Sati and the Courts: Some Burning Questions
SATI & THE COURTS: SOME BURNING QUESTIONS
Newsletter March 1997
On 11 October 1996, the Additional Sessions Court of Neem-ka-Thana, Rajasthan, acquitted all the thirty two accused charged with the murder of Roop Kanwar, a young widow who was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband on 4th September 1987. Women’s organisations all over the country took to the streets to publicly protest against this dastardly crime. Widow immolation, one of the most violent of patriarchal practices, was hailed as Sati by feudal forces. Rationalised by ideology and sanctioned by religion, it was brazenly flaunted as a "glorious cultural ideal of womanhood". Our countrywide campaign compelled the government to pass the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987 [referred to as the Anti-Sati Act], which recognised widow immolation as well as any glorification of the act of ‘Sati’ as penal offences. Yet, the 32 accused persons in Roop Kanwar’s case were tried under the IPC since the new law was passed later.
We were dismayed to see that a crime which had been witnessed by thousands, could not be proved in a court of law. The law, its procedures and the legal machinery were totally inadequate to punish the guilty. It is pertinent to note that a case of such national significance was allowed to drag on for nine years, during which the presiding Judge changed nine times. The scant importance attached to this trial by the State was also clear by the fact that despite assurances, the State Government only appointed a Special Public Prosecutor towards the end of the trial, just for purposes of argument. The Prosecutor moved an application for shift of the trial to a court in some other area as he feared that pressure would be brought upon the witnesses, since most of the accused wielded considerable social and political influence in the area. But the state government paid no heed to the request. Consequently, all the witnesses retracted their statements and the Judge concluded that there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. This, despite the fact that statements of all the key witnesses had been recorded u/s 164 CrPC before a Magistrate.
The Judge also totally disregarded the circumstantial evidence in the case which definitely pointed towards a conspiracy to murder Roop Kanwar. In fact, the Judge concluded that as not a single witness has deposed that Roop Kanwar’s death actually happened by being burnt alive, the accused deserve acquittal as no murder can be established by mere hearsay or suspicion.
Three of the accused are still facing trial before the Juvenile Court, including Pushpinder Singh, the youngest brother-in-law of Roop Kanwar, who was a minor at the time of occurrence and who is believed to have lit the pyre. Interestingly, in all the previous cases of widow immolation (Sati), the pyre is always claimed to have been lit by a minor, since a minor cannot be jailed, even if held guilty.
Women’s groups in Jaipur organised under the banner of the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Andolan (MAVJA) and demanded that the State Government file an appeal against this judgement. The State of Rajasthan has now filed an appeal which has not yet been admitted.
While the acquittal in the Deorala widow burning case has given our movement for creating a just society a setback, it has given fresh impetus to orthodox patriarchal forces. On l6th-l7th November 1996, a 2-day Puja commemorating the 400th anniversary of Sri Sati Dadi was organised with much pomp and splendour in Delhi by the Rani Sati Mandir Trust, Jhunjhunu, and hundreds of people came to worship sati. Saheli, along with several other women’s groups, lodged a protest with the police that this puja amounted to a glorification and propagation of Sati, which is an offence under the Anti-Sati Act of 1987 and demanded that it be banned. However, the police took no action against the organisers and instead told us that they would be video recording the ceremony and would later determine whether or not it amounted to glorification of Sati. Three months later, no action has still been taken.
At Jhunjhunu, the Chandi Mahayagya was organised from Nov. 26 - Dec. 4th, 1996 at the Rani Sati Mandir. While the State Government maintained that the Yagya had nothing to do with the glorification of Rain Sati and that they were simply worshipping their Kul Devi, the pamphlets issued by the Temple Trust clearly stated that the Yagya was part of the ceremonies to commemorate 400 years of Narayani Devi’s Sati-hood. At Jhunjhunu, several citizens, students’ organisations and left wing parties organised under the banner of Nagrik Morcha and asked the Collector to stop the celebrations. At Jaipur, the MAVJA filed a public interest litigation seeking a ban on the function being held at Jhunjhunu.
The Rajasthan High Court passed an interim order stating that no chunri ceremony would be allowed in the temple, no kalash would be consecrated and the Chandi Mahayagya could be performed outside the Rain Sati temple building. It also stated that the Anti-Sati Act would be strictly enforced and any violation of it or contempt of this order should be brought to the court’s notice.
