeral pyre on November 11, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) deputed an all-woman team to Satpurva to ascertain the facts of the case. The team comprised Subhashini Ali, former Lok Sabha member from Kanpur and working president of AIDWA in U.P.; and Urmila Awasthi and Sheila Narayan, leaders of the Kanpur district unit of AIDWA. The three leaders visited Satpurva hamlet on November 15 and met the members of Charan Shah' s family, their neighbours, and other villagers. The AIDWA team concluded that Charan Shah's death was not a case of "sati murder"; the widow committed suicide because she did not wish to live without her husband. And there was no abetment to suicide on the part of anyone, the team noted. Charan Shah's decision to end her life had not been conveyed to anyone beforehand, and she did not dress in bridal clothes; nor were there any rituals or ceremonies associated with sati, the AIDWA team said.

Subhashini Ali told Frontline that in the perception of the AIDWA team, Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide. However, even if it was treated as a case of sati going by the definition of sati under the Act, against whom would the police take action, she wondered. On the basis of the team's interaction with a cross section of people in the hamlet, she affirmed that there was no abetment of any kind. Subhashini Ali said, "If you prosecute the villagers for her death, they will not be able to s urvive. They are innocent."

Sishpal told the AIDWA team that the police wanted him to state that his mother was mentally ill, but that he refused. He further said that a few villagers had said that if a "sati" temple came up at the site, the village would benefit: offerings would p our in, shops could be set up and a road would be built.

The AIDWA team reported that several women of the village had claimed that they had heard that Charan Shah flew to the pyre and that physically disabled people who worshipped at the site had been cured miraculously. But the women could not substantiate t hese claims. Their innocent belief in supernatural powers was being used by people who wish to gain commercial advantage by creating a "sati myth" and pressing for a temple, the team said. Media reports that thousands of people had visited the village we re exaggerated, the report said.

The team met an influential landowner of the area, a retired Colonel whose family had donated land to Dalit families during the Bhoodan movement in the 1950s. A member of the Rajput community, he told the AIDWA team that his mother had committed sati but that they had not built a temple in her honour. Such sentiments "propagated by educated influential individuals... encourage ritualised glorification of sati," the AIDWA report noted.

There are at least three sati temples in the region, at Thathaura, Mudhari and Jaari, all of them outside Mahoba district. The AIDWA report demanded that the administration remain vigilant to thwart any attempt to build a temple to glorify Charan Shah's death, and stated that a widespread social reform movement, based on concrete developmental activity, was needed in the area. The entire Mahoba district, which is part of the Bundelkhand area (comprising the southern districts of Uttar Pradesh and the no rthern districts of Madhya Pradesh), is a drought-affected, backward region where brutal exploitation by feudal landowners is common and criminal gangs operate freely. The AIDWA report said that it was a commentary on successive governments in the State that Satpurva did not have even the basic necessities for human existence.

A FEW other women's groups and activists are rather more inclined to take a strictly legalistic view of the circumstances of Charan Shah's death and the response of the villagers of Satpurva. Kavita, an activist in Jaipur, argued that Charan Shah could h ave been pulled out from the pyre and given medical help. "Even if it was too late, she could have been declared dead at a hospital. Why did the villagers not do that? The villagers' mindset and the fact that some of them made offerings at the site amoun t to a violation of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act," said Kavita.

Senior lawyer Indira Jaisingh wondered how the police had, without filing a First Information Report, concluded that there was no abetment. In her view, whether Charan Shah's death was a case of suicide or sati was purely an academic question: she had al ready died. The relevant point is whether there was abetment by anyone. If the police had any evidence, then the Act could be invoked, she said. After all, she noted, the police were already implementing the provisions of the Act with regard to the preve ntion of glorification of sati.

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