Monday, Nov 28, 2022

Reform, Despite Nay-Sayers

The history of the abolition of sati is instructive for the triple talaq debate

triple talaq, muslim law, sati, sati practice, hindu rituals, muslim personal law The British recognised sati as a barbarian practice, but were aware that it had been in vogue since ancient times and enjoyed scriptural support.

The Supreme Court has concluded the arguments on triple talaq. When can a religious practice be considered integral to a religion is a question that has engaged jurists the world over. The Supreme Court is conscious of the complexity of the issue and is treading cautiously. It appears likely that the Court would skirt the issue and be content with an anti-instant divorce advisory from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

The majoritarianists, however, have made Muslim personal law a part of their political agenda. An advocate, Ashwini Upadhyay, ominously told the Court that, “tomorrow there would be a Hindu Personal Law Board to take a rigid stand on Hindu practices”. The learned advocate should have known that no such board can come into existence because Hindu personal law as an enforceable entity has never existed.

Speaking at public meetings, central minister M. Venkaiah Naidu claimed that the Hindus abolished sati. Similarly, he’d like Muslims to end triple talaq. Naidu’s assertion on sati seems to be a matter of convenience; it is not borne out by facts on record. Sati was banned in December 1829, not on the demand of the Hindus, but as a personal initiative of the governor general, William Bentinck. Sustained campaigns against sati came from Christian missionaries rather than Hindus.

The British recognised sati as a barbarian practice, but were aware that it had been in vogue since ancient times and enjoyed scriptural support. Was it to be treated as a criminal act and banned, or was it to be condoned on the stated principle of non-interference in religious matters? The colonial administration took 40 years to make up its mind. As early as 1789, it instructed its officials in the mofussil not to use official power to prevent sati on the grounds that it was “authorised by the tenets of the religion of the Hindoos”. In 1813, guided by court pandits, the government decided to regulate the practice, thus unwittingly encouraging it.

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In 1817, the universally respected chief pandit at the supreme court, Mrityunjaya Vidyalankar Chattopadhyaya, was officially asked to give a vyavastha (ruling) on sati. After consulting some 30 texts belonging to various schools, he concluded that though burning was termed optional, it was still not to be recommended. Vidyalankar’s tract became the unacknowledged starting point for Ram Mohan Roy in his anti-sati campaign. To build his case, Roy had to selectively enlist the support of ancient rishis like Manu and Yajnavalkya, while condemning authorities such as Gotama. Till this time, the anti-sati campaign was exclusively all-European involving missionaries, government and British public opinion. With Roy, sati became a topic of debate among Hindus. Had Bengal’s Hindu leadership rallied behind Roy, the colonial administration would have had no difficulty in banning sati immediately. But it was not Hindus versus sati, but conservative Hindus versus Roy and his supporters, backed by Christian missionaries.

Even though Roy advised Bentinck against any direct action, once the enactment was made, he marshalled all resources in its support. The matter finally came to a close in 1832 with the Privy Council upholding the ban. While now, we take pride in the abolition of sati, in its time, the court of directors had to defend their action in front of their King, facing objections from the Hindus.

A generation later, when in 1855, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned for widow remarriage, his opponents far outnumbered supporters. The government did not go by head-count, but by Vidyasagar’s assertion that, “this custom is not in accordance with the Shastras, or with true Hindu law”.


Hindu social reforms thus came about not because the community at large asked for them, but because a dedicated band of campaigners convinced the colonialists that they enjoyed scriptural support. The moral is clear. Scriptures are not a monolith. Be it a defensive minority or an aggressive majority, the agenda should be modern, and the scriptures interpreted accordingly.

First published on: 16-06-2017 at 12:45:42 am
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