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Sati’ and the verdict

Friday 12 March 2004, by RAJALAKSHMI*T.K.

A Special Court acquits all the 11 accused in the Roop Kanwar case, thereby dealing a blow to the women’s organisations that fought hard to get a law against sati in place.

in Jaipur

ON September 4, 1987, 17-year-old Roop Kanwar consigned herself to flames or was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband Maal Singh Shekhawat at Deorala village of Sikar district in Rajasthan. This infamous incident came to be referred to as the "sati" case.

Sixteen years later, on January 31, 2004, a Special Court acquitted, for lack of evidence, 11 persons, including Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator and State party vice-president Rajendra Singh Rathore, charged with glorifying the incident as one of sati. They were among 16 persons (five of them have since died) accused of participating in the protests against the alleged police action in the wake of the incident. The protests were accompanied by the glorification of Roop Kanwar as well as the practice of sati. Among the 11 persons acquitted by Additional Sessions Judge Shiv Singh Chauhan are former Yuva Morcha president Pratap Singh Khachriyawas, who is the nephew of Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and Narendra Singh Rajawat of the Rajput Mahasabha.

Women’s organisations, Members of Parliament and the people at large had called Roop Kanwar’s burning a murder and demanded a strong Central law not only to prevent sati but deter its glorification. The media had reported that the incident described as sati had been followed by a number of congregations, ceremonies and festivals, and that attempts were made to collect funds for the construction of a temple at the site where the incident took place. The prosecution contended that on October 28, 1987, at a rally organised in Jaipur under the aegis of the Dharma Raksha Samiti, Roop Kanwar was hailed and slogans favouring sati were raised. Deorala itself had attracted huge crowds, giving rise to apprehensions that a temple would be constructed in memory of Roop Kanwar despite the High Court order of September 15 banning the proposed chunri ceremony. Nevertheless, on September 16, in flagrant violation of the order and the measures taken by the administration, the chunri ceremony was held.

On October 1, 1987, the State government promulgated the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance, 1987. Following a demand made 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. It received presidential assent on January 3, 1988, and came into effect on March 21, 1988.

However, all the 45 persons accused of murdering Roop Kanwar were acquitted some years ago. In the absence of any specific law dealing with sati at the time of the incident, the accused were booked under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Later, under the provisions of the Rajasthan Ordinance, 22 cases were filled in various police stations in connection with the alleged glorification of sati. The trial itself began after 15 years following appeals in the High Court as well as the Supreme Court challenging the validity of Section 5 (Punishment for Glorification of Sati) in the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Act. The Supreme Court rejected the appeals and lifted the stay on the proceedings in the Special Court in January last year. The trial resumed in June, but Judge L.N. Sharma passed away in September. The trial resumed after the government appointed Shiv Singh Chauhan in October. Arguments were finally wrapped up on January 22 and the judgment was pronounced on January 31. More than three dozen witnesses were examined, and the majority of them turned hostile.

Responding to the Special Court order, the Mahila Atyachaar Virodhi Jan Andolan, a broad front of several national women’s organisations and civil liberty groups, has demanded that the government file an appeal. The Andolan organised a protest in front of the legislature building and sought a meeting with Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia in order to present their memorandum. They were told that the Chief Minister could not spare the time to meet the delegation. But the same evening Vasundhara Raje, along with some of her ministerial colleagues, reportedly went to see a film.

Prem Krishan Sharma and Kavita Srivastava of the State unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said that the Special Court’s argument that the crime of glorification has to have a link with a specific case of sati is not correct as there have been cases in the High Court as well as in the Supreme Court where appeals have been filed in incidents relating to the glorification of sati. "It has never been stated that first the act of sati has to be proved," they said. Section 5 of the Central Act and the now-repealed Rajasthan Ordinance make glorification of sati a separate offence. The Central Act states: "Whoever does any act of glorification of sati shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to seven years with fine which shall not be less than five thousand rupees but which may extend to thirty thousand rupees."

The incident of sati itself now may be difficult to prove. It is felt that the prosecution failed to collect the evidence required to prove the commission of sati as well as the incidents of glorification. No eyewitness to the Deorala incident was produced; the first information report (FIR) itself was sent three days after the incident to the court and did not contain the names of any of the accused; the District Magistrate who was empowered under the Act to issue orders prohibiting the commission, abetment or glorification of sati was not produced; several high-profile witnesses like the Additional District Magistrate, Sub-Inspector and Additional Sub-Inspector turned hostile; no relevant witnesses were produced as far as the publication of the event in the media was concerned; and the tapes that were recorded were not presented with challans or produced in court under proper legal procedures.

