In December 1829, Lord William Bentinck, the first Governor-General of British India, outlawed sati, the ancient Hindu practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. Bentinck, then Governor-General of Bengal, sought the views of 49 senior army officers and five judges, and was convinced that the time had come to “wash a dirty stain on the British government.”
Its regulations said that sati was “revolting to the sentiments of human nature” and that it shocked many Hindus, as well as being “illegal and perverse.”
The regulations stated that those convicted of “complicity” in the burning of a Hindu widow, “whether the sacrifice is voluntary or not”, would be found guilty of manslaughter.
It empowered courts to impose the death penalty on those convicted of using force or helping to burn alive a widow “who had been intoxicated and unable to exercise her free will”.
Bentinck’s law was even stricter than eradicating the practice recommended by the leading Indian reformers who campaigned against sati.
After the bill was enacted, 300 eminent Hindus – led by Rajah Rammohun Roy – thanked him. “He rescued us forever from the gross stigma that, until then, weighed on our character as voluntary murderers of women.”
Orthodox Hindus lobbied and petitioned Bentinck. Citing scholars and scriptures, they questioned his contention that sati was not an “imperative duty according to religion.” Bentinck did not budge.
The claimants turned to the Privy Council, the court of last resort in the British colonies. In 1832, the Council upheld the regulations, stating that sati was a “blatant crime against society.”
“The unmitigated combativeness of the 1829 regulations was perhaps the only case, throughout 190 years of colonial rule, in which social legislation was enacted without offering any concession to orthodox sentiments,” says Manoj Mitta, author of ‘Caste Pride’, a new book examining the legal history of caste in India.
“Long before Gandhi unleashed the famous moral pressure against the British Empire, Bentinck had used the same force against the caste and gender biases intrinsic to sati,” he adds.
“By criminalizing this native custom that had so corroded the colonized, the colonizer had scored a moral score for himself,” he writes.
But in 1837, Bentinck’s law was watered down by another Briton, Thomas Macaulay, author of the Indian Penal Code. According to Macaulay, if someone could claim with evidence that he had lit the pyre at the behest of the widow, he could be cleared of guilt.
In a draft it said that women who burned themselves could be motivated by a “strong sense of religious duty, sometimes a strong sense of honor.” Mitta found that Macaulay’s “sympathetic position” on sati resonated with British rulers decades later.
He writes that his draft was dusted off after the mutiny of 1857, when native Hindu and Muslim soldiers, also known as sepoys, revolted against the British East India Company over fears that the gun cartridges were greased with prohibited animal fat. for their religions.
The watered-down regulations went on the law book “fitting into the colonial strategy of appeasing high-caste Hindus who had played a prominent role” in the rebellion.
The 1862 regulation repealed the two penal provisions that said that sati would be punishable as culpable homicide and the other that imposed the death penalty in aggravated cases. In addition, it allowed the defendant to claim that the victim had consented to the end of her life at her husband’s funeral, so it was a case of suicide and not murder.
Mitta writes that the dilution of the sati rule was a “response to latent grievances against social legislation”: the outlawing of sati, an 1850 law allowing outlawed and apostate Hindus to inherit family property, and an 1856 law which allowed all widows to remarry.
High Caste Hindu Soldiers
But the immediate trigger for the passage of a watered-down law was “outrage among Hindu soldiers”, upset by the news that the cartridges had been smeared with cow fat.
Between 1829 and 1862, the crime of sati went from murder to induction to suicide. “Although less practiced since 1829, sati continued to be valued and revered in some parts of India, especially among the upper castes,” says Mitta.
In a curious twist, Motilal Nehru – a lawyer and politician who joined the Indian National Congress and played a key role in the campaign for independence from British rule – appeared in court defending six upper caste men in a sati case in 1913 in Uttar Pradesh.
The men claimed that the pyre had been ‘miraculously lit out of the widow’s sheer pity’.
The judges rejected the theory of divine intervention, deplored the cover-up and found the men guilty of incitement to commit suicide: two of them were sentenced to four years in prison.
More than 70 years later, there was one last twist in the history of sati. In 1987, the government led by Rajiv Gandhi, the great-grandson of Motilal Nehru, enacted a law criminalizing the “glorification of the practice” for the first time.
People who supported, justified or propagated sati could be punished with seven years in jail. The law also elevated the practice to murder and reintroduced the death penalty for those who instigated it.
This move followed widespread outrage over the latest sati reported in India, that of a teenage bride named Roop Kanwar in a small town in the northern state of Rajasthan.
It was, according to Mitta, the 41st officially registered case of sati after independence in 1947. The preamble to Rajiv Gandhi’s law borrowed from Bentinck’s regulation. “It was a tribute, albeit unintentional, from a decolonized country to its former colonizer,” says Mitta.