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India’s last known case of sati: ‘She ceased to be a woman… was a Goddess’

18-year-old Roop Kanwar remains India’s last known case of sati, her death stunning a nation and forcing a rewrite of its laws. 32 years later, as the last of the cases associated with her death winds its way through a Jaipur court, two Rajasthan villages keep her alive, in photos, and as a “devi” who will be worshipped

Written by Hamza Khan |
Updated: September 22, 2019 6:49:02 am
sati in india, india latest sati case, practice of sati, roop kanwar, roop kanwar sati case, rajasthan, indian express news The spot where Roop Kanwar is said to have killed herself. (Express Photo by Hamza Khan)

“I am proud of what my sister did,” says a bespectacled Gopal Singh Rathore, 60, sitting in his modest office, from where he runs a transport business, in Jaipur’s Transport Nagar. Over three decades ago, in better days, a grand baraat had arrived in Transport Nagar from Divrala in next-door Sikar district.

His 18-year old-sister, Roop Kanwar, the youngest of six siblings, had married Divrala’s Maal Singh in January 1987. However, the marriage was short-lived as he passed away from an “ordinary illness” in a Sikar hospital eight months later.

What she did afterwards left a nation shocked and forced a rewrite of its laws: On September 4, 1987, Roop Kanwar is said to have sat on her husband’s funeral pyre and committed sati.

“We learnt about the sati the next day, through Rajasthan Patrika journalist Bishan Singh Shekhawat (younger brother of former Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat),” says Rathore who, like many in Roop Kanwar’s family and her Divrala village, claims he didn’t attend the funeral and hence wasn’t witness to the sati. “We later came to know that she had asked someone to inform us, but the information somehow never reached us.”

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sati in india, india latest sati case, practice of sati, roop kanwar, roop kanwar sati case, rajasthan, indian express news Brother Gopal Rathore says “unparalleled love” for husband was behind her act. (Express Photo by Hamza Khan)

After a much publicised trial, several people, including Roop Kanwar’s in-laws, were accused of murder. On January 31, 2004, a special court in Jaipur acquitted all of them for want of evidence.

Thirty-two years after Roop Kanwar’s death, just one of the nearly two-dozen cases filed in the wake of the sati remains, and is in its last stages at a special court in Jaipur. This case pertains to 1988 when, around the first anniversary of her death, 45 people allegedly held an event glorifying sati. This violated Section 5 (punishment for glorification of sati) of The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, a law that was enacted after Roop Kanwar’s death. Of the 45, 25 were acquitted in 2004 for lack of evidence, six have died, and five are absconding, while the case is being heard against the remaining nine. As many as 19 people, all police officials, were made witnesses in the case. The maximum punishment for glorification of sati is imprisonment up to seven years and fine of up to Rs 30,000.

Roop Kanwar’s would become the last recorded case of sati in the country. It would also be cited as one of the reasons for the ouster of then Rajasthan chief minister Hari Dev Joshi of the Congress. Divrala also assumed a special place in Rajput pride, with some of those hailing from the village, such as Shri Rajput Karni Sena leader Narayan Singh ‘Divrala’, adding the name of the village to their own.

Over 150 persons were accused in the nearly two dozen sati cases, including the first case related to her death. Except for nearly 20 people who either died or are absconding, the others have been acquitted over the past three decades.

While the sati prompted questions about whether Roop Kanwar was coerced into the act or if she willingly sat on her husband’s pyre, and pitted modernity against what many called “tradition”, in Divrala, even after all these years, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Roop Kanwar’s was a “selfless act” driven by “agad prem (unparalleled love)”.

In these parts, the Roop Kanwar story is told without any of the contradictions that time and modernity throw up; if anything, the legend has only been burnished with time.

Villagers say that on September 4, 1987, after her husband’s death, Roop Kanwar recited the Gayatri Mantra, dressed up in solah shringaar (16 adornments) while thousands of villagers from Divrala and neighbouring villages took out her shobha yatra throughout the village, and then did sati. The folklore goes that her hair or clothes didn’t burn at first, and that she didn’t let out a single scream.

