Newsletter Jan 2000

The immolation of Charan Shah on November 11, 1999, on the funeral pyre of her husband in Satpura village of Mahoba district in Uttar Pradesh came as a shock to us. Initially, the media exploded the incident terming it as‘Sati‘. Following this, a fact-finding team from AIDWA and National Commission for Women, went to Satpura and brought out a report on the incident. They concluded that it was not a case of Sati, since there was no prior intimation of intent to commit Sati, there were no rituals typically associated with Sati and she did not wear bridal finery. To investigate the matter further, another fact finding team comprising members of Saheli and Nirantar, two Delhi-based women groups and an independent researcher visited the place. Based on the findings of this team, the following joint statement was issued.

The death of Charan Shah (55 year old resident of Satpura village, U.P.) on 11th November has become clouded in the debate of whether it should be regarded as ‘Sati’ or ‘suicide’. To investigate the matter further, and determine whether such a distinction is at all valid, a team comprising members of Nirantar and Saheli, two Delhi-based women’s groups went to Satpura village on 22nd November 1999. Along with a women's group in the area and members of Mahila Samakhya, the team toured Satpura and its surrounding villages and spoke to a number of people in the region.

Prior to this team, other groups have visited the area and concluded that Charan Shah committed suicide of her own volition. But the report of this team* clearly indicates that the facts of her death are not as simple as have been suggested. Many factors cast doubts on prevailing theories that Charan Shah could have let her house (in the middle of the village), and reached the pyre unnoticed by the villagers, or that people were unaware of her intention to kill herself of her husband’s pyre. The team also found that there was some controversy about the time of Man Shah’s (Charan Shah’s husband) death. Some people claimed that he may have died the night before which lends credence to statements of some residents in the surrounding villages, that they had prior information of the ‘sati’ that was to take place the next morning. Similarly, Shishupal, Charan Shah’s son, who had until now claimed that by the time he reached his father’s pyre and found his mother burning, it was too late to help her, now claimed that he became unconscious when he heard that his mother had jumped into the pyre. Also, a number of people claiming to have ‘witnessed’ the event, told the team that Charan Shah was not on the pyre, but sitting on the ground at the foot of it…which raises serious questions of how she could have died in such a position, and significantly, why she couldn’t have been saved. Studies of previous ‘Satis’ in Rajasthan have shown that the narration of the sequence of events is typically structured around prohibitory laws, leading to the collective suppression of evidence of instigation, abetment and coercion. Charan Shah’s death seems to be no exception.

The findings of this team also indicate that a considerable number of people did in fact witness the Charan Shah‘s burning on the pyre. While the numbers of people who congregated seems nowhere near the figures quoted in press reports, some people claim that she was pushed back into the fire and that there was an active effort to keep the fire going. This, along with the nature of her death, and the subsequent attempts to worship and glorify it indicate that the incident cannot be relegated to mere ‘suicide’, regardless of whether the use of force can be established. In any case, it is our conviction that force is not merely direct physical force, but also collective pressure in other forms, and religious beliefs and ideologies that legitimize such practices as widow immolation.

The fact of another recent case of attempted widow immolation in the neighbourhood, and the presence of 3 Sati temples are clear pointers that the prevailing sati ideology in the area was already actively involved with both, the widow immolation and its subsequent glorification. Therefore, variations in the rituals and practice of widow immolation, or the appropriation of an upper caste patriarchal practice by lower castes cannot be condoned.

We demand that :-

- The case of Charan Shah's death be acknowledged as sati, and a proper investigation be undertaken

- Appropriate action be taken against the 3 Sati temples that are still functioning in the area

- Action be taken against the ‘participants’ of Charan Shah’s death

Because in our understanding, there is no such thing as ‘innocent witnessing’ of such an event. lt is always collusion.

Events such as these must be condemned. The manner in which reactionary patriarchal values combines with the desire to commercialise religion, and strengthen orthodox notions of womanhood makes this a particularly dangerous trend.

*Nirantar, Saheli, Action lndia, All lndia Progressive Women‘s Association, Jagori, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Worker's Solidarity and several individuals