In our society women are not free to make any decisions about their lives. What they eat or wear, whether they study or not, who they marry, how many children they produce, where they live or work, all these things are decided by their families. Yet, the obscurantists would have us believe that sati is an act of free will on the part of the woman. It is indeed a sick society where the only decision women can take is of killing themselves upon their husband’s death.
The importance of sati is not just that it is a heinous crime, but that it stems from the concepts of purity and virtue associated with a woman’s life after marriage, a life which becomes worthwhile only when it is sacrificed at the pyre of her deceased husband.
The pro-sati fervour which emerged after the protests by women’s organisations from Rajasthan and elsewhere is also worth considering. What, after all, lies in the psyche of a whole community which makes it so zealously active in not only abetting a crime but also in glorifying it? We felt we needed to answer this question – how come the proponents of sati are so organised and so zealous.
We believe the answer to this is woven into the entire socio-economic and political fabric of the country. It is the integrated outcome of people’s aspirations of an independent nation, the self interest of an anti-people ruling class and the entire politics of channelising people’s energies away from central issues.
Specifically in the case of Rajasthan, it is worth noting that sati is not a custom of Deorala but is a tradition superimposed from other parts of the state. It has gained root recently and is now being propagated by members of the migrant trading community from the area. This group, besides gaining cultural dominance by affiliating with a socially dominating group, is also gaining financially from this institutionalized religious practice. As a result, ‘Sati Mata’ has come out from family closets to become a force to reckon with via 140 temples spread throughout the country.
This resort to medieval practices and mores is by no means an isolated happening. Such fundamentalist trends are visible in many other communities which are dissatisfied with their relative gains from the nation’s development. The Muslims, under attack from majority communalism and being bypassed by the mainstream; or the Sikhs under pressure from growth of capitalist agricultural development, have also shown similar behaviour. Invariably, the leadership of these communities is not in the hands of toiling masses but in the hands of a privileged few collude with the ruling classes in a bid to maintain status quo.
The ruling elite can obviously not remain in power if it raises the real demands of the people. Hence it diverts attention away from the miseries of the people at large. The demands which are raised and met mean hardly any loss for the elite and no material gain for the masses. It is easy to mobilize people and maintain a stranglehold over them if the demands stem from the common identity of the community i.e. demands rooted in customs, and religious identities. We call these ‘false demands’ because the people are made to believe that their identities are at stake, whereas in reality only the power of the elite is at stake. In reinforcing these identities someone has to suffer, and most often it is women who are the silent sufferers.
The attempts at glorification of sati are not new. Since 1983, we have been trying to oppose not only the building of sati temples throughout the country but also the procession of the Sarva Sati Sangh with tableaux depicting women sitting on their husband’s funeral pyres.
In 1987, however, the national media took up the question of sati and a number of organizations also took up the issue. With the combined efforts of all organisations the government was forced to pass the Anit-Sati Act. However, this Act makes a mockery of our struggle by seeking to punish the woman victim. Needless to say that there is no effort on the criminals of Deorala are still at large. The Shankaracharya of Puri and Rajmata of Gwalior are making pro-sati statements with impunity. Our efforts to seek amendments to this new Act because it done not ban glorification of sati in the absolute have fallen on deaf ears.