Special Public Prosecutor Buniyaad Mohammad admits that the collection of evidence was sloppy. "There was lack of coordination between the local police and the intelligence agencies," he said. He agreed that it was the responsibility of the police to keep the tapes properly. "Glorifying a death is still an offence," he said, rejecting the notion that for glorification to have taken place, the commission of sati had to be proved. Mohammad was apprehensive that the judgment might affect the fate of the remaining 18 cases. "Even if we were to get oral evidence, we will be asked for documentary evidence," the Special Public Prosecutor said.

But Prem Krishan Sharma, senior advocate, avers that all the evidence that was needed was available. "There were speeches and slogans, and the issue was covered in detail. The tapes should have been kept in safe custody," he said. If there were photographs, then supporting documents were not furnished. There was no identification parade and the District Magistrate’s orders prohibiting processions were not produced in court. "In my opinion, this is the first case where so many important people in the State machinery turned hostile," he said . It is believed that there was a lot of political pressure on the people concerned.

THE political implications of a conviction under the Sati Act could have been serious. The Representation of the People Act, 1951, was amended so as to disqualify any person convicted under the Sati Prevention Act from standing for election to Parliament or any State Legislature during the period of conviction and for a period of five years after his or her release. The propagation of an act of sati or its glorification by a candidate at such an election would also be deemed as a corrupt practice under Section 123 of the RPA. Section 19 of the Sati Prevention Act, which provided for the amendment of the RPA, laid down that a person convicted by a Special Court for the contravention of any of the provisions of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act shall be disqualified from the date of such commission and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of five years since his release for membership of Parliament or State Legislature. This proviso has been inserted in Sub-section (2), Section (8) of the RPA. Secondly, Section 19 provided for the insertion of another clause in Section 123 of the RPA, where the propagation of the commission of sati or its glorification by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of the candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate shall be deemed to be corrupt practices.

Ram Singh Manohar, one of the 11 persons acquitted, said that several prosecution witnesses had turned hostile as none had actually seen Roop Kanwar committing sati. "I was the convener of the committee formed against the police atrocities, on October 1, 1987. The police had rounded up more than 400 persons for allegedly glorifying the act," he told Frontline. He argued that when the prosecution failed to establish that sati was committed there was no question of its glorification. "Our meeting was on October 8, against the police atrocities, and was attended by nearly two lakh people," he said. Among those who attended it were Kalyan Singh Kalvi (since dead), Rajendra Singh Rathore, Narayan Singh Rajawat and Pratap Singh Khachriyawas. Said Ram Singh Manohar: "We all spoke against the police atrocities."

THE surprising aspect of the voluminous order of the Additional Sessions Judge is that it negates the existence of the act of sati itself and therefore surmises that there was no glorification either. In his order, the Judge goes into what he calls a more comprehensive definition of sati, one that goes beyond what is stated in the Rajasthan Ordinance and the Central Act. According to him, prior to the issuance of the State Ordinance, the common meaning of sati was that of a woman in a monogamous marriage. It referred to one who was of character and purity and had submitted herself to her husband entirely. Therefore, he observed that a sati was not only one who, after being widowed, joined her husband in the funeral pyre. "It cannot be accepted that the ordinance prohibits the wider, comprehensive meaning of sati," he observed. It has been argued that such interpretations of sati are indicative of the Judge having gone beyond his jurisdiction.

In sum, the Judge observed that the prosecution failed to produce witnesses who could testify to an incident of sati as defined in the Rajasthan Ordinance; it failed to produce witnesses to show that any widowed woman was dissuaded from committing sati; it failed to prove the glorification of the incident; it failed to prove that the District Collector and Magistrate had, according to the Ordinance, issued prohibitory orders and also publicised the same; and the alleged incident of glorification was not covered either by the now-repealed Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, or the Central legislation as it had reportedly occurred prior to the coming into existence of these Acts.

Whether the State government would go in appeal is not clear. The Chief Minister has remained silent about the episode. Undoubtedly, this is a setback for all those women’s organisations that fought to get a piece of legislation on sati in place.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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