The MAVJA and the Nagrik Morcha held another rally protesting the continued glorification of Sati. On 29th November, the MAVJA filed a contempt petition arguing that the court’s order was being violated at Jhunjhunu as the yagya was being organised within the temple premises, and pamphlets glorifying Sati were being sold and distributed. The court issued show-cause notices to the Collector and President and Secretary of the Rani Sati Trust. The contempt petition is still pending before the Rajasthan High Court.
Also on 29th November, the anti-woman character of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was once again out in the open as they allied with the Sati Mandir Trust and demanded that they be allowed to exercise their right to worship at the Sati Temple.
It is important to remember that the Rani Sati Mandir through its propagation of the ideals of virtue, chastity and sacrifice earns crores of rupees from offerings made at the temple. We continue to protest against the derogatory practice of Sati both through public campaigns and court cases. Since 1992 however, the cases pending before the Supreme Court have not come up for hearing. Once again, women’s right to life and liberty is being pitted against the right to worship. It is however, encouraging to note that voices of protest are today being heard not only from Jaipur and Delhi, but also from within Jhunjhunu and Deorala.
THE LEGAL CALENDAR OF THE SATI CASE
1 Aug 1988 The Collector and Dist. Magistrate Manohar Singh acting promptly and in accordance with the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, banned the glorification of Sati in any manner in the entire district of Jhunjhunu.
Against this order, Shree Rani Sati Mandir Trust filed a writ petition in the Calcutta High Court contending that their temple is not an institution to which the new Anti-Sati Act applies, and that puja within the temple did not constitute glorification of Sati as it was only worship of Durga, Kali and other goddesses, and did not encourage widow immolation.
17 Aug 1988 Calcutta High Court order allowed the usual daily worship at Rani Sati Mandir to continue.
30 Aug 1988 Supreme Court wisely transferred the writ petition from Calcutta High Court before itself.
State of Rajasthan challenged the above order of the Calcutta High Court dated before the Supreme Court.
1 Sept 1988 Supreme Court held that no mela shall be held outside the Sati temple at Jhunjhunu either on or after 10 September 1988. However people should be allowed to perform puja within the temple and should not be obstructed by the State Government.
8 Sept 1988 Writ petition filed by All India Democratic Women’s Association and concerned individuals asking the court to restrain Shree Rani Sati Mandir Trust, Jhunjhunu from carrying on Sati puja and ban the mela to be held on 10 September 1988; to confiscate all donations; and enforce the Anti-Sati Act.
9 Sept 1988 Supreme Court prohibited the performance of any chunri ceremony within Rani Sati Mandir at Jhunjhunu. All the money collected was to be separately accounted for and deposited in a nationalised bank.
10 Sept 1988 The order was vigilantly enforced by DM, Jhunjhunu.
20 Sept 1988 AIDWA, Saheli, YWCA, MDS and other womens’ organisations filed a writ in the Supreme Court against the Dharma Raksha Samiti, Deorala, asking for a ban on the Gita Path to be held at Deorala to commemorate the Sati (murder) of Roop Kanwar. They secured a ban against glorification of Sati at Deorala on 22.9.88.
23 Oct 1988 Rani Sati Mandir sought vacation of the order of 9.9.88 claiming that offering of chunri was an integral part of Hindu rituals; that they do not subscribe to widow immolation; and that the order violated the Fundamental right to freedom of religion. They also asked for return of money confiscated.
22 Nov 1988 Girdhari Lal Jalan claimed that the Supreme Court order of 9.9.88 was interfering with his Fundamental right to perform traditional worship at Rani Sati Mandir and asked to be made a respondent in the main petition.
29 Apr 1992 Supreme Court stated that these cases raise certain Constitutional issues regarding the scope of the Fundamental Right guaranteed under Article 25, and that therefore, these cases should be heard by the Constitution Bench.
Nov 1996 MAVJA filed a writ in Rajasthan High Court seeking a ban on the Sati puja in Jhunjhunu. The Court prohibited the offering of chunri, but however held that the Mahayagya could be held outside the temple complex.
29 Nov 1996 Contempt petition filed by MAVJA as above order was flouted. Petition still pending.