The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sati or adulteress or both: jury is out

Fatehpur (Uttar Pradesh), May 19: A 38-year-old woman died after allegedly throwing herself on her husband’s pyre yesterday before a crowd of 200 villagers who did nothing to stop her.

Vidyawati committed sati after husband Lakhanpal Lodhi, 42, was found dead with injury marks, villagers said at Rarhi-Bujurg, 35 km from Fatehpur town.

“Only Lakhanpal’s brother Premlal tried to hold her back but he is a frail man and wasn’t up to the job,” Fatehpur district magistrate Giridhari Lal said. “We have registered a case against all 200 for abetment to suicide.”

Among the accused are three brothers of Lakhanpal ' Ramvishal, Premlal and Kartar ' all of whom lived in the same house with him. They are in hiding ' along with the entire village of about 500 people, mostly from the backward castes.

Some people from neighbouring villages arrived this morning to worship at the satisthal but were shooed off by the police.

Though the villagers now appear to venerate her as a sati ' the symbol of wifely purity ' they had stigmatised Vidyawati as an adulteress in life. They believe that her alleged lover, Rohit, murdered Lakhanpal and she might have played a part in it.

The tentative police theory is that Vidyawati was suddenly flooded by a feeling of remorse and committed suicide.

But it’s possible, the police say, that she didn’t kill herself but was thrown into the flames by enraged villagers.

“Illicit relations in a rural area like this can provoke thoughts of revenge,” Fatehpur superintendent of police B.B. Singh said. Rohit is a small trader from the neighbouring Ghazipur village, he added.

If the villagers did plot Vidyawati’s murder, they chose the site well. Lakhanpal was cremated not at the local crematorium but on an abandoned patch of paddy field about 100 yards from his house ' where it would be easy to build a sati temple later.

Lakhanpal, a farmer and labour contractor, had returned home on Monday night after spending about a month with relatives at Kalyanpur village, 7 km from Fatehpur. Vidyawati had written to him, summoning him home.

His body was found near a brick kiln the following morning. The police handed it over to the family on Thursday after a post-mortem, and the funeral was set for the afternoon. As the body burnt, villagers say, Vidyawati ' the mother of three teenaged children ' began crying hysterically. Suddenly, she rushed towards the pyre.

“She was wearing a silk sari' after she jumped in, a ball of fire engulfed her,” a villager told additional superintendent of police Uday Singh.

Every house in Rarhi was locked today. The women had been sent away to neighbouring villages while some of the men stayed back, playing hide and seek with the police ' now quietly sipping tea in a stall, the next moment out of sight. Even Vidyawati’s children ' Niraj, 16, Arti, 15, and Puja, 12 ' had been hidden away.

In the eerie silence, a heap of burnt coal, some belongings of the dead and a cracked earthen pitcher were all that remained on the extinguished pyre, around which four armed policemen stood guard.

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