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Trial by fire

EVERY morning as the sun rises over Deorala village in Sikar district of Rajasthan, a few women walk up to a small mound guarded by barricad...

Written by SANDIPAN SHARMA | Jaipur |
September 11, 2005

EVERY morning as the sun rises over Deorala village in Sikar district of Rajasthan, a few women walk up to a small mound guarded by barricades. Once there, they bow their head, fold their hands, say a quiet prayer, light an incense stick and swiftly move on towards their fields.

It’s been eighteen years since she burnt herself on the pyre of her husband and became sati, but Roop Kanwar continues to live in the memories and daily rituals of the village.

Though prayers and glorification of sati have been banned by the government and a police chowki guards the site, for the village, Roop Kanwar has acquired the status of Sati Mata and has become their favoured deity. It is unlikely that the 17-year-old girl could have ever imagined that she would evoke such intense emotions. But on September 4, 1987, the death of her husband Maal Singh Shekhawat changed everything.

WHEN her husband’s funeral procession was taken to a crematorium nearly 500 metres from her house, Roop Kanwar too is said to have marched out with the mourning relatives and consigned herself to the flames.

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As word spread, ‘‘devotees’’ started thronging the site. The government sprang into action two days later and booked 45 people for ‘‘murdering’’ Roop Kanwar.

Undeterred, thousands of people gathered in the village in ‘‘honour of the sati’’ for the chunri ceremony 13 days later and took over the site. Rajput men, brandishing swords, began guarding the site and gathering funds to turn it into a temple.

In spite of a ban from the court, the chunri ceremony was held in full media glare sending shock waves throughout the country. Though she was hailed as a sati, it was widely believed that the young woman had either been drugged or forced to kill herself.

On October 1, 1987, the state government promulgated the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance, 1987. Following a demand for a strong and effective Central Act, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Bill, 1987, making attempt to commit, abetment and glorification of sati punishable, was introduced and passed in both Houses of Parliament.

CASE FILE
Death Cult
Roop Kanwar was called
sati but activists say she was either drugged or forced to kill herself
About 45 people were booked for ‘‘murdering’’ her. All were acquitted
The other case was against those accused of glorifying sati—they too were acquitted last year

More than 400 people were rounded up for glorifying sati. Later, 22 cases were filed in various police stations against 16 people, including a cabinet minister in the present government, Rajendra Singh Rathore. They were accused of participating in the protests against the alleged police action in the wake of the sati incident.

NO one was convicted by the courts. All the 45 people accused of murdering Roop Kanwar were acquitted a few years ago as the prosecution failed to produce a single witness.

In the second case regarding glorification of sati, the trial began 15 years later in a special court after it was delayed by a series of appeals in the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rejected the appeals and lifted the stay on the proceedings in the special court in January 2003.

In January 2004, after examining three dozen witnesses, a majority of whom turned hostile, the court acquitted all the accused (five of whom had died before the hearing could be completed).

The Raje Government, however, did not file an appeal against the judgment, leading to protests from activists and women organisations. When the BJP-led government refused to act, a group of activists moved a petition in the High Court seeking a review of the decision. Notices have been now been issued by the High Court and the hearing is scheduled to start soon.

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