According to tradition, sati was supposed to be voluntary, and often it was seen as the proper final act of a marriage. In fact, the practice symbolized the “epitome of wifely devotion”. However, many accounts exist of women who were forced to go through the rite.
They were often drugged, or tied up before being placed on the pyre or into the grave. In addition, strong societal pressure was exerted on women to accept sati, particularly if they had no surviving children to support them. A widow had no social standing in traditional society, and was considered to be a drag on resources.
Even though sati is considered to be an Indian custom, and often a Hindu custom, it was not practiced all over India or by all Hindus, but was prevalent only among certain communities of India. On the other hand, sacrificing the widow in her dead husband’s funeral or pyre was not unique only to India. In many ancient communities it was an acceptable feature. This custom was prevalent among Egyptians, Greek, Goths, Scythians and others.
On September 4, 1987, 17-year-old Roop Kanwar consigned herself to flames and was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband Maal Singh Shekhawat at Deorala village of Sikar district in Rajasthan. This infamous incident came to be referred to as the “sati case”. Sixteen years later, on January 31, 2004, a Special Court acquitted, for lack of evidence, all the persons charged with glorifying the incident of sati. (It may be noted that the accused were tried under the Indian Penal Code, as the Sati Prevention Act was not in existence when the incident took place.) 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.
Women’s organisations all over the country took to the streets to publicly protest against this dastardly crime. It was this country-wide campaign that compelled the government to pass the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, which recognised widow immolation as well as any glorification of the act of sati as penal offences.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, which extends to the whole of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, contains a comprehensive definition of the term ‘sati’ and provides stringent punishments for:
(a) Attempt to commit sati;
(b) Abetment of sati; and
(c) Glorification of sati.
All offences under the Act are to be tried by Special Courts set up under S. 9 of the Act.
Definition of sati:
S. 2(c) of the Act defines sati as the burning or burying alive –
(i) Of any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative; or
(ii) Of any woman along with the body of any of her relatives, irrespective of whether such burning or burying is claimed to be voluntary on the part of the widow or the woman, or otherwise.
Attempt to commit sati:
S. 3 of the Act provides that, notwithstanding any provision of the Indian Penal Code, 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.
However, before convicting any person, the Special Court must take into consideration, the circumstances leading to the
commission of this offence, the act which was actually committed, the state of mind of the person charged with the offence and all other relevant factors.
Abatement of Sati:
Abatement of sati – whether directly or indirectly – has been made punishable by S. 4 of the Act. If sati is actually committed, its abatement is punishable with a death sentence or life imprisonment, in addition to fine. The abatement of an attempt to commit sati is punishable with life imprisonment, in addition to fine.
In such cases, the burden of proving that a person has not committed the offence is on the accused, that is, the person who. is prosecuted for committing the offence. Such a person is also disqualified from inheriting any property of the person who has committed sati as also the property of any other person which he would have been entitled to inherit on the death of the person who committed sati.
The Act provides that any of the following acts or the like shall also be deemed to be an abetment, namely:
(a) Any inducement to a widow or woman to get her burnt or buried alive along with the body of her deceased husband or with any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative, irrespective of whether she is in a fit state of mind or is laboring under a state of intoxication or stupefaction or other cause 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 any 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:
S. 5 of the Act punishes glorification of sati. Any person who does any act for the glorification of sati is punishable with imprisonment of not less than one year, but which can extend to seven years and with fine of not less than Rs. 5,000, but which may extend to Rs. 30,000.
An inclusive definition of ‘glorification of sati is given in S. 2(b) of the Act. Amongst other things, the expression includes –
(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 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 or to preserve the memory of a person who has committed sati.
Other relevant provisions of the Act:
S. 6 of the Act empowers the Collector or the District Magistrate to prohibit the doing of any act towards the commission of sati by any person in any area or areas specified by him.
Under S. 7 of the Act, the State Government is empowered to direct the removal of any temple or structure if it is satisfied that, in such 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 perpetrate the honour or to preserve the memory of any person who has committed sati.
S. 8 of the Act empowers the Collector or the District Magistrate to seize funds or property if he has reason to believe that any funds or property have been collected or acquired for the purpose of glorification of sati. Such funds or property are then to be disposed of as directed by the Special Court.
Appeals against the orders of Special Courts can be filed in the High Court within a period of thirty days from the date of the judgment or sentence of the Special Court. (S. 14)
The provisions of the Act have been given an overriding effect, notwithstanding anything inconsistent in other enactments. (S. 20)