special court acquits eleven

Newsletter Jan - Apr 2004

On the 31st of January 2004, sixteen years after Roop Kanwar’s immolation in Deorala, the Special Court on Sati Prevention cum Sessions Court in Jaipur acquitted all the eleven accused in four of the 22 cases of glorification of Sati that were filed in 1987. Those acquitted included former minister and Vice President of the Rajasthan BJP Rajender Singh Rathore, former Bharatiya Yuva Morcha President and the nephew of Vice President of India, 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. The judgements came as a big blow to the various movements struggling for emancipation of women from centuries old traditions and the practice of widow immolation or Sati.

A study of the judgements of the Special Court in all the four cases show them to be full of lacunae. These judgements, which are more or less identical, clearly reflect the same outdated mentality, not only in the approach to the case, but more significantly, in the appreciation of evidence and the interpretation of the law.

The most glaring problem with this judgement is the way in which the Court has interpreted the provisions defining “glorification” of Sati practice in Section 2 (B) and punishable under section 5 of the Rajasthan Ordinance of 1987. The court has unabashedly interpreted it to mean that the offence of glorification can only be considered in relation to a particular incident. Therefore, until the widow immolation, ‘Sati’ of Roop Kanwar is established, those accused of its glorification cannot be held guilty of the crime. The court also has chosen not to take cognisance of the testimonies of the policemen who testified to specific acts of glorification by the accused, or give due consideration to the testimonies of hostile witnesses and other documentary evidence. It seems that the court was determined to find fault with every aspect of the case including facts and evidence, as it had already held that the offence of glorification could not be made out without first proving the particular incident for which there was no evidence.

Underpinning such an attitude is the court’s own appalling definition of Sati as a ‘virtuous woman of strong character, who is completely devoted to her husband and having a relationship with only one man during her whole life. Referring to the mythological characters of Sita and Anasuya and addressing them as Sati, the court has argued that according to this definition of Sati, if anyone refers to Sita or Anasuya they cannot be held guilty of ‘glorifying Sati’. Such an argument exposes the archaic mindset of the court and is in no way acceptable as the legal definition of the practice and glorification of Sati.

The proceedings of the court also make evident the sloppiness of the prosecution and its failure to build a case strong enough to help the court to punish the guilty, which indicate half-heartedness at best or even worse, their deliberate intent to aid the accused. Which, considering the stature and power of the accused, is hardly surprising!

Since the acquittal, women's groups in Rajasthan have been demanding that the Government of Rajasthan act immediately to appeal such a regressive judgement in the Rajasthan High Court, and give justice a chance. On the 5th of February 2004 women's groups in Rajasthan protested outside the Rajasthan State Assembly. About 250 women assembled outside the Assembly gates for more than six hours but the Chief Minister did not come out to listen to their demands. Following which, women's groups sent a number of letters to the Chief Minister but the Government is yet to respond.

To protest against this judgement, a nationwide demonstration of women’s groups was held in Jaipur, Rajasthan on 3rd March 2004. To express solidarity and strengthen the campaign, representatives of women’s groups, peoples’ organisations and concerned individuals in Delhi met the Resident Commissioner of Rajasthan in Delhi. We handed the Commissioner an appeal to challenge these four judgements in the Rajasthan High Court and also provided grounds for doing so. We also demanded that action be taken against all those official witnesses who turned hostile and that the rest of the 18 cases be conducted with a support group of legal experts and not just one public prosecutor. The appeal also emphasised that the only way the State of Rajasthan can demonstrate its concern for women, and its commitment to uphold the laws of the land is by challenging the practice and glorification of widow immolation, and a judgement as biased as this.