“Thousands stood guard with swords as she approached the pyre,” says Anand Singh, a relative, who lives in Divrala. “She sat on the pyre with her husband’s head in her lap. And she recited the Gayatri Mantra with one of her hands raised, blessing those who had gathered there,” he says, while adding that he was not in Divrala that day.

In Divrala, Roop Kanwar is likened to Chittorgarh’s Padmavati, the one who is said to have jumped into a pyre to escape Alauddin Khilji’s advancing army. “As per Rajput traditions, it is agad prem towards one’s partner that makes one take such a step,” says Rathore, adding that it is this love for which his sister Roop Kanwar, “a devi”, is worshipped.

The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, prohibits the construction of temples in the memory of someone who has committed sati, and empowers District Magistrates to remove them. Yet, in home after home in Divrala are photographs of Roop Kanwar that often share space with other gods and goddesses.

Asked about the shrines in people’s homes, Sikar District Collector C R Meena says, “I don’t have any such information yet but if it is so, then I will get it surveyed and serve them a notice.”

At the tiny shrine in his home, Anand Singh too has two photographs of Roop Kanwar, one of her with her husband after marriage and another, evidently edited, of her sitting on his funeral pyre and surrounded by flames.

At her in-laws’ home in Divrala, what was once Roop Kanwar’s room is now a shrine. One recent afternoon, just as her father-in-law Sumer Singh sits up on his cot to recall the events of that day 32 years ago, he is interrupted by his son Bhupendra Singh, who forbids him from talking to journalists anymore. Bhupendra then proceeds to padlock the room. Sumer Singh spent three months in Neem ka Thana jail, accused of aiding, abetting and glorifying sati.

Residents say that like every year, on September 9 this year, when the Hindu calendar marked Shukla Ekadashi, hundreds gathered outside Roop Kanwar’s residence to worship her. “There were people from Gujarat too. Their mannat (prayer) gets fulfilled, why else would busloads of people come all the way?” says Prem Kanwar, a 65-year-old in Divrala, adding that she feels proud of what “sati mata” did. It was on a Shukla Ekadashi all those years ago that Roop Kanwar had allegedly immolated herself.

“Elders asked her not to go ahead with the sati but she would not listen to them. When they persisted, she went to her husband’s body, whispered something in his ear as elders looked on, and he opened his eyes thrice. That is what changed the hearts of the village elders,” she claims.

At the site of the sati are two trishul (tridents) signifying Roop Kanwar’s ‘shakti’, with the larger one swathed in layers of red chunri and adorned with a fresh garland. Next to it, within a small block of bricks, are two wedding photographs of Roop Kanwar and her husband, yellow stalks of burnt incense sticks, two coconuts, and a pile of grains. A smaller trishul behind this block of bricks signifies the spot where Roop Kanwar’s statue will be established, if at all the site becomes a temple, which now mostly depends on the political traction the villagers hope to get.

Roop Kanwar devotees and her family object to the usage of “pratha (tradition)” while talking of the sati. “We had about 40-50 widows in our village around that time (when Roop Kanwar immolated herself). Had it been a pratha, others would have committed sati too. But in this region, there were only three cases of sati before hers: Mitthu Kanwar, Kunan Kanwar and Jhumma Kanwar,” argues Jawan Singh, 74, a resident of Divrala.

With almost every retelling of the Roop story adding to the “devi” legend, there are as many versions of the “exact moment” when Roop Kanwar became a goddess.

Anand Singh has his own. “As she walked up to the pyre on her way to committing sati, she was in a ghoongat (veil), and thousands wanted to catch her glimpse. That’s when her father-in-law asked her to remove her veil and give darshan to locals. Because at that moment, she had ceased to be a woman. She had become a goddess.”

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