‘Sati’ and the role of the state in India

Bijo Francis, Advocate, Kerala

This August, a case of ‘Sati’ – an act of suicide by a wife who throws herself on to the burning funeral pyre of her husband – was reported from the state of Madhya Pradesh. The report came from the village of Tamali Patna, of Panna district, and the incident was said to have occurred on August 6. The deceased, Mrs Kuttu Bai, aged 65 years, was reported to have thrown herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, Mallu Bai. According to the information received, on news that an act of Sati would occur, the authorities dispatched two police officers from Saleha Police Station to the site, but they were attacked by an approximately 1000-strong mob that had gathered in support of the act. These people allegedly stoned the police officers and prevented them from intervening. 15 persons were arrested in connection with the incident. Subsequently, two versions of the official response to the incident emerged. The locals opposed to the act claimed that they informed the police as early as 7am that Mrs Bai would commit Sati that day, whereas the police maintained that they received the information only around 9am.

Whatever be the claim, counterclaim and allegations, this incident points to yet another breach of duty by state agents and indicates the manner with which such incidents are dealt with. To understand this, it is first necessary to appreciate some aspects of the history of Sati and the legislative response.

Historically, the conditions for widows of Hindu families have in all respects been pathetic. Custom had typically demanded that a widow must shave her head and wear only a white sari or other white clothing after the death of her husband. She was prohibited from remarrying and from wearing any gold ornaments. Yet a much more inhuman custom was that a Hindu widow should simply kill herself in the funeral pyre of her husband, in an act of Sati.

Many times the act of Sati was not a case of self-destruction. Widows were thrown into the funeral pyre of their husbands and sometimes those who were willing to die in the sacred fire would ask their relatives to tie their hands and legs together to prevent them from escaping when the intense heat became unbearable. But a widow unwilling to be burned to death would be thrown crying for her dear life into the funeral pyre and if she tried to escape would be pushed or held in the fire with long sticks or iron poles.

Mr Rajah Ram Mohan Roy, a great thinker and reformer from Bengal, and one of the founders of the Indian Press, had to witness these horrendous crimes being committed on his neighbors and fellow human beings. He was a profound scholar and humanist, whom Monier Williams referred to as “perhaps the finest earnest-minded investigator of the science of comparative religion that the world has ever produced”. Moved by the atrocities committed against women of his own community, he called for a total ban on such customary rituals and for a complete prohibition of polygamy, which was a recognized customary right for the Hindu males in his community. In 1828 he founded the Brahma Sabha to propagate his teachings. His efforts had an effect, leading to the prohibition of Sati by the British colonial government in an enactment with directives in 1829. In spite of its weaknesses, and accusations by some nationalist historians that the legislation was just another element of the ‘divide and rule’ policy, this enactment must be recognized as a bold step towards progressive reforms.

By contrast, it took the state of post-independence India decades to draft clear legislation to prevent Sati. It was only in 1987 that clear steps were taken to end this social menace by way of effective central legislation. Although the current Act – Act No. 3 of 1988 – is not exhaustive, it does provide for adequate powers to block the attempt, abetment, commission, and even glorification of Sati. The essence of the Act is in section 3, which reads as follows:

 

  • Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), whoever attempts to commit Sati and does any act towards such commission shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both:Provided that the Special Court trying an offence under this section shall, before convicting any person take into consideration the circumstances leading to the commission of the offence, the act committed, the state of mind of the person charged of the offence at the time of the commission of the act and all other relevant factors.

 

‘Abetment’ is addressed in section 4:

 

  • (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), if any person commits Sati, whoever abets the commission of such Sati, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.(2) If any person attempts to commit Sati, whoever abets such attempt, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.

