Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Tyranny of the Elect?

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

The Statesman (Calcutta) of November 5th 1987

by Patrick D. Harrigan

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.

Depiction of Roop Kanwar upon her husband's funeral pyre
Depiction of Roop Kanwar upon her husband's funeral pyre, September 4th 1987


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.
Maal Singh Shekhawat and Roop Kanwar on their wedding day

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.


The less privileged masses follow meekly, trusting implicitly in the ultimate value of a modern education, having for so long been assured of its unquestionable superiority. The result is a veritable tyranny of the elect, all in the name of ‘progress’, or whatever happens to be the current fashion.

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.

"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."

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”.

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.

Is Tradition Riduculed by Western Values?

by Patrick D. Harrigan

The Statesman (Calcutta) of January 5th 1988

It was heartening to see the volley of letters and articles responding to my article, "Tyranny of the Elect?" (November 5th 1987). While some arguments were to be taken less seriously than others, it was still a clear demonstration, especially Amalendu Das Gupta's article "Tradition and Change" (November 5-6, 1987), that scholarship and critical thinking are alive and well amidst the very elect who were singled out for attention in the original article.

My inadequacies are abundantly evident (for the record: I am not a teacher but a student of your poetry). The profusion of excellent points and counterpoints that were raised further tend to suggest that there is justification for a full public appraisal of such issues as sati. But do let us listen to the meek and humble as well, who so often are not heard until it is too late. As a self-confessed foreigner, I can only point out that there are many indeed whose views do not receive consideration. This is my small service to you, the educated and uneducated alike who may question my integrity.

The letters to the editor deserve a full response to the questions they have raised. Leaving aside the imported concept of historicity to historians, we are left with the fundamental social phenomenon of a privileged elite that has become alienated from the masses by way of its radically different set of values. You, the privileged, have availed yourselves of the international marketplace of ideas, thereby distinguishing and alienating yourselves from the masses at the same time. In this respect I am quite like you: privileged and alienated. This has not stopped me from striving for meaning and balance in human affairs, just as it is not stopping you.

If our God-given (or "naturally-endowed", if you prefer) intelligence were employed properly, much of this suffering would be unnecessary. The analogy to the American struggle to end slavery in the last century is useful: do you wish to repeat their mistakes and live to witness bloody civil conflict on your own soil? And yet, that is precisely the ugly scenario that has become common in this part of the world. And how? In the name of democratic principles, and with the very best intentions, privileged people like you and I have placed the educated opinion of the few above the sentiments of the many. Democracy, like it or not, is trust in the rule of the majority. When such trust is not found, where is democracy? There are ways for social transition to occur happily: the imposition of conformity through threats and intimidation is not one of them. Resentment fosters, until it becomes an open wound. Painful divisions follow.

Lofty Values

In the case of India, the alienation and indoctrination of modern-educated urban dwellers make it all but impossible for them to conceive of a grown woman freely consigning herself Ito the flames. They can only insist to themselves and others that the woman had to be forced or duped into doing it. It is a human marvel, both that such a woman is still seen to exist and that thousands, upon hearing, refuse even to admit its possibility. Let us repeat that we are not discussing forced "sati", which is not sati at all, but a form of homicide.

I am indebted to Dr. S.K. Chakraborty for the following observations. First, it is pointed out that we are fettered in our understanding by our total conditioning based upon a body-centred self-identification, a notion that is universally rejected in traditional thought. Secondly, in the sacred rite of marriage (what matters if it is Vedic or not?) man and woman are said to be united as one soul in two bodies. And yet we are horrified when we see an actual example: demonstrating deep conviction. Thirdly, Indian womanhood is still, despite agitation in certain quarters, the embodiment of lofty spiritual values such as "nishkam karma" or total selflessness. Women here are admired and highly esteemed for just this reason. With the gradual vanishing of such living examples, India's secret strength may also disappear.

The traditional rural mentality is so far removed from that of modern-indoctrinated society that it appears incomprehensible. As such, we label it "retrograde" and "superstitious". There is simple wisdom to be found in rural India. But we are blind to it, held in the grip of our own convictions. Do we know what evils villagers see or hear of when they come to the city? Violence and degradation of women in films and elsewhere, teasing of women in public buses, terrorism and bride-burning, to mention only a few. Shall we expect villagers to respect moral injunctions issued from communities that spawn and nurture such evils? Let us try to see it from their perspective, just for once. We must put our own houses in order first, it we would have others behave as we do.

Who Judges?

To those who say that sati is an aberrant custom, let it be pointed out that, as long as it is felt to be an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, it must be regarded as aberrant. But when it is looked upon as a matter of pride, as much of the nation does that still understands, who will object to a genuine sati? The greatest aberration of all that Indian civilization has ever had to face is the invading mentality that covertly subverts traditional values at the same time that it ridicules them. Why should it need a foreigner to remind you of this? Your own teachers have been warning you for long.

Twenty years ago, the world was shocked when Vietnamese Buddhist monks, out of principle, immolated themselves in public. Although the act finds no support in Buddhist doctrine at all, the Vietnamese were not ashamed in the least. But, here in India English schoolmasters did their job so thoroughly that their morality perpetuates itself in succeeding generations of elite citizens, who thrust the same upon others in the sincere belief that they are the custodians of truth. But is not the mark of education the ability to sympathize with and understand the views of others? Or does education mean only competing systems of indoctrination?

As for the incident at Deorala, well-meaning people have smeared Roop Kanwar by bringing into question, even refusing to admit, her capability of rising to such a sublime level of courage and idealism. Is it because they feel incapable of it themselves that they deny its possibility to others? And what about the hundreds of principled men and women of Deorala who say they saw Roop Kanwar die a heroine's death? Was it greed that motivated them, or are we projecting our own priorities on to others? We have so lightly brought into question the integrity of an entire community. What qualifies us to make such judgments?

Certain interests have solemnly told us that there were no "objective witnesses" present, for they could find no one who would agree with them. Now that threats and intimidation have muzzled one side, we are told that objective witnesses have been produced after all, who will echo allegations made by people who were not there. Are we to believe that they are conducting a search for truth when the verdict was issued long ago? Shades of witch-hunting!

In conclusion, I would like to apologize again for the unavoidable circumstance of my not being Indian by birth. But how foreign to India are the thoughts that have been given expression here? There may be harm in modern ideologies, and there may not, but what harm is there in experiencing the world as Indians have long seen it? Modern technology has brought us to this advanced state, but it is blind. It is not weaponry but moral bankruptcy that has pushed the world to the brink of annihilation.

A happy synthesis of East and West is possible, but the mentality of the West persists in dictating terms to the East. Therefore, India, I beg of you: please solve this challenge yourself!