Women's organizations are understandably distressed over the public response to the congregation at the Rani Sati temple in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, in early September. Over 15,000 pilgrims - men, women and children - attended the three-day annual puja (prayer) at the temple, thereby reinforcing the controversial practice of sati. The puja was held after a gap of several years, following the Rajasthan High Court's recent go-ahead to the puja - at the Rani Sati temple, as well as the Dhauli Sati temple in Sikar district.
The court's decision carries the imminent danger of glorifying the practice. Sati was first declared illegal in India as far back as 1829 by the British, largely due to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. In more recent times - 1987 - the Roop Kanwar incident in Deorala, Rajasthan, created a furor. Kanwar's death on her husband's funeral pyre led to widespread protests by women's groups. The latest case of sati, reported from Madhya Pradesh in August 2002, brought the controversial issue into focus yet again.
Women's activists and legal experts express concern over the revival of sati for commercial considerations; and they do not rule out this aspect in the Madhya Pradesh incident. Supreme Court lawyer Dr V N Saraf says that by performing puja, the temple authorities gave in to the people, especially the illiterate, who offered money and material donations to the Rani Sati temple.
Kavita Srivastava, an activist with the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), alleges that the Rani Sati temple trust has been trying to expand its operations because its entire economy, running into millions of rupees, depends on donations from devotees. There are at least 250 sati temples in the country.
There is an urgent need to take pro-active steps in order to prevent the revival of sati. So far, the steps taken to stop sati have come as reactions. It is important, say activists, to unravel the reasons that drive a woman towards sati. What are the social parameters drawn out for women by our patriarchal society? Why are women forced to eliminate themselves in the name of religion?
Subjected to various indignities every day of their lives, a majority of Indian women are conditioned to stay with their men or consider themselves unworthy of living. On her husband's death, a widow usually foresees a life full of harassment and humiliation. The fear of an identity crisis, and the prospect of being subjected to harassment and indignity are at the root of the compulsion felt by women who want to - or do - immolate themselves in the name of sati.
Meera Khanna, Joint Secretary of the Guild of Service, blames the government and society for the prevailing condition of women in the country. "There is a resistance to 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in Parliament and state assemblies... Women do not get an equal share in property. They do not get equal opportunities in jobs. Under such circumstances, how can you talk of equal rights to women?" she asks. She suggests that action be taken against those propagating sati.
The Rani Sati temple in Jhunjhunu has long been embroiled in controversy and litigation. Six years ago, women's groups had protested against the puja to celebrate the sati of 14-year-old Narayani Devi because the celebration reinforced the oppression against all women. Following the protests, the High Court of Rajasthan had imposed restrictions on the chunri ceremony, specific to the worship of sati, and disallowed worship inside the temple. However, the recent Rajasthan High Court order allowing worship has come as a retrograde step.
Devotees, however, have welcomed it. Among those who throng the temple are women who perceive sati through traditional eyes. According to Meera Devi Jhunjhunwala, a regular visitor to the Jhunjhunu temple, "Sati is a symbol of power." And for Santosh Khandelwal, a businessman from Alwar district of Rajasthan, Sati is the goddess of his community and he is following the community tradition. Pawan Khetan, on the other hand, has a blind faith in the tradition - and doesn't like to be questioned on why he supports it.
Jaswant Kanwar - considered a 'living sati' - stays in Shiv Shakti temple in Triveni Dham village in Shahpura, 230 kilometres from Delhi. A strong supporter of the sati tradition, she inadvertently echoes the perceptions of women's activists. "The practice is more prevalent in our Rajput community where a widow is not allowed to remarry. Where will the poor widow go after the death of her husband? Who would she look to for support?" she asks.
Two key questions are necessary here, on the basis of the perceptions of those who say they support the practice. First, would a woman really want to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband if she could be sure of a life free of the harassment and humiliation she foresees for herself?
And second - why are our social values so favorable for men and so demeaning for women?
Besides, even if a woman is driven to sati under the pressure of an extreme set of circumstances, these ought to be probed thoroughly. After all, by law, the act of suicide and its abetment are both punishable.