    Explanation. – For the purposes of this section, any of the following acts or the like shall also be deemed to be an abetment, namely;

    (a) Any inducement to a widow or women to get her burnt or buried alive along with the body of her deceased husband or with any other relative irrespective of whether he is in a fit state of mind or is labouring under a state of intoxication or stupefaction or other case impeding the exercise of her free will;

    (b) Making a widow or woman believe that the commission of Sati would result in some spiritual benefit to her or her deceased husband or relative or the general well being of the family;

    (c) Encouraging a widow or woman to remain fixed in her resolve to commit Sati and thus instigating her to commit Sati;

    (d) Participating in the procession in connection with the commission of Sati or aiding the widow or woman in her decision to commit Sati by taking her along with the body of her deceased husband or relative to the cremation or burial ground;

    (e) Being present at the place where Sati is committed as an active participant to such commission or to any ceremony connected with it;

    (f) Preventing or obstructing the widow or woman from saving herself from being burnt or buried alive;

    (g) Obstructing or interfering with the police in the discharge of its duties of taking any steps to prevent the commission of Sati.

 

‘Glorification of Sati’ is defined in section 2:

 

  • (1) In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires,(b) “Glorification”, in relation to Sati, whether such Sati was committed before or after the commencement of this Act, includes, among other things,

    (i) The observance of any ceremony or the taking out of a procession in connection with the commission of Sati; or

    (ii) The supporting, justifying or propagating of the practice of Sati in any manner; or

    (iii) The arranging of any function to eulogise the person who has committed Sati; or

    (iv) The creation of a trust, or the collection of funds, or the construction of a temple or other structure or the carrying on of any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony thereat, with a view to perpetuate the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, a person who has committed Sati;

 

Punishment for offences under the Act is captured in section 5:

 

  • Whoever does any act for the glorification of Sati shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to seven years and with a fine which shall not be less than five thousand rupees but which may extend to thirty thousand rupees.

 

The Act further enumerates certain safeguards to be taken by the government machinery and by the administration, casting a duty upon the state to prevent any act of Sati from occurring, as follows:

 

  • Section 6. Power to prohibit certain acts.(1) Where the Collector or the District Magistrate is of the opinion that Sati or any abetment thereof is being, or is about to be committed, he may, by order, prohibit the doing of any act towards the commission of Sati by any person in any area or areas specified in the order.

    (2) The Collector or the District Magistrate may also, by order, prohibit the glorification in any manner of Sati by any person in any area or areas specified in the order.

    (3) Whoever contravenes any order made under sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) shall, if such contravention is not punishable under any other provision of this Act, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to seven years and with a fine which shall not be less than five thousand rupees but which may extend to thirty thousand rupees.

    Section 7. Power to remove certain temples or other structures.

    (1) The State Government may, if it is satisfied that in any temple or other structure which has been in existence for not less than twenty years, any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony is carried on with a view to perpetuate the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, any person in respect of whom Sati has been committed, by order, direct the removal of such temple or other structure.

    (2) The Collector or the District Magistrate may, if he is satisfied that in any temple or other structure, other than that referred to in sub-section (1), any form of worship or the performance of any ceremony is carried on with a view to perpetuate the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, any person in respect of whom Sati has been committed, by order, direct the removal of such temple or other structure.

    (3) Where any order under sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) is not complied with, the State Government or the Collector or the District Magistrate as the case may, be, shall cause the temple or other structure to be removed through a police officer not below the rank of a Sub-Inspector at the cost of the defaulter.

    Section 8. Power to seize certain properties.

    (1) Where the Collector or the District Magistrate has reason to believe that any funds or property have been collected or acquired for the purpose of glorification of the commission of any Sati or which may be found under circumstances which create suspicion of the commission of any offence under this Act, he may seize such funds or property.

    (2) Every Collector or District Magistrate acting under sub-section (1) shall report the seizure to the Special Court, if any, constituted to try any offence in relation to which such funds or property were collected or acquired and shall await the order of such Special Court as to the disposal of the same.

 

Certain persons are also cast with the responsibility to report to the authorities regarding the crime and its preparations. The provisions are as follows:

 

  • Section 17. Obligation of certain persons to report about the commission of an offence under this Act.(1) All officers of Government are hereby required and empowered to assist the police in the execution of the provisions of this Act or any rule or order made there under.

