Time to call a spade a sati

The decision of the Mahoba district administration and the National Commission for Women (NCW) to call Charan Shah’s death a suicide rather than a sati is reminiscent of the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s assertion that commissions paid in the Bofors gun deal were ‘winding up charges,’ not kickbacks. The indisputable fact is that a living woman mounted her husband’s pyre and burnt herself to cinders. As far as can be ascertained, she seems to have done so without inducement or abetment from any quarter, as neither the family nor community were aware of her intentions until it was too late.

By any reckoning, it was a momentous occurrence and deserved the attention of a stupefied nation. Unfortunately, despite considerable coverage, comment and analyses, there has been little attempt to understand the larger meaning of Charan Shah’s action. There has been deafening silence from some quarters, strained verbosity from others. Worse are the inane attempts to ‘explain’ the act on grounds of poverty, ignorance, brainwashing by tradition, the plight of widows, and similar stereotypes.

An NCW member, lamenting society’s colossal ignorance of the true meaning of sati as a defiant and pro-active woman, recounts tales of the legendary Sati (Parvati) and Savitri for the benefit of the reading public. She really should know better. If we accept the great epics as mythology, not history, then the Mahoba incident is at par with what Madri did in Mahabharat, Sulochana in Ramayana. To be blunt, sati is native to Indian, specifically Hindu, society. And even in modern times, it recurs often enough for us to be unable to put it behind us.

There is more to the phenomenon than meets the eye; it appears to have multiple levels of meaning, and it would be puerile to merely condemn it. If we are to understand it, we must discard pre-conceived notions, keep ideological preconceptions at bay, and give it a closer, more honest, scrutiny. A few points are in order.

Charan Shah’s death was definitely not pre-meditated like that of Roop Kanwar twelve years ago. We shall never know whether the eighteen-year-old, convent-educated Roop ever expressed a desire to become a sati. But we do know that once she was decked up in bridal finery and escorted to the cremation ground in a lively procession, with the active connivance of her in-laws and the dominant families/community of Deorala village, her fate was sealed. Early in the case, villagers from other communities told the district administration that the sati was forced, that Roop had cried out for her father, and tried to escape. Evidence showed that she never lived with her husband (hence was unlikely to be overly devoted to him), and was brought to the village on the eve of his death because of his ill health.

Roop’s death was a national and international sensation. The Rajput community closed ranks to defend itself and defiantly glamourized the incident through hysterical congregations at the sati sthal. Political leaders like Kalyan Singh Kalvi and Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, and religious leaders like Acharya Dharmendra, lent tacit support by saying that they could not condemn it. On the whole, however, there was near consensus that the incident was barbaric and unacceptable in a civilized society. The Rajiv Gandhi government felt compelled to pass a new anti-sati legislation, which made glorification of sati a penal offence, though few honestly imagined that such an incident would happen again.

It would be safe to say that the Act failed to achieve these objectives in the Roop Kanwar case itself. A dozen years after that dastardly act, there has been no attempt to dismantle the makeshift temple – chabutra with trishul and chunri –erected to commemorate the event. Mercifully, intermittent vigilance by women’s groups and the local administration (and perhaps local fatigue) has prevented a full-fledged temple from coming up. But the administration’s nonchalance is truly inexplicable, given the fact that the male members of the family were either in police lockup for many years, or in hiding.

Charan Shah’s case, however, is not so cut and dried, which is probably why much of the rationale offered by the media seems immature and simplistic. There has, for instance, been much talk about ‘the plight of widows,’ as if this was a uniform and universal truth. In a society in which young women from all social classes are known to suffer from overbearing mothers-in-law, particularly widowed ones, claims of the low social status of old widows are at variance with ground reality. Poverty is a poor excuse; Charan Shah’s husband was not the family breadwinner as she had grown up sons. Anyway, in such poor families there is seldom a single breadwinner.

What is most insulting, however, is the blanket condemnation of Bundelkhand folklore, which is said to glorify and perpetuate the ‘sati-mindset.’ Advocates of the theory of the regressive values of a patriarchal society (sic), have failed to explain how it applied to or influenced Charan Shah, who did not belong to the social strata at which these legends are aimed. She was no proud, even if poor, Rajput (among whom the tradition is most glorified, and also appears truly obscurantist). Charan was only a humble Dalit, a social category that is comfortable with divorce (leaving a man), re-marriage, et al. Hers is not, and has never been, the class whose women commit sati.

Perhaps this is where the rub lies. On the one hand, an irate villager, confronted with the official ‘suicide’ theory, expressed anger that only upper caste women were recognized as sati while ‘our women’ are dismissed as suicides. He vowed his community would construct a temple and make people recognize Charan Shah as sati. On the other hand, those gearing up to condemn patriarchal values are loathe to concede that Charan Shah’s death at the very least proves the orthodox Hindu claim that Dalits (not to mention tribals) are bona fide Hindus, and not a rootless, free-floating population that can legitimately be grabbed by religious entrepreneurs.

Charan Shah’s sati appears prima facie to be an example of what the late Prof. M.N. Srinivas called ‘sanskritization,’ i.e. the emulation of upper caste behaviour by lower caste groups in a bid to enhance their social status. This is a natural process, but for long it was reversed and checkmated by the politics of reservation as well as the policy of dividing and compartmentalizing society into castes and religious groupings. While it is difficult to say exactly what cause(s) prompted Charan Shah to act as she did, social scientists would do well to dispassionately examine what her death means to the Dalit community at large.

The deafening silence of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati is a powerful indication that it probably means a great deal. The uncharacteristic discretion of the BJP and VHP, not to mention the shyness of Congress and the Left parties (I think it was Suhasini Ali who first debunked the media reports about local enthusiasm over the sati), would support this contention. Serious commentators and scholars should recognize that the decade long attempts to overturn the artificial apartheid in the nation can have incalculable effects on society, both positive and negative. In this day and age, Charan Shah’s death cannot be viewed as a positive assertion of identity. Nevertheless, it is a powerful statement.

The Pioneer, 7 December 1999

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