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Tyranny of the Elect?

by on June 29, 2021

4th September 1987 sati incident in Rajasthan ignites controversy across India

The Statesman (Calcutta) of November 5th 1987

by Patrick D. Harrigan
Popular depiction of Roop Kanwar upon her husband’s funeral pyre, September 4th 1987
Note by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, Editor of The Statesman:
It is not “surprising that a handful of English-educated exponents of ‘social progress’ would take upon themselves the moral burden of ‘uplifting the ignorant masses’—that is, to make others see things their way”, says Patrick D. Harrigan of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley who is now attached to the American Institute of Indian Studies in Madurai. Questioning the validity of imposing foreign values on a traditional society, Mr. Harrigan attributes contemporary turmoil and terrorism, including the crime of ‘bride-burning‘, on urban India’s obsession with being ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. According to him, “Bharat Mata is great, precisely because her children are free to live and to die according to principles” but this freedom is in danger from the intolerance of the elect.

Of late there has been a commotion in the Indian press concerning the incident of sati in a remote village in Rajasthan. In a chilling act of courage reminiscent of Rajasthan’s days of glory, a teenaged bride is reported to have coolly mounted her deceased husband’s funeral pyre and consented to be immolated together with her spouse before the gaze of a few hundred onlookers, the controversy ignited by this young Rajput heroine is still burning, and is unlikely to be soon forgotten.

Roop Kanwar was 18 years old and had been married for eight months to Maal Singh Shekhawat, who had died a day earlier at age 24.

Except for a small agency report that was released nationally, the whole incident might have escaped the attention of the reading public outside of Rajasthan. But once it became known that a Sati Mātā shrine was to be erected in honor of Roop Kanwar, feminists across the country (or, at least, “hundreds” of them in certain cities) sent a flurry of irate letters to editors and politicians demanding that official action he taken so that “no public function he allowed to be hold that would glorify the ghastly practice of sati.”

The English language press was quick to seize on to a good story and joined hands with outraged feminists in a campaign to denounce the practice of sati and to “throw the book” at anyone associated, however innocently, with the incident involving Roop Kanwar. Next it was the politicians who were seen climbing on board to be the first and loudest to express their moral outrage. Finally it fell upon the courts and local police to bring their stick down on participating sympathizers and rigorously to prevent any future recurrence.


What is most astonishing to this observer is not that a Rajput widow has performed the rite of sari, for, in doing so, she simply demonstrates her assent to the set of principles and beliefs that makes one a Rajput in the traditional sense. Nor is it surprising that a handful of English-educated exponents of “social progress” would take upon themselves the moral burden of “uplifting the ignorant masses”—that is, to make others see things their way.

Rather, it is the unanimous barrage of rabidly anti-sati sentiment filling the English-language press and the complete absence of dialogue or discussion between the two sides that shocks and disappoints not only the foreign scholar but also, presumably, anyone else sharing an interest in the survival of democratic as well as traditional institutions in 20th Century India.

Judging by the outcry in the English papers, one might suppose the Indian society as a whole deplores sati. The facts, however, indicate just the opposite. Against the “hundreds” who so vehemently complained, a reported two to four hundred thousand men, woman and children quietly “voted with the feet” by attending a Vedic ceremony in Deorala village on the 13th day after the rite of immolation, And this occurred, we are told, despite a Government order to prevent “outsiders” from attending. In this instance, it seems that the Government itself was the principal “outsider”. Although vehicular traffic was stopped 14 kilometers from the village, this did not deter the pilgrims, including many old and infirm people, who simply left their means of transport and walked the remaining distance. Oddly, the same papers chose to describe these hundreds of thousands of the devout as being merely “curious”.

Certainly, when lakhs of traditional villagers actually brave the elements, not to mention official hostility, to come on foot from afar on such short notice to attend a ceremony honouring a sati, then there must be crores more who were unable to attend but who remain altogether sympathetic in principle. And yet, scarcely a single voice has been heard to articulate the view of the overwhelming majority who clearly not only merely approve of, but deeply respect and admire, the faith and courage embodied in an act that so horrifies adherents of the modern mentality.

Few people, and certainly not this writer, would dare to suggest that the few cases of involuntary sati that are said to have occurred in the past are in any way laudable. Rather, these are cases of homicide mitigated by considerations of belief and customs. Indian statutory law, however, appears to be dead set against sati in principle. Influenced by foreign-biased education, generations of India’s elite have learned to espouse foreign values with a sense of self-righteousness that is seldom found among the foreigners themselves. By itself, it has done little harm. But these same self-appointed moral policemen, beginning with Raja Rammohun Roy and others like him some 160 years ago, have gone on to impose their newly-adopted values through government and public education, upon the rest of their countrymen.


Evidently, in the course of acquiring a ‘modern’ education, untold numbers of young people from grade school onwards are unwittingly being sold a ready-made foreign set of anti-traditional values, all neatly packaged for the Indian soil with such high-sounding labels as “modern” and “progressive”. Nobody, seems, ever questions the meaning of these concepts, which have today become the new sacred cows of aspiring middle-class India.

Nor, for that matter, does anyone appear to consider deeply what the long-term impact will be of widespread modern education upon the social fibre of India’s rural and urban masses. Rising material expectations, growing dissatisfaction with traditional modes of thought and increasing reliance upon material solutions to problems ancient and modern have been the fruit, in social terms, of the highly-touted “modern education”.

Historically, the first modern schools in India, and the standard for others, were those funded and directed by foreign missionaries, whose avowed intention was to undermine pagan creeds through proving, the falsity and inferiority of traditional education and values. No effort or expense was spared to ensure that the greatest prestige and social advantage would accrue to a “progressive education”.

“A forced burning could never invite respect from the masses,” says a ex-serviceman who watched Kanwar on the pyre. “In Rajasthan sati is as glorious as braving death in war.”

Even those who did not explicitly convert to the new religion still acquired the conceit that they had emerged into the light of day and that it was now their duty to uplift the ignorant country folk to their sublime level. A full century and a half later, the modern-educated elite of India is still operating under the same assumption. The blind still follow the blind, even when furnished with university degrees and diplomas.


Even today, it is still the foreign-inspired urban elements who presume to enlighten and lead the masses of traditional village India. Employing the same catch-phrases and ‘isms’ as have served to plunge the rest of the world into conflict and moral depravity, they declare that they will put an end to such “ghastly practices” as sati. And yet, a careful look at India’s cities, their homes and the very hotbeds of the modern mentality, is enough to undermine and expose their whole presumption. For where, but from the cities, does all the turmoil and terrorism in modern India originate? Is not the modern urban mentality itself the source of our social diseases?

For example, the current decade has witnessed the birth, on a broad scale of modern-style bride-burning in a fashion that is far more ghastly than the traditional rite of self-immolation that is an option for devout and heroic bereaved widows. Hapless modern urban brides, subjected first to emotional abuse and humiliation, finally meet with a horrible and degrading end by being doused in kerosene and set ablaze by greed-intoxicated in-laws who report the crime as a “cooking accident”. Nobody knows for certain how many women in the flower of youth annually suffer this grisly end, but it is clearly an urban phenomenon, most rampant in the national capital itself, the very place that is looked up to as the model for the rest of the country.

Traditional sati, as is well known in Rajasthan and elsewhere, is a matter of principle, something that material pragmatists will never comprehend or believe. Bhārat Mātā is great, precisely because her children are free to live and to die according to principles. This freedom is in danger of extinction in the face of powerful and ruthlessly intolerant forces masquerading behind an array of good intentions. The time comes for everybody to be brought to account.

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