    (2) All village officers and such other officers as may be specified by the Collector or the District Magistrate in relation to any area and the inhabitants of such area shall, if they have reason to believe or have the knowledge that Sati is about to be, or has been, committed in the area shall forthwith report such fact to the nearest police station.

    (3) Whoever contravenes the provisions of subsection (1) or sub-section (2) shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.

 

Over and above all this, in the case of Sati, the burden of proof is the reverse of the norm, i.e., it is upon the accused to prove that the act of Sati was not committed. The provision in section 16 is as follows:

 

  • Where any person is prosecuted of an offence under Section 4, the burden of proving that he had not committed the offence under the said section shall be on him.

 

Moreover, in the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Rules, 1988, provision is made that adequate measures be taken to prevent the crime. In rule 4, the authorities are vested with powers for passing prohibitory orders as follows:

 

  • (1) Every prohibitory order under Sec. 6 shall be made by beat of drum or other customary mode, in the concerned village, or in case of town or city, in the locality in which the act prohibited is likely to occur or has taken place.(2) The prohibitory order shall be displayed at some conspicuous place in the area or areas to which such acts relate and a copy thereof shall also be displayed in the office of the officer issuing the prohibitory order and such display shall be taken as a sufficient notice to all persons concerned in the area or areas to which such order relates.

 

Inevitably, offences occur irrespective of whether or not prohibitory legislation is in place to deal with it; this is a fact of human nature. However, offences can be contained and their recurrence limited through effective implementation of enactments and through a conscious attempt at social change. Implementation does not merely mean punishment of the culprit but effective prevention of crime as well.

This is apparently what the legislature had in mind when drafting the law on prevention of Sati, as it made adequate provision to stop commission of the offence before it occurs. Unfortunately, the law has not seen much use since its promulgation. The provisions intended to prevent the commission of Sati have not been put into practice, nor have later lawmakers developed them further. The framers of the enactment would presumably never have thought that their successors would sleep through their duty and neglect the authority available to them to bring in adequate revisions to address the changing conditions since 1988.

What are some of the weaknesses in getting this legislation brought into practice and both the public and legislature’s consciousness? Mere proclamations, sound and fury, will not prevent crime. Education and awareness – building must begin at the grassroots level. NGOs have a major role to play here. The people should be adequately enlightened to appreciate the utter hollowness of such ritual practices and brought to question such practices within their belief system.

Another problem lies in the practical administration of the law. The officer empowered to take action on receiving a report regarding preparation for commission of Sati or glorification of such an act is also an executive officer of the district burdened with other administrative responsibilities. Many of these officials are appointed via nepotistic and corrupt channels, and are little bothered about the welfare of the community and, needless to say, the impact of such horrendous crimes on the society.

Then comes the inattentiveness of the police. In the case cited above there are already different versions of how and why the police failed to respond to the complaint. The police have held that they were not informed in time to prevent the crime, but can they be believed? The police in this country have not earned the trust of the people, and their claims invariably lack credibility. Under any circumstances, their un-preparedness to meet such an emergency – manifest in the number of officers dispatched to the site to interfere in a so-called religious ceremony – is also condemnable.

The death of Mrs Bai was just another act of Sati reported in the national media this year. What has the government done so far? Where was the district machinery when these acts were committed? Where were those persons cast with the duty to prevent such crimes? An act of Sati is likely to happen again in the near future. In a country where racial violence the likes of was seen in Gujarat recently can occur and be tacitly approved by the persons of authority, it is not difficult to compel a woman to commit Sati and get away with it. What else can be expected when the politicians spend their time consulting hardcore ‘sadhus’ (hermits clad in saffron) on each and every step to be taken regarding issues of national importance? These are the same ‘sadhus’ who openly declare in public that Hindustan is for Hindus and that they will not pay heed to any directives of the courts, even those of the Apex Court. Time and again the government has demonstrated an inability – or unwillingness – to understand that by being guided by religious sentiment and the words of these so-called holy men, this country is being lead into deeper havoc. As a result, under the independent government of India our people may suffer from a far greater level of religious intolerance and communalism than what our forebears faced under the British regime.

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