Katherine Frank

A Woman’s Lot

Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern India

By

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On 4 September 1987, in a Rajasthani village called Deorala, an eighteen–year–old woman named Roop Kanwar was burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Several thousand people, most of them men, witnessed Roop Kanwar’s death. No one intervened, not even the lone police constable who was present.

The event, however, made headlines both nationally and internationally, and in India it had important political repercussions. Hindu fundamentalist leaders defended the religious rite of sati (widow–burning), a tradition which encourages Hindu widows to immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres rather than submit to the desolate, impoverished existence that is the lot of widows in India even today. After Roop Kanwar’s sati, the Rajasthan state government was besieged with protests. Eventually the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had to take action. Legislation was enacted to prevent further sati cases (it had already been outlawed by the British in 1829) and also public celebration and commemoration of Roop Kanwar’s death.

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