THE OTHER HALF
Remembering Roop Kanwar
The Hindu Photo Library
There should be absolutely no place for traditions that deny another human being dignity.
The site of the “sati”.
On September 4, 1987, when the days were still warm but the nights were getting cooler, a young girl of 18 in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan was murdered. She was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Yet, according to local tradition,
Roop Kanwar had become a “sati” and had “voluntarily” immolated herself as she sat with her dead husband’s head in her lap even as family members lit the funeral pyre and curious villagers watched. Her cries for help drew no response from the spectators.
Roop Kanwar’s name hit the headlines almost a week later on September 12. This was a time when print media was still supreme. Its prominence and efficacy had not been undermined by 24-hour television news channels that dominate and define news today. Yet, although the media did recognise the horrific nature of the act, the fact that it was a crime as it had been outlawed more than a century back and that there were many reasons to doubt the ostensibly voluntary nature of the act, the reports dwelt at length on the colourful chunri mahotsav ceremony that took place on September 16 to mark the 13th day of Roop Kanwar’s death. Here was a spectacle the media could not miss. The fact that it represented the celebration of the murder of a young woman was somehow forgotten.
It is interesting looking back at the Roop Kanwar incident in the light of the latest effort by the government to amend the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987. The Ministry for Women and Child Welfare has recommended that the entire community be held accountable if such a deed is done, that it be made a non-bailable offence, that the prison term be increased from three years to 10 years and that the fine be enhanced from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 50,000. It has also argued that it is necessary to change the perception that the woman involved is the culprit. She must be viewed as a victim and the local functionaries like the Panchayat head, should be held accountable if a “sati” takes place in their village.
In 1987, when this law was first debated following Roop Kanwar death, there was widespread opposition to it in Rajasthan spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its members argued that this was Rajput tradition and that any law that prevented the community from following such traditions would be opposed. This was a time when the BJP was trying to reassert itself in national politics as the protector of all Hindus and the upholder of Hindu traditions. Despite its opposition, the law was passed.
Two decades later, the problem has not disappeared. Although the actual instances of “sati” might be rare, the mentality that perpetuates this horrific tradition persists. In fact, even as these amendments to the law are being contemplated, it would be useful to study how much things have changed, or remained the same, in Rajasthan since 1987. Has the status of women improved? What is the percentage of child brides? Does son preference continue? How are widows treated? I suspect that the results would confirm that although some change would have taken place, it is not enough to make a difference to the lives of the majority of women living in that tradition-bound society.
In 1987, Roop Kanwar’s horrifying end on her husband’s funeral pyre drew attention not only to the “sati” practice but also to the status of widows in Indian society. Newspapers carried some disturbing stories about the kind of treatment widows receive in Rajasthan. One article, for instance, described how a black sheet is put around a widow in Rajasthan so that no men or married women can see her. She must sit on the floor all day, her knees drawn close to her chest, in a dark cubicle. Only at night can she step out to wash, go to the toilet and eat one meal – consisting of food without any salt. Eventually, the continuous sitting in this cramped space makes it impossible for her to walk straight and the restricted diet so emaciates her that she dies. So if she’s not burned alive on the funeral pyre, society ensures that she certainly cannot live a life of dignity after her husband is dead. She is nothing once the man goes.
It is these senseless and barbaric traditions, where a woman pays the price, which parties using religion for political ends seek to preserve. In modern day India, we might not yet be a in a position to win the argument for greater rationality, but surely a line must be drawn between a tradition that denies rights or development and one that has some meaning in the modern day. There should be absolutely no place for traditions, regardless of the religion that perpetuates them, that come at the cost of the dignity of another human being.
In the same State of Rajasthan, the Bishnoi community follows a tradition of conserving nature and looking after all creatures in the wild. Here is one tradition that is worth upholding and has a relevance for an age where development demands are over-riding environmental concerns. But there can surely be no argument for sustaining traditions that demean and deny women even the right